September 09, 2012
Reflections on My Trip to Romania
When I told people I was going to Romania, I got a range of responses. Some folks questioned why I’d want to go there, implicitly viewing it as a second-tier tourist destination, or expressing concern about my personal safety. Oher folks favorably viewed Romania as an exotic tourist destination, a little off the beaten path and therefore “cooler” than the typical American destinations in Europe. (In contrast to, say, Paris, which is so common that it's not distinctive. “Paris? Oh, everyone goes there…”).
Having spent a week there, in my opinion, Romania is an excellent tourist destination, albeit with a few major flaws. Some of the things I liked best about Romania:
* excellent sights. Romania has some first-rate destinations that compete favorably with the best parts of Europe. Many of the sights from the late medieval or early Renaissance period are in good condition and worth seeing.
* relaxed vibe. The Romanians I encountered were relaxed and easy-going compared to my experiences in Northern Europe. I felt like I could be myself more without unintentionally offending the locals. This may have been a little specific to Cluj, a college town. Several people from Bucharest suggested that it was a little more uptight there. Another plus: I sensed less anti-American sentiments than I’ve encountered in other parts of Europe.
* genuine and welcoming people. The people I dealt with, virtually without exception, were extraordinarily gracious and eager to please.
Two other advantages: (1) The Romanian academics I encountered spoke excellent English, and in fact many of them had lived in the United States, at least for a short time. Unfortunately, outside of the academic circles and main tourism areas, English quickly became a problem. (2) Tourism costs were noticeably lower than Western Europe, creating the opportunity for good values. I wonder if Romania’s upcoming adoption of the Euro will lead to price inflation, so Romania might be worth a trip sooner rather than later.
Now, the flaws:
* Really poor vegetarian options. Even before going, I knew food was going to be a problem. The Romanians really tried hard to accommodate me as a vegetarian, but they simply don’t know how to cook for vegetarians. The result was that my “best” vegetarian meals consisted of a starchy carb (pasta, rice or potatoes), typically drenched in butter or oil, and a salad or some uncoordinated piles of vegetables. This reminded me of my meals in the UCLA dorms back in the mid-1980s, when I ate so many potatoes that my dormmates nicknamed me “spud.” The US vegetarian scene has improved so much over the past 25 years, but Romania’s vegetarian cuisine is still at square one. Less good vegetarian meals usually involved heavy doses of dairy, such as fried cheese. I did eat close to my normal daily calories (mostly because my hosts provided the meals—given the options, I would not have eaten out often on my own dime), but I can’t say that I had good food in Romania. One other downside: it’s still legal to smoke in restaurants. Yuck.
* Challenging transportation infrastructure. Romania is blessed with many cool tourist sites, but getting to them remains a challenge. I chose not to drive in Romania because of the difficulties navigating the street signs and confusing road system, plus the poor physical conditions of many roads. Even if you choose to drive, it takes substantial time to get between places that are relatively close as the crow flies due to the lack of good freeways. Because Romania is pretty big, in fact many sites are pretty far apart. If you don’t drive, then the choices are even more limited. The trains can be quite time-consuming, and buses are more so, plus they may pose language challenges. So there’s no ideal way to navigate Romania’s cool destinations on a time- or cost-effective basis. Ideally, Romania will eventually upgrade its transportation infrastructure, which may partially solve this problem as it creates others.
One more challenge: getting to Romania involves long flights. I got to Cluj on Lufthansa with a single stop in Munich (at a premium price for the more convenient itinerary). Still, total travel time was 16-17 hours each way. 2 stops would have been over 24 hours of traveling. Plus, Romania is a challenging 10 hours ahead of California, exacerbating the jet lag and making real-time communications with home that much more difficult.
Despite these limitations, I would definitely go back to Romania. I would leave enough time to get around to the far-flung destinations, and I would consider using professional help such as a guide or a tour company. If you get the chance to go to Romania, I recommend you take it.
* * * *
Some comments about specific destinations:
* Cluj City Center. Grade: B. The city center has a small number of nice highlights. I especially liked that the town presented itself as a working town/college town, so it was not very touristy. There was only one block of street vendors, and many sites didn't charge admission fees. My favorite spots were (1) Piaţa Unirii (Union Square), surrounded by St. Michael's Church dating back to the 14th century and numerous attractive buildings, and (2) Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral, an imposing and incredibly well-done Orthodox church. Although it's a bit of a hike, I also recommend going to Cetatuia Park for nice panoramas of the city center and the river valley.
My photos from Cluj.
* Cluj Botanical Gardens. Grade: B. I’m not a huge fan of botanical gardens. I’d much prefer to go hiking and see the native flora that way. As botanical gardens go, Cluj’s botanical garden is pretty good. It had a wide diversity of flora, it’s a sizable park close to the city center, it is fairly well-maintained, and it had a cheap admission fee (less than $1.50). My favorite parts were the entrance area, with lots of flowers in bloom in early September, and the observation tower at the hilltop.
* Cluj Romulus Vuia Open-Air Ethnographic Museum (Parcul Etnografic Romulus Vuia). Grade: A-. I liked this museum a lot. It collects original buildings from all over Romania, restored to a different era. For example, it had a couple of gorgeous wooden churches from the 18th-19th centuries, well-restored to glorious condition. It also original farmhouses (both rich and poor) with the kinds of interior decorations and household items actually found in the house. The park is large, so the buildings to inspect and admire kept coming! Some buildings even had docents who would answer questions and point out features, although it didn’t appear that many (if any) of the docents spoke English. This museum is just over the hill from the city's main valley, making it a little challenging to visit from the city center without a car. Still, it's a gem worth seeking out. One sour point: the museum was cheap to enter (as I recall, less than $2)—a great deal—but unfortunately they charged an additional photography fee (nominal, but I still object to the fee on principle).
* Turda Salt Mines. Grade: too hard to assign a grade. Salt has been a vital resource since antiquity, and the Turda Salt Mines were a important source of salt since the Roman era. I haven’t been to a salt mine before, so maybe others are more interesting, but as my first introduction to a salt mine, it was fascinating. Admission cost was quite reasonable (as I recall, less than $3). We also had an optional English-speaking tour guide for 30-40 minutes (not sure how much this cost). It was helpful to have the guide—the signage of the various mine features was minimal—but the tour was not especially enlightening.
Then, when I got to the bottom of the mines, I saw something so amazing and baffling that it blew my mind. Many Romanians believe that the salt air helps with respiratory ailments, so they (especially kids) come to the Turda Salt Mines and stay for hours at a time for the purported health benefits. The result is that these Romanians are underground for hours every day, for weeks/months at a stretch, with no natural light. To entertain these folks while they breathe the salty air, the salt mines has an “amusement park” at the mine’s floor—including a ferris wheel, mini-golf, mini-bowling, ping-pong tables, pool tables, even an option to rent a paddleboat on the small lake at the mine’s very bottom. Other folks were reading, playing card games and playing board games. It was surreal to see Romanians “enjoying” leisure time activities a couple hundred feet underground in very dingy light. The amusement park “features” are not interesting enough to warrant their own trip to the mine; they are there for the people who don't have other leisure-time choices. It made the whole experience surreal and other-worldly. It was incredibly interesting, and I’m glad I went.
* Sighişoara. Grade: A-. Sigheşoara is a compact and well-maintained medieval Saxon town set on a hillside, with much of its original perimeter wall intact. With its German roots and hilly setting, it felt sort of like a German Alps mountain-top fortress. Some might seek out the town as the birthplace of Vlad Dracul (i.e., "Dracula"), but I didn't care much about that, and the birthplace site wasn't all that rewarding to inspect anyway. Instead, beyond the nice atmospherics of the town itself, I especially liked two things: (1) walking up a wood-covered stairway to the Church on the Hill. The church itself was average, but the walk to the top and the view once there were totally worth it. (2) the Clock Tower, a 13th century building with a colorful roof and atmosphere to spare. There was a so-so museum of various historical artifacts in the Clock Tower, but the real payoff came from the view from the top.
I knocked Sighişoara's grade down from an A to an A- due to the annoying tourist trappings. Unlike Cluj, virtually everything had an admission charge (although the costs were fairly nominal), even the rather average churches. Other fees: some places charged for the bathroom, and the Clock Tower imposed a pretty hefty photography fee (about $8). Plus, the streets were lined with vendors selling kitschy/cheesy stuff.
* Biertan. Grade: A-. Biertan is one of many fortified Saxon churches in Transylvania. Basically, it’s an relatively unremarkable 14th century Saxon church surrounded by fortifications located in the middle of a very dusty, sleepy and economically impoverished town. The fortifications are in outstanding condition and can be fully inspected without any admission charge. You do have to pay to get into the church (less than $3), which even at that low price may not be worth it. The main attraction inside the church is a door with 19 locks--a little steampunky, but still unremarkable.
* Opera Plaza Hotel. Grade: B+. I stayed 6 nights at the Opera Plaza Hotel, one of the two "5 star" hotels in Cluj. Though it may be 5 star by Romanian standards, I'd rank it more like a low 4 star or high 3 star by American standards; maybe comparable to a nice Hilton or Hyatt but with more personality. Things I really liked about the hotel:
- location. A convenient 10 minute walk into the heart of Cluj's city center
- room size. I had an upgraded room, and it was HUGE!
- quiet. Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that the room was very quiet. I rarely heard any outside noise, and I didn't hear any internal noise at all. Given how noisy most European hotels are, and given this hotel's location so close to the city center, its soundproofing was amazingly successful.
- breakfast (included in the room rate). The breakfast was extremely generous and served in a very nicely decorated room.
- fast Internet WiFi. That always boosts my feelings towards a hotel!
- price: 60 Euros/night (heavily discounted because it was a conference rate), an amazing bargain by European standards.
The hotel had several other amenities, such as an indoor pool, fitness center, business center and cheap massages, that I didn't take advantage of.
I knocked the hotel's grade down to a B+ because, despite its efforts, some of the amenities weren't up to snuff. Examples:
- incredibly overworked mattress, worse than what I'd expect at a Motel 6
- air conditioner wasn't powerful enough for the large room
- something (the shower?) leaked a lot of water onto the bathroom floor
Also, like most European hotels, the bed didn't have a top sheet (I ended up using a towel) and the hotel didn't provide shampoo or conditioner (I now always bring my own to Europe).
None of these limitations materially diminished my enjoyment, but they were inconsistent with a "top-of-the-line" hotel offering.
August 02, 2012
"Island Hopping in the California Channel Islands" Tour Recap
In May, I took a 3 day boat tour of the California Channel Islands through the Sierra Club. The boat, the “Truth,” left from the Santa Barbara harbor and visited four of the northern Channel Islands: Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa Island, Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island. This wasn’t my first trip to the islands; I had done camping trips to Catalina, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands over the past 2 decades. But I had longed to go Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island as well, and this tour meant I could do both in a single trip.
An overall word about the Channel Islands: if you ever have the chance to visit them, TAKE IT. The Channel Islands are one of the most amazing destinations in California, a state filled with great tourist destinations. Although they have been mismanaged over the years and invaded by non-native species, overall the Channel Islands are like a slice of California Coast as it used to be—beautiful, rugged, spectacular. The long and choppy boat ride, the frequently marine weather conditions and the lack of developed infrastructure have kept the crowds away, and you might be daunted by those too. Overcome the resistance and GO.
Our itinerary for the tour:
4 am Sunday: depart from Santa Barbara Harbor. Because of the early start, the organizers strongly encouraged us to stay overnight on the boat (we could board starting 8 pm the night before).
8 am Sunday: Normally the tour starts with San Miguel Island, but weather conditions prevented that. Instead, we headed to the Painted Cave at Santa Cruz Island. The Painted Cave is one of the largest sea caves in the world, going back 1200 feet deep into the island. The Truth anchored nearby and then ran small groups on skiffs into the caves. The water was too high to go in all the way, but it was a dramatic sight nonetheless. Along the way, we saw numerous sea lions, including a group feeding on a sunfish.
Midday Sunday: we stopped at Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island and checked out the wetlands restoration effort.
Sunday afternoon: We transferred to Anacapa Island and had the afternoon to check it out. Read my Epinions review about my 2001 camping trip to Anacapa, which I still believe is the best way to visit the island despite the foghorn. Even if you can only go for the day, Inspiration Point remains one of the most amazing views anywhere in the world and deserves a place on your bucket list. For such a small island, Anacapa packs a lot of points of visual interest, including western gull nests, blooming iceplant (not native) and a few buildings with 1930s Spanish-style architecture.
Sunday evening: we boated around the south side of Anacapa Island and then anchored on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. I didn’t fully understand why we anchored on the south side of the island (i.e., exposed to the Pacific Ocean) rather than the more sheltered north side, but the payoff was amazing views of the islands’ south sides at sunset. In particular, both islands’ south sides are dramatic wave-eroded cliffs. Spectacular.
Monday: we boated to Santa Rosa Island and skiffed to the pier. The group split into smaller subgroups. Four of us headed to Lobo Canyon, hiking about 2 miles through the Santa Rosa Island highlands to the Lobo Canyon trail entrance. I would rank the Lobo Canyon hike (at least in Spring) as one of the very best hikes in California, and you should consider adding this to your bucket list too. It’s carved by water and wind, exposing sheer cliffs of sedimentary layers and hoodoos. In Spring, the canyon is filled with water and flowers in bloom. The hike ends at a headlands overlooking the canyon mouth and the azure channel. We were blessed with a warm sunny day, making everything sparkle.
From Lobo Canyon, we hiked back through the ranch and along the shoreline to the Torrey Pines trail. The Torrey pines grow only in two places: San Diego and Santa Rosa Island. The trail is super-steep! The forest is in the most unexpected place; it’s unusual to see a pine forest silhouetted by the ocean.
The boat then picked us up from the Southeast Anchorage (requiring a skiff pickup from the beach), and we anchored on the south side of Santa Rosa Island (leading to another wonderful sunset boat ride), producing one of my all-time favorite sunrise photos.
The National Park Service is developing Santa Rosa Island into a more touristy destination. I hope they don’t botch that. Even though the NPS just fully took over the park in the last year, I was surprised that it was already in such good condition. I absolutely want to go back.
Tuesday: We boated to Cuyler Harbor at San Miguel Island and skiffed to the beach covered with elephant seals just a few feet away. As usual, the island was shrouded in fog, giving it an intimate feel. Once again, the group split up. Our group first hiked up the steep canyon and through a giant coreopsis forest to the Cabrillo Monument (not much to see in the fog) and the campground (foggy and wild) and then out to Harris Point. The hike mostly went through treeless scrub. The lupine was in bloom throughout the island, creating a carpet of purple. However, the views were all fogged out, especially at the point, where the wind and fog blasted us. On the way back, the fog just started to thin out, creating patches of blue sky and magical sunlit views. Unfortunately, the boat left in the early afternoon, just as the fog was burning off, leaving me hungry to see the island through the full range of weather conditions. We took the boat back to the Santa Barbara Harbor (a four hour ride), saw some whales on the way (but didn’t stop to check them out) and arrived back around 6 pm.
I don’t really know how to put San Miguel Island into words. It has an indescribably magical quality that’s unlike any other place I've been. I am desperate to go back, camp there, and experience the island completely.
About the Sierra Club Tour: The islands are so special, it’s impossible to complain about the trip. However, if you’re thinking about doing the tour, some things to know:
* pre-trip planning. The pre-trip communication was not great. Despite many repeated requests, we didn’t get a complete pack list or reading list. We also didn’t get an itinerary, which makes sense because the trip does dynamically adjust to weather conditions. However, the trip organizers could put together a list of the possible stops (even if they aren’t in order) with some background about each stop.
* the boat.
- The boat isn’t big enough to smooth out the choppy waters, so there will be some bumpy rides. I used wristbands, herbal anti-nausea pills and ginger chews to combat seasickness, plus I spent a lot of time in the open air.
- The sleeping pods are tiny bunks (maybe 3 feet by 3 feet by 6 feet) stacked into one big communal area separated by cloth curtains. If you’re tired enough (or take melatonin, as I do), you can sleep through almost anything, but the sleeping arrangements are not private in the least.
- the boat lacks side thrusters, so it can’t just pull up to a pier. This means every stop requires skiff transfers even when there’s a pier, which can mean wet landings and, more importantly, take time (about a half-hour each way to get everyone on or off).
- on the plus side, we ate well. The food was plentiful and very good. The chefs took extra steps to prepare and label the vegan options, so we were well taken care of.
* the leadership. As the maxim goes, there can be only one captain of the ship. Oddly, for this tour, we had THREE captains, and that created plenty of unnecessary confusion. First, we had the boat captain, who had final say over safety. Second, we had the Sierra Club tour leader, who was in charge of the activities schedule (which might conflict with the captain’s safety assessment). Third, we had two naturalists on board, one of whom was very experienced and had her own view on both safety and activities. Watching the three of them battle each other for power might have been amusing if it wasn’t so annoying. Instead, it led to changes in announced plans (when one captain countermanded another captain’s instructions) and redundant disclosures as the captains felt the responsibility to explain their view of the plan to the crowd. If this were the first time the tour was run, I might have been willing to chalk this up to a kink that needed to be worked out; but given they have been running the tour for years and still have this issue, I’m assuming it’s not likely to be fixed any time soon.
A few other considerations if you’re thinking about the tour:
* kayaking along the coastline is a blast, but the opportunity to kayak is weather-dependent. It’s possible that you’ll have limited or no opportunities to paddle. Before investing in a kayak rental, consider the cost-benefit.
* the median age of participants was probably over 60. At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the youngest participants. The age demographics make sense; after all, who else has the time and money? However, it does create the possibility of generation gaps. At minimum, the demographics has some implications for average group hiking speed.
* the islands will create different experiences at different times of the year. Summer likely brings better weather, although the fog can be worse in summer before it burns. I can make the case that Spring is the best time to go. We were blessed with nice sunny afternoons (and sun in the morning in some places) and flowers were in bloom, which made everything picturesque. (Although we just missed the coreopsis blooms—THAT would have been amazing!)
While my thoughts are designed to make you a smarter consumer, I hope they won’t dissuade you. If you have any opportunity to visit the Channel Islands, CARPE DIEM! Now, who’s up for a camping trip to San Miguel Island?
January 28, 2012
Best Hikes in California? My Opinions, and a Request for Nominations
My kids are getting old enough to pursue more ambitious hikes, so I've started to think about some of the must-do hikes in California that we should consider. I've done a lot of hiking in California, and some hikes that stand out as especially memorable for me, roughly arranged north to south (where I've done more extensive reviews, I've linked to them):
* Lava Beds National Monument. It's not exactly hiking, but exploring the lava tubes is loads of fun. Bring a helmet, sweatshirt and flashlight.
* Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. There are numerous fern canyons in California, but this gets my vote for the ferniest. It has the bonanza of being surrounded by a first-rate redwood forest. Gold Bluffs Beach is beautiful, and you're likely to see an elk herd along the way. Gold Bluffs Beach is a fantastic camping destination--it's where Lisa and I got engaged, August 9, 1995!
* Angel Island to Mt. Livermore. From the top, you get a 360 degree view of the San Francisco Bay, including downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate, the East Bay mountains, Mt. Tam and Marin County. Often fog blocks some of the view, but the fog also adds to the visual interest. The military ghost towns on the island are worth a visit too. I enthusiastically recommend camping on the island as a bucket list item.
* San Bruno Mountain. On a clear day, the views of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean are mesmerizing. When it's foggy (most of the time), at least you'll be able to enjoy the flowers blooming year-round.
* Mist Trail, Yosemite. Yosemite has many great trails, but this one stands out as a wonderful hike to a beautiful waterfalls--plus you're going to get wet, and you're almost certain to see rainbows. The big downside: people. Lots of them.
* Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park. These are the sand dunes you've seen in the Hollywood movies, and I think it is the prettiest sand dune system in California. Go at sunrise or sunset for the best scenery (or better yet, both).
* Telescope Peak, Death Valley National Park. On the east side, Death Valley. On the west side, Panamint Valley--which I think is even prettier. Beyond, views for up to 100 miles in every direction. As a bonus, Mahogany Flats campground is a fantastic desert campground.
* Anacapa Island to Inspiration Point. The view overlooking the other two Anacapa Islands and Santa Cruz Island is incredibly romantic.
* Hikes to the Desert Divide (part of the Pacific Crest Trail). To the west, Garner Valley, which I think is the prettiest valley in Southern California. To the east, the mountains of Joshua Tree Monument and the Coachella Valley stretching out to the Salton Sea. To the north, 10k+ feet San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains. To the south, 8k feet Santa Rosa Mountain. All around you, not a soul to be seen. All of the Desert Divide peaks are equally good in my opinion. Or, go straight for San Jacinto Peak for the best views (although you will see people there).
* Hiking in palm oases. Examples include Indian Canyons in Palm Springs and Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza-Borrego Park. My choice overall for convenience, cost and oasis quality is Coachella Valley Preserve in Thousand Palms.
You'll note that I didn't put any redwood-specific hikes on the list. For me, all redwood hikes are always worth doing, even when it's a second-growth forest--although old-growth forests are best. However, there's a certain sameness to redwood hikes, so it's hard to distinguish among them. Some of my favorite redwood destinations include Redwood National Park, Hendy Woods and Montgomery Woods. This site looked pretty helpful. Muir Woods and Big Basin, two of the most popular old-growth redwoods destinations, don't make my list because of the omnipresent crowds.
Still on my long-term to-do list: hike the Lost Coast, hike the Headwaters Forest Reserve, visit Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands, climb Mt. Whitney and climb Half Dome.
Other perspectives: Everytrail offers a fine list of contenders. Mt. Tallac is a strong contender for its Lake Tahoe panorama. The Berry Falls loop in Big Basin is a great Bay Area hike but it wouldn't make my cut overall. McWay Falls in Julia Pfieffer State Park is iconic, but it's a very short stroll and the trail doesn't really lead you close to the falls (the view is is fairly distant). The South Grove in Calaveras Big Trees State Park is worth doing, but it's "just" another redwood hike.
Another list from BestCaliforniaHikes. Golden Canyon in Death Valley is a wonderful hike; go in the early morning to get the best colors. Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley is pleasant but wouldn't make my top list.
Want more? Try Tripleblaze's top 100 list. However, I think this list is more about popularity than quality. For example, Jughandle State Reserve (#83) is entirely skippable. The Trails.com lists (North, South) are better but are still popularity-driven and not totally useful, e.g., it lists jeep trails, and #10 on the south list are "trails in Joshua Tree" (well, that narrows things down).
So, what are your favorite California hikes? I don't care where they are located in California, although I do prefer day hikes (including car camping if applicable) over backpacking destinations. Email me and let me know.
UPDATE: some of the suggestions I've gotten: Panorama Trail in Yosemite, Dipsea Trail (Muir Woods to Stinson Beach), Salmon Creek Trail in Big Sur.
UPDATE 2: I'll add Lobo Canyon on Santa Rosa Island to the list. Spectacular!
January 07, 2012
Coachella Valley Preserve: Hiking Through Oases and Moon Country
Hikes in the Palm Springs area tend to come in three varieties:
1) Local hikes from the Valley floor up to a ridge. These hikes tend to be steep thighbusters but they usually reward fit hikers with nice views.
2) Flat hikes along the Valley floor, which are often boring.
3) Mountain hikes, such as along the Desert Divide or in the Santa Rosa Wilderness or in Joshua Tree National Park, which are wonderful hikes but usually require a long and twisty drive to get there.
This is why the Coachella Valley Preserve, located beyond Thousand Palms basically near the end of Ramon Road, is such a revelation. It has everything going for it: interesting things to see; some reasonably level trails; close to the Valley's cities, especially for people staying down-Valley like in Palm Desert; and as an added bonus, free parking! Among other advantages, this is one of the few hikes on the Coachella Valley side of Joshua Tree and the Little San Bernardino Mountains; most hikes in Joshua Tree require a lengthy drive around the mountains to Twentynine Palms.
We hiked from the visitor center to McCallum Oasis, then took the loop trail through Moon Country. Total hiking distance of about 4 miles. Had we not been dragging along two very tired kids, we could have done the trail in about 90 minutes. The trail had three highlights:
1) Thousand Palms Oasis, a nice oasis. I must say that I love hiking to and in oases. A stand of palm trees may be my favorite type of trees to hike in/to (after redwoods of course). The California fan palms are lovely. In addition, I love the feel of oases. They are cool, green and lush--a stark contrast to their surroundings--and they attract all sorts of interesting fauna, especially birds.
2) McCallum Oasis. A little smaller than Thousand Palms Oasis, it had the added bonus of a small gorgeous pond and a small stream running off it. Really stunning.
3) A vista point on the hillside above McCallum Oasis. The vista point has a wonderful birds-eye view of McCallum Oasis and a 180 degree view of Joshua Tree National Park, with a through-the-gap view of San Gorgonio Peak.
This is earthquake country; the oases are clustered along the San Andreas fault where springs come through the gaps in the earth's plates. The fault isn't really "visible" but it's still a neat (and slightly unsettling) context.
I love hiking to the oases in Indian Canyon, but I recommend this hike over those. The pricetag for admission to the Indian Canyons has gotten too steep; it would cost over $30 for our family of four to go there, while this hike is free. Perhaps the Indian Canyon oases are a little nicer (the views of the Desert Divide and Palm Springs certainly are nice), but not $30 nicer, and the Coachella Valley Preserve is close enough that the drive time from Palm Springs is worth it. So it's hard to justify the high prices of Indian Canyon when this option is free.
The signage is pretty good on the trail, but all of the precautions about desert hiking apply: wear good shoes, drink lots of water, use sunscreen and remember that everything looks closer in the desert than it actually is. Hiking here during hot weather would be just miserable.
Our photo album from our visit.
November 28, 2011
Spring 2012 Travel/Presentation Schedule
Here's a list of some of my anticipated upcoming events. For some reason, a higher-than-usual number of these upcoming events are still question marks. As usual, if I'm traveling to your neighborhood or we're going to be at the same event, let me know if you'd like to get together.
Dec. 2: The Economics of Privacy, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO
Jan. 20: ABA Business Law Section Cyberspace Committee Winter Working Meeting, San Francisco
Feb. 9: Faculty workshop, University of North Carolina Law School, Chapel Hill, NC
Feb. 10-11: WIPIP, University of Houston Law Center, Houston, TX
March 22: Oldham Lecture in Intellectual Property Law (should be open to the public), University of Akron School of Law, Akron, OH
March 24: Internet Law Works-in-Progress, New York Law School, New York, NY
April 13: Social Networking Sites: Law, Policy and Practical Strategies, Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA
April 20-21: Trademark Scholars' Roundtable, Chicago, IL
May 2: Lawyers' Guide to Using Social Media for Professional and Client Development, PLI, San Francisco
May 4: American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Annual meeting, Vancouver BC (to discuss DoctoredReviews.com and patient reviews)
May 5-9: I'm trying to decide if I'll go to the INTA Annual Meeting in Washington DC. My faculty discretionary account probably will be exhausted by then.
May 18-19: Teaching Consumer Law conference, University of Houston Law Center, Houston, TX
June 1-2: SFIPLA meeting in Healdsburg, CA
June 10-12: AALS Mid-Year Meeting, Berkeley, CA
October 01, 2011
Favorite Photos of the Past 3 Years
Lisa and I have posted over 400 photos to Flickr over the past 3 years. See goldmanlisa, Eric Goldman Mountain View and my newest account. I've gone back through them and selected some of my favorites.
* Me in front of the Peter & Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Russia (2011) [this is my current online avatar at most sites--thanks to Oliver Metzger for taking this photo]
* Dina and Binoculars (2010) [there is something about this photo that cracks me up every time I see it]
* Dina with her new Pillow Pet (2010)
* Jacob at the Sonoma Coast beach (2010) [this has been my computer wallpaper since I took it]
* Jacob kayaking (2010)
* Dina the Flower Girl (2009)
* Dina and Daddy at Craig and Sarah's wedding (2009) [this was my Facebook avatar for a couple years]
August 29, 2011
Northern California Staycation Notes
After my big trip to Russia earlier this summer, it made sense to keep our family vacation local. We spent 3 days in the Sierra Foothills, then I took a father-son overnight camping trip with Jacob to Angel Island, then I took a father-daughter day trip with Dina to kayak in the Elkhorn Slough. Comments on our activities:
Mercer Caverns, Murphys.
I've been to Mercer Caverns a few times over the past 2 decades. I like the caverns for their convenient location and visual interest compared to the other local cave options. Moaning Cavern in Vallecito is also convenient, but the main tour just visits one big chamber. California Caverns in Mountain Ranch is interesting inside, but it requires a long twisty ride on backroads from Highway 4. Mercer Caverns, just a mile outside of downtown Murphys, is easy to get to; and the tour goes through multiple chambers with diverse and interesting formations. The cave is a cool respite to a hot summer day. We were comfortable wearing our sweatshirts despite the 90+ degree day outside.
Overall, I was disappointed with the tour. First, it's pretty expensive. It cost our family of 4 about $45 for the 45 minute tour. Second, our tour guide was uninspired. The tour guides work off a script that's fine (it has some stock jokes and anecdotes that I remembered from many years ago), but our guide showed her youth. Third, although the kids seemed to enjoy themselves at the time, I don't know that the cave visit made much of an impression. The cave was soon forgotten and didn't make any highlights lists.
Yosemite. See the photos.
Yosemite is filled with icons revered around the world: Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and so much more. Yet, I haven't gone in decades because I've been deterred by the seemingly omnipresent and crushing crowds. This year, we decided to go despite the crowds because the huge runoff meant the waterfalls were running especially high.
We parked at Curry Village, took the shuttle to the Mist Trail trailhead, and hiked up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. The Mist Trail is noteworthy on three fronts. First, the trail is beautiful, especially as it goes into the splash zone and then to the fall's top with its emerald pools. Second, the trail was PACKED with people. At some narrow junctures, we had to wait for traffic going in the opposite direction. Third, it is dangerous! We went right after 3 people went over Vernal Falls to their death, and more people have died since. Some of those folks made riskier choices than we did, but the trail is very steep and very slippery.
Remarkably, both kids handled the trail fine. Jacob is a bit of a mountain goat, so I wasn't worried about him, but Dina likes the concept of hiking more than she likes the reality. My wife found a way to motivate Dina, however, by promising an ice cream cone back at Curry Village if she got to the top without complaining much. Dina got to the top, didn't complain much, and got her earned treat. Everyone won!
We went on a Monday, and Yosemite was still quite crowded. It was unquestionably better than going on a weekend or holiday, but the off-season is a better time to visit.
Angel Island is a fantastic camping destination. It easily ranks in the top 10 most scenic campgrounds I've ever camped at. If it weren't for one serious defect, I'd rank this one of the best camping destinations I've been to.
Getting There. Ferries service Angel Island from Tiburon, San Francisco and Alameda. The Tiburon ferries operate frequently, but Tiburon isn't convenient unless you live in Marin. We took the Blue and Gold Ferry from Pier 41, which only operates a few times a day during the week. We took the 1:05 pm ferry to the island (which stopped in Tiburon along the way) and the 1:45 ferry back the next day, giving us about 24 hours on the island.
As an integral part of our adventure, we took mass transit almost the whole way: Caltrain from Mountain View to Millbrae (we drove to the Mountain View train station), BART from Millbrae to Embarcadero station, the electric streetcar from Embarcadero to Pier 39, the boat from Pier 41 to Ayala Cove, and then a hike from the cove to our campground. The mass transit added a couple hours of extra travel time, but the multiple transportation modes was exciting to my son, more earth-friendly, cheaper than driving plus parking, and didn't involve us leaving a car overnight in a San Francisco parking garage.
The Campground. We camped at East Bay #3. This site was huge and fairly well set-off from the other two East Bay sites. We didn't hear our neighboring campers or see them except at the water spigot (although we could hear some shouting from the workcamp at the Immigration Station). The East Bay sites are much more private than the Sunrise sites, which have effectively no visual or aural privacy from each other. Both the East Bay and Sunrise sites have favorable microclimates compared to the Ridge campsites on the island's southwest side. By being on the island's east side, they are shielded from the fog pouring in from the west. Indeed, our tent's rain-fly was barely wet in the morning. The mountain ridge also blocks some of the wind, but we did get a little wind.
When the fog lifts, the Ridge sites have jaw-dropping views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. However, in summer, the fog rarely lifts for very long In contrast, our campsite had fantastic mostly fog-free 180 degree views of the East Bay from Richmond to Oakland. Among other points of interest, the shipping lanes run along the island's east side, so we watched ship after ship trundle past. At sunset, I watched the fog roll through the Golden Gate and across the bay, hit the East Bay hills, and spread progressively further north. Check out my short videos of that scene. I could have spent hours just watching the fog, the ships and the sunset. It was amazing.
The campsite required about a 45 minute hike from Ayala Cove. It wasn't very steep or arduous, but we had packed light. The campsites have a water spigot for fresh water, so you don't need to pack water. The campground has an outhouse. Our campsite also had a picnic table and food locker.
The campsite, including the reservation fee, cost less than $40/night. If you want a comparable view of the Bay at a hotel, expect to pay many hundreds of dollars a night. Camping on Angel Island is unquestionably one of the best bargains in the Bay Area. Even better, because we were willing to go mid-week, we had no problem getting a prime campsite with about 10 days advance notice. Weekend reservations will require more advance planning.
Now, about the major downside. From East Bay #3, we could hear a buoy warning signal going 24/7. It wasn't very loud, but I'm sensitive to those kinds of noises. If you listen carefully to my videos, you'll hear it in the background. Then, as the fog deepened through the night, other foghorns turned on. By pre-dawn, 3 or 4 different foghorns were going simultaneously along with the buoy warning, each with their own sound and cadence. It was like a discordant symphony--beautiful in a way, but not very peaceful. I take melatonin when I camp to help get some sleep, so I ended up doing OK overall; and my son slept through it all. If you can sleep with earplugs, bring those.
What to Do. Angel Island activities mostly relate to nature, military or immigration.
For nature, you can hike or bike around the island and to the top of Mt. Livermore. We did both. Mt. Livermore offers 360-degree views of the San Francisco Bay, but the view depends heavily on the fog situation. For the best views, go on a clear winter or spring day. In summer, it's highly likely that some of the iconic sights--such as the Golden Gate Bridge or downtown San Francisco--will be partially or wholly obscured in the fog. The good news is that the fog is aesthetically pleasing itself...so long as it's not on top of you! The loop around the island offers constant beautiful views with the same fog caveat.
For military history, Angel Island is remarkable. I was blown away by Ft. McDowell (on the east side) and Camp Reynolds (on the west side). They are exceptionally well-preserved ghost towns with interesting ruins set among beautiful views. I could have spent more time poking around Ft. McDowell, where visitors have effectively unrestricted access to most of the abandoned buildings (be safe, but many of the buildings still look very sturdy). Camp Reynolds has a totally different feel, and it was instantly obvious that it was from a different military era. I didn't get much out of the batteries and Nike missile installations, but they are an important part of Angel Island's military history as well.
For immigration, the immigration station has been nicely restored. Unfortunately, we missed the guided tour, but we still enjoyed taking the self-tour and inspecting the remaining buildings. I include the quarantine station at Ayala Cove in the immigration category; and while it's less interesting than the immigration station, it's a nice complementary destination.
It's hard to see all of the sites during a single day trip to Angel Island, even if you catch the first boat in and leave on the last boat out. Overnighting on the island left us with the perfect amount of time to do everything. I would have enjoyed another night on the island (except for the foghorns) but only to watch the fog and the ships; we saw virtually everything else we wanted to see.
On a day trip, you might choose to take the tram ride around the island with its pre-recorded instructions or rent a Segway or bikes. If you're a Bay Area local, bring your own bikes on the ferry if you don't want to hike.
I plan to take Dina on father-daughter overnight trips similar to the trips I've done with Jacob the past 2 years, but I didn't think Dina was quite ready this year. Instead, I proposed a day trip, and she said she wanted to go kayaking. This might have something to do with the fact that I took Jacob kayaking last year when we went to Mendocino and he loved it. I chose the Elkhorn Slough for kayaking due to its proximity (less than 70 minutes from Mountain View) and the odds of seeing marine mammals.
Unfortunately, the kayaking trip was an unexpected bust. We took the 2 hour family tour from Monterey Bay Kayaks. This was a disappointment on a few fronts.
First, I misjudged Dina's readiness for kayaking. Her short arms just weren't strong enough to hold a kayak paddle, so kayaking wasn't very participatory for her. She didn't complain, but it wasn't the experience I planned.
Second, the tour guide wasn't very good. Inexplicably, he paid more attention to the other family than ours. More importantly, he didn't relate well to kids. He was soft-spoken, prone to tangents, and dry. Dina couldn't hear him, and when she could, his commentary didn't resonate with her.
Third, the two-hour tour barely got out of the Moss Landing harbor--and everything in the harbor could be easily seen from the harbor parking lot. So we didn't see much from the kayak that we couldn't have seen from our car. In fact, after we got out of the kayak, we walked back around the parking lot to get a better view of the sights we passed on the kayak. Naturally, a longer tour would go deeper into the slough itself, but a 2 hour tour was plenty for Dina.
On the plus side, we saw plenty of sea lions, otters, seals, jellyfish and birds. Elkhorn Slough looks worth another visit, but probably as an adults-only visit where I can see more of the slough.
We are vegetourists, and that's true even when we're close to home. Some of our stops during the week:
Garden Fresh, Mountain View. Garden Fresh has been one of my favorite restaurants since the 1990s. I became a little disenchanted with the restaurant when it changed owners in the early 2000s because I felt the quality dropped off some. Since then, I think the quality has improved, although it's been accompanied by higher prices and fewer freebies. For example, back in the old days, the lunch special used to include fried spring rolls, and all of the dishes included complimentary brown rice (even at dinner). Still, Garden Fresh is one of the better deals around, and its best dishes are excellent.
On our most recent trip, we got the lettuce cups and the veggie chicken curry. The lettuce cups were not nearly as good as I remember; something was "off" with the flavor. I don't think we'll try that dish again. The veggie chicken curry is wonderful comfort food. Sometimes I'm not in the mood for something tasting so "heavy," but this time it was exactly what I wanted.
Some of our other favorites: Mongolian veggie chicken and Hunan veggie chicken (these dishes are pretty similar), basil moo shoo rolls, the veggie curry noodle soup and the moo shoo vegetables. Many other dishes are good too. I also like the tofu chowder they frequently serve complimentary. My wife prefers the hot-and-sour soup, and sometimes they will substitute that for the tofu chowder without charging more.
The restaurant itself is hardly atmospheric, although it is slightly more spruced up than it was in the 1990s. It's basically a few rows of formica tables in a mini-mall. Then again, my culinary tastes were honed in Southern California, where the best meals always were in mini-malls, so the setting doesn't bother me. For us, its convenience is an added bonus; it's in easy biking distance from our house.
Mineral, Murphys. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around Mineral. It's an upscale vegetarian restaurant located in Murphys, a small and out-of-the-way Sierra foothills town. There probably isn't another all-vegetarian restaurant within 60+ miles in any direction. When Mineral first launched in 2007, it aimed for the high-end vegetarian connoisseur flush with dot com money. See my review of the restaurant in that phase. In 2008, during the last crash, it revamped into a more mid-scale vegetarian restaurant/cafe, broadening its audience and becoming a place where we felt comfortable bringing the kids for lunch.
The boom must be back on, because Mineral has abandoned its mid-scale orientation and is back to positioning itself as a high-end gourmet vegetarian restaurant. The good news is that the food remains excellent, with extraordinary attention to detail, and the prices are reasonable (compared to Bay Area prices) for the quality of the food and presentation. We had the Mineral Burger (an excellent burger), the "Land Scallops" (a tofu dish), the Watermelon Salad and the Green Papaya Salad, and we devoured everything from all plates before they went back. Total cost at lunch was about $65.
Unfortunately for us, Mineral has lost any pretense of being a kid-friendly place. Even if the menu options look passable to kids, the tastes are just too sophisticated for most kids' palates. I understand that not all restaurants cater to kids, but it's an issue when we're on a family vacation. The server basically warned us when we walked in with Jacob and Dina in tow, asking us discreetly if we'd been to Mineral before as a way of trying to signal that it wasn't a kid-friendly place. It's even more strange because the proprietors were warm and gracious towards our kids and let them watch the laborious presentation of each dish, which our kids totally enjoyed.
For now, assume Mineral is an adults-only place. Murphys has better kid-friendly options just across the street if you're on a family vacation. If you're on an adults-only vacation and you haven't tried Mineral, I highly recommending taking the trip to Murphys for a meal. It's worth the detour.
Sunflower Drive-In, Fair Oaks. This is a funky place. Old Town Fair Oaks is a ramshackle business district with undomesticated chickens wandering around. Then, this restaurant seeks to be the cost-effective vegetarian fast food mecca that we as vegetarians dream about. Most seating is outdoors, amidst the chickens, with unappetizing views of the parking lot baking in the hot Central Valley sun.
Sunflower Drive-in a holdover from the 1970s, and the menu mostly reflects a conception of vegetarianism from 4 decades ago. Their flagship item is a 1970s-style nutburger. Nutburgers have become trendy again, but their recipe is anything but trendy. The nutburger was the best thing we ordered, but it hardly compares with the veggie burgers at Mineral or Source or even Smart Alec's.
Other items were hit-and-miss. The falafel--which some people raved about at Yelp--was only vaguely reminiscent of a "real" falafel. I thought it was bland and uninspired. The kids' menu items were about what you'd expect--the burrito was lots of bean and cheese but not much else; the quesadilla was cheese and not much else. Chips and salsa were run-of-the-mill. The vegan potato salad was pretty good. Vegan cupcakes were as dry as you would expect. The root beer float was a rare overpriced item: $4 buys a paper cup, a dollop of ice cream and a can of off-the-shelf root beer.
As many other reviewers have noted, for a restaurant called a "drive-in" and hawking pseudo-fast food, they process orders at a maddeningly glacial speed. I don't know exactly why things take so long for what should be a well-oiled machine after decades of practice. We placed our order at 11:35 am and the bulk of the order took about 20 minutes on an ordinary workday. With properly calibrated expectations, this wait isn't insufferable; but compared to a place like Smart Alec's in Berkeley or Oreans in Pasadena where fantastic vegetarian food comes speedily, it's nevertheless baffling. I guess their method of operation works for them, but I imagine they could boost profits and throughput if they upgraded their operations.
Although I can't say the food rocked my world, we'll revisit Sunflower Drive-in when we go to visit my stepfather (now living in an assisted living facility just a couple miles away). It's cheap, filling and tasty enough to justify the small detour.
Plant Cafe, San Francisco. Jacob and I patronized the location right by the Embarcadero BART station (101 California Street). At lunchtime, it's a high-volume operation. Order at the counter, hunt for a seat, and wait for the food to arrive.
We tried four dishes: the Plant Burger, Masala Vegetable Stew, Shiitake Spring Rolls (we took it for later) and a Chocolate-Banana Smoothie. The Plant Burger was a little disappointing after all the Yelp raves. My son rejected it outright; I thought the burger was average. Personally, I think Source has the best veggie burger in town. The Masala Vegetable Stew, which comes with some nice flatbread, tasted excellent, was a generous portion, and was priced attractively. My son hijacked my bowl and ate most of the stew. The Shiitake Spring Rolls were tasty but fairly expensive for what you get. The Chocolate-Banana Smoothie was fantastic, but it had an unexpectedly "adult" chocolate taste that I expected my son would reject. He loved it anyway. My overall assessment was strongly positive, and I'm sure we'll be back. I know some reviewers have complained about the price. We spent about $35 for our meal, and I thought that was fair.
I noted that my old law firm (Cooley Godward) is in the same building. If I still worked at the law firm and had this restaurant in the building, I would eat there nearly every day. We need more restaurant options like Plant Cafe. Please come to the South Bay!
Saturn Cafe, Santa Cruz. Saturn Cafe is a venerable vegetarian institution, but it easily can get lost in the shuffle. Trendy restaurants like Source and Plant Cafe have stolen some of its thunder, and Saturn Cafe's chainification has diluted its uniqueness. But Saturn Cafe always delivers a hearty, tasty, cost-effective meal, and it retains a special place in our heart accordingly.
I kept Saturn Cafe as a secret post-kayaking destination for Dina. Even when the kayaking trip went bust, I knew Saturn Cafe would be a hit. We took Dina there a year ago and she loved it--the decor, the coloring menu and the food. What fun!
This trip she had banana walnut pancakes and I had the very tasty vegan breakfast burrito. Both were completely devoured before we left our seats, feeling quite full. The bill was a paltry $15.
I wish Saturn Cafe would come to the South Bay. It would compete directly with Hobee's in both food and price, but I would pick Saturn Cafe over Hobee's (a long-time favorite of mine) both for being completely vegetarian and for its more flavorful options.
July 07, 2011
Reflections on My Trip to St. Petersburg, Russia
[See my photo gallery for this trip.]
For people who came of age during the Cold War (like me), the idea of taking a vacation to Russia is intimidating and surreal. For decades, I was propagandized that Russia was The Enemy hellbent on destroying the United States and our way of life. And more than a century ago, my ancestors fled Russia to escape from anti-Semitism and war. Now the Russian government wanted to pay thousands of dollars of travel costs so I could speak less than 5 minutes. It took a while for me to wrap my head around this trip.
The Iron Curtain is gone, but Russia remains a hard place to get to. There are no non-stops from the United States to St. Petersburg, so it’s a long trip. Russia is an awkward 11 hours ahead of California, making real-time travel planning hard. Plus, Russia’s visa requirements are onerous bordering on ridiculous. To get a visa, I had to pay $250 and spend a half-day getting to the San Francisco consulate (including an hour wait just to drop off the application—which I was told is comparatively quick). The visa application asked unnecessarily invasive questions, and the visa is both date- and geography-restricted, precluding any spur-of-the-moment changes in travel plans.
Although the hurdles getting to Russia seemed very Soviet, once I arrived, the remaining Soviet influences were minimal. If anything, St. Petersburg has learned the virtues of a market economy all too well. I found very few bargains. Instead, everywhere I went, someone was trying to pull more cash out of my pocket. Large tourist sites like the Peter & Paul Fortress or Peterhof had a confounding range of optional admissions, each with its own price. St. Petersburg’s tourist industry needs to learn the merits of all-you-can-eat ticket options.
One of my guidebooks indicated that independent tourists need 24 hours to acclimate to St. Petersburg. A new visitor has to navigate at least three challenges:
1) the language. Most street and business signs are in Cyrillic, so they are effectively indecipherable for non-Russian speakers. Even when signs are in the Latin alphabet, they are still in the Russian language. English signage is rare. Some St. Petersburg residents speak English, but many do not; and even the best English-speaking Russians had a dicey grasp of English that created significant barriers to mutual understanding.
2) the water. The guidebooks indicate that the St. Petersburg municipal water might contain giardia and therefore isn’t safe to drink. It took me some time to come up with a cost-effective alternative hydration plan. On the plus side, many venues had free restrooms.
3) transportation. Taxis aren’t regulated, so every fare is negotiated, and taxi drivers love to feast on American tourists. St. Petersburg really needs to impose metered taxi fares. It would increase trust in the system and encourage more spending. The guidebooks recommend having your hotel make the taxi arrangements to increase safety, but the hotels don’t negotiate the rates when they make these calls, and the taxi drivers use that to their advantage.
Tourists who speak Russian might feel comfortable taking advantage of other transportation options, like buses, shared taxis ("marshrutkas") or commuter trains. After I determined that taxis weren’t reliable, I used the subway. The subway is pretty cheap (25 rubles per ride, less than $1), trains came frequently, and it felt safe to me. The big downside was that the closest subway stop was an over 20 minute walk from my hotel, making it time-consuming for me to get into the central core. Note: the Metro stops at midnight and the bridges over the Neva River start going up as early as 1:30 am to let ships pass through, creating the possibility of getting stuck on the wrong side of the river. If you’re partying late, watch your schedule. Another note: because all of the subway signs are in Russian, the guidebooks helpfully recommend counting stops to your destination.
Because of the visa hassles and the steep acclimation curve, I can make a pretty good case that many short-term visitors to St. Petersburg are better off going through an organized tour than traveling independently.
Once you get there, the highlight is St. Petersburg’s city center--a UNESCO Heritage Site, and justifiably so. This is the result of three key dates in St. Petersburg’s history:
1) 1703, when Peter the Great founded the new capital city from a previously undeveloped swamp.
2) 1917, when the tsar abdicated and the Bolsheviks took over.
3) 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and Russia started on the path back to a market economy.
(1941-1944, the Siege of St. Petersburg, is also a crucial milestone, but the siege was rarely discussed or even acknowledged in the touristy areas).
Because St. Petersburg was founded from the ground up, it did not have to work around an existing city layout or architectural style. Further, as the Russian empire’s capital and home of the royal ruling dynasty, from the beginning the city had significant wealth flowing into it from throughout the Russian empire. This resulted in a newly built city with enough money and power to afford world-class European architects.
Then, starting in 1917, the door shut on changes to the city center. Most investment stopped in 1917, so for 70+ years the central core was largely unaffected by the many architectural fads and mistakes of the 20th century.
Thus, the city center is like a time capsule of well-funded 18th and 19th century architecture. For block after block, the city presents architectural gems and an impressive degree of architectural consistency. Subtract the cars and the business signage, and many streets looked very similar to how they looked in the 1910s. This architectural consistency does come at a cost--it restricts the central city’s economic growth, as it suppresses new developments projects in the central city.
Peter the Great also founded the city as Russia's face to Europe and thus as a "European" city. He succeeded wildly. In addition to the European architects he brought in, the city was built around canals that reminded me a lot of Amsterdam.
St. Petersburg has done a remarkable job cleaning up since the Soviet era. Many of its finest treasures have been restored after decades of neglect or mismanagement. However, St. Petersburg has a tourist “veneer.” Once tourists get off the beaten path, things can be in a pretty serious state of disrepair. For example, the west end of Vasilyesvskiy Island (where my hotel was located) was dominated by massive but run-down Soviet-era concrete block apartments.
As a prosperous capital city, St. Petersburg has a remarkable tradition as Russia’s leading city for arts, literature and intellectuals. I was surprised that the city doesn’t do more to recognize its classical musical heritage. The composers with ties to St. Petersburg is unbelievable: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Borodin, Glazunov and many others who I’m less familiar with. Collectively, these composers fill a few dozen hours in my iTunes. I would have loved to better understand what made this community tick and why it was so successful for so long.
Although the Soviet era is clearly over, its most obvious legacy was overstaffing--everywhere. I couldn’t believe the conference staffing; over dozen staffers were in the room for our 75 minute panel. They were running around looking busy, but I have no idea what most of them were doing. Every tourist attraction had many staff members doing nothing but sitting around watching things. In some cases, like in the Hermitage, that made sense from a security standpoint. In other cases, it seemed to be pretty clearly make-work. Despite the glut of human capital (or maybe because of it), Russian customer service was stereotypically indifferent, if not downright unfriendly. My singular memory of my visit to the city was the many times I was told a terse “nyet” by a dour Russian.
St. Petersburg weather in mid-June was stereotypically marginal. I had 2 half-days of mostly sunny weather. The rest of the time alternated between cloudy, drizzly and occasionally rainy. Temperatures were mild: low 60s to low 70s.
Due to its Northerly location and the scarcity of fresh produce combined with the language barriers, St. Petersburg poses big challenges to vegetarians. I went to three restaurants:
* the Idiot, which numerous guidebooks recommend and was recently written up in the New York Times. It’s easy to see why it gets the raves: it’s conveniently located, it is extremely atmospheric, it caters to American ex-pats, and it offers complimentary vodka shots. Nevertheless, I thought this place was overrated. First, the restaurant has more vegetarian options than many Russian restaurants, but it’s not actually that vegetarian-friendly. Second, my meal was unremarkable. Finally, prices are not cheap. Grade: C.
* Tandoor on Voznesesky Prospect right by St. Isaacs Cathedral. Northern Indian food with numerous vegetarian options. The food was surprisingly good for a city at the 60th parallel; it was competent by my standards. Also not cheap. Grade: B.
* Cafe Botanika on Ul Pestelya near the Summer Gardens. One of the few bona fide vegetarian restaurants in the St Petersburg metro area, and easily the best meal of my visit. I had 4 small blini with honey (delicious), a bowl of borscht, and a soy wrap sandwich. Cost for the three dishes was 660 rubles (about $24)—not cheap, but it kept me full for the day. The interior decoration was hip and modern, and there was a separate two-level play area for kids. This place could relocate to California and compete there successfully. Grade: A.
Tourist attractions and grades:
* Hermitage. Grade: A-. The Hermitage bears many commonalities with the Louvre. It had an amazing mix of depth and breadth in a palatial setting. For me, the deep and high-quality collection of French impressionist paintings were the highlight. There would be an entire room of works by a brand-name artist, and then, whoa! Another whole room of nothing but that artist’s work. Of the many other cool items there, the peacock clock stood out the most. Notes if you go: you have to check your bags, and they charge extra (200 rubles, over $7) for the right to take photographs. One sour note: many of the paintings were visibly damaged (such as significant cracks in the paint), perhaps from being hidden from the Nazis and perhaps from mismanagement. The Hermitage doesn’t seem that careful about managing climate control in the rooms.
* English-speaking canal boat tour from Anglotourismo, located on the Fontanki canal right by Nevsky Prospeckt (Nab. Reki Fontanki 21). Grade: C. I normally take boat tours at the beginning of my visit as a way to get my bearings. Taking it at the end, like I did this time, means that I’d already seen some of the sights. The tour guide’s narration was uninspired, although her English was excellent. It didn’t help that it was raining (a common occurrence), so we couldn’t seen much through the window. I thought this was overpriced.
* St. Isaacs Cathedral. Grade: B. Many official St. Petersburg tourism photos showcase this icon. In addition to its beauty, it earns bonus points for sheer size. I loved the malachite and lapis columns inside the building. We didn’t go up to the colonnade (an extra charge, naturally). You might visit the bar at the top of the W Hotel for a very similar city view without the lines.
* Church on Spilled Blood. Grade: A. Another St. Petersburg icon even though it's a knockoff of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow. It's a traditional Russian Orthodox church with onion domes done in crazy colors and patterns like it was tricked out by a Disney imagineer. This church was exquisite both inside and out. I was especially impressed with the renovations, which were masterfully done. This place has been spiffed up and perhaps has never looked better. The mosaics were beautiful, but I was even more impressed with the carvings of marble and other precious rocks, some of which were so well-done that I nearly cried. When you’re inside, look all the way up the domes for a friendly surprise. This place is worth the extra investment of an audio tour or a guided tour.
* Peter and Paul Fortress. Grade: A-. The original heart of St. Petersburg, the fortress was filled with interesting sights and had spectacular views across the Neva River to the Hermitage and other mansions along the Neva’s south bank. It was bizarre to see people sunbathing on the island's "beaches"—and even more bizarrely, swimming in the Neva—on a mild summer day. This was another attraction filled with an overwhelming number of a la carte payment options, so everywhere you turn there is another ticket office.
We made it to the cannon firing at noon (free). This was quite popular, so if you want unrestricted views, get there early enough to be at the front of the line, or pay (yet another a la carte option) to walk along the redoubt’s top and watch the proceedings from on high. For at least 20 minutes, we were entertained by a military band playing Russian national tunes, a rifle company showing off their synchronization and various tricks with their rifles, and the march of a flag company up and down the redoubt. I understand that such displays are designed to inspire patriotism and nationalism, but both my co-traveler and I thought it was another example of overstaffing. It was especially shocking to see the soldiers march into the square doing a variation of the goose-step and doing an arm salute not dissimilar to the Nazi’s salute. Seriously? A tip about the cannon firing: the shooting cannon is on the redoubt’s top--it's not from the cannons you can see in the square--so many of us in the audience were shocked by the cannonshot even though we knew it was coming.
* Peter and Paul Cathedral (inside the Peter and Paul Fortress). Grade: B. The outside is another spectacular St. Petersburg icon. The inside was mostly raised white marble tombs for royalty, with much debate over whose crypt was located where. We rarely have debates over burial locations in the United States, so all of the location angst seemed characteristically European. The interior, while beautiful, was understated and bordered on unremarkable. While we waited to enter, a four-piece band serenaded us during the noon hour with lovely classical music from the tower.
* Trubetskoy Bastion (inside the Peter and Paul Fortress). Grade: B. This was a key prison for political prisoners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The inmate roster is like a who’s who of well-known Russian dissidents. It looked like a rotation through the prison became a badge of honor—just like a stint in the big house has become a status symbol in the rap community and in certain white collar circles. But the prison was used equally against rebels trying to overthrow the government and later the government officials who got overthrown. The cells were surprisingly big and prisoners sometimes were afforded some luxuries, but overall this seemed like a place I would not want to be. The museum has some redundancies—most of the open cells are identical, and the first and second floors are largely duplicative. Still, I walked away from the museum with a better understanding of why the late 19th century and early 20th century Russian government was so paranoid—it was a time of chaotic efforts to overthrow the incumbents, the government had lots of enemies, and it was trying to manage a stretched empire. I could sort of see how it became hard to distinguish friend from foe.
* Peterhof. Grade: C+. Peterhof was a huge testament to the seemingly limitless wealth of Russia’s rulers. In retrospect, it's a demonstration of royal excess. The Russian rulers weren’t satisfied with having a few palaces, so they kept building more and more. Even in Peterhof, Catherine the Great built a hermitage (translated, a “retreat”) so she could get away from the main palace, which itself was the summer vacation home from St. Petersburg. Seriously? You need a retreat from your retreat?
Further on the theme of excess, the grounds were filled with many expensive-to-maintain developments: grassy areas, sculptured gardens, and lots and lots of fountains. If you’re the ruler of Russia, how much time are you going to have to enjoy the bottom dozen least-interesting fountains at your summer home? I did like some of the whimsy on display in the fountains, such as the trick fountains and the dragons at a fountaintop.
It's always funny to see the 18th and 19th century concept of “nature,” fully on display here. Nature was something to be managed, not to be left in its original state. Viewed from the modern perspective, Peterhof would have benefited if more land remained undeveloped and the attractions were consolidated more closely together.
Much of the property has been nicely renovated after Nazi Germany looted and ransacked the place, but clearly it’s a work-in-progress—especially when compared with places like the Church on Spilled Blood, which is positively gleaming after its comprehensive renovation.
I lowered Peterhof’s grade due to the oppressiveness of the multitudinous pay-as-you-go options. They really need to provide an all-you-can-eat option to enjoy everything at Peterhof, rather than nickel-and-diming people at many different minor attractions (which each required at least 2 people, the ticket seller and ticket-taker—another example of the overstaffing problem).
I also lowered the grade because different attractions were open and closed on different days. If you really wanted to enjoy everything, you have to select your visit day carefully. As it turned out, the Grand Palace was closed on Mondays, the day I went. I probably couldn’t have rescheduled, but still, it pays to research the options in advance.
I also couldn’t tell if my ticket to the Lower Garden allowed me to exit, go to the Upper Gardens (and pay more), and then reenter the Lower Gardens so I could get back to the hydrofoil at the dock without paying another entrance fee. The ticket probably told me, but it was in Russian, and English-speaking help seemed scarcer here than in St. Petersburg. In all, I was a little baffled trying to navigate everything.
Despite all this, I enjoyed walking around the Lower Gardens. The Grand Cascade was a sight to behold, even after the Vegas casinos have tried surpassing it nearly 3 centuries later. Even some of the lesser-celebrated fountains, such as the pyramid fountain and the Roman fountain, impressed me greatly. I also just liked walking around the less developed parts and seeing a bit of (cultivated) Russian landscapes. The views across the Gulf of Finland were nice, although I’m sure it would be nicer on one of the rare sunny days.
I took the hydrofoil to Peterhof from the dock right in front of the Hermitage. This was a nice way to see the city from the water and was a quick (35 minutes) and convenient way to get back and forth. However, it was an expensive option—800 rubles (nearly $30) for the round-trip—and if you can’t exit and reenter the Lower Gardens for one fee, then taking the hydrofoil further limits your options. Considering the total costs, I’m not sure the trip was a great value. Some friends recommended Pushkin, a different summer royal retreat, as an alternative. Its highlight—a room covered completely by amber, even though it was recreated after Nazis looted the original—sounds mighty nifty.
* Hotel. Grade: C-. I stayed four nights in the Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya on the west end of Vasilyevskiy Island. Unless you have some reason to be out in the sticks, I cannot recommend this hotel. I stayed there because the conference arranged it and then generously covered my entire stay. I was happy to accept a poorly located hotel for this tradeoff.
The hotel ranks itself “four stars” by Russian standards, but this would be more like a 2.5 star business hotel in the US. The accommodations were clean enough, but the furnishings were dated. There was no free wi-fi, and the breakfast was average for vegetarians (in fairness, there were several hot entrees, just none I would touch). The hotel doesn’t provide shampoo conditioner or soap bars, and with just one soap dispenser by the sink, taking a shower involves lots of stepping out to get soap. The room size was large by European standards.
However, my real gripes were two-fold. First, I was on the entrance side of the hotel, so my room was very noisy from people talking loudly to each other while smoking outside the entrance door and buses idling in the motorway. Melatonin and noise-canceling headphones ameliorated the problem substantially.
Second, and more seriously, getting to the “cool” stuff in the city center took time (and, depending on how you go, money). The nearest metro station was a 20+ minute walk, so even a trip to Nevsky Prospeckt (2 metro stops away) took 40+ minutes. Depending on where I had to walk from there, it could easily take close to an hour to get to my destination via the metro. Driving might be quicker, but that depended on sometimes-gnarly traffic and, of course, dealing with the taxis looking to fleece American tourists. Furthermore, there were virtually no other support services, such as restaurants or other retail stores, adjacent to the hotel. Finally, the hotel basically doubled its price during the conference I attended, making it a grossly overpriced option during that time.
Two of my American colleagues stayed at the W hotel instead, perfectly located right in the heart of things between the Hermitage and St. Isaacs Cathedral. Now THAT is a nice hotel!!! However, I believe the W cost 6x my room’s rate, so it’s hard to say the W is a better value.
August 01, 2010
Mendocino Coast Vacation With Kids--My Travelogue
This year, I decided to take my 7 1/2 year old son Jacob on a one-on-one bonding trip. I’ll take my daughter Dina on a similar trip when she gets a little older. In California, we are blessed with many top-notch kid-friendly tourist destinations. I chose the Mendocino coast, one of my favorite destinations anywhere, because I was pleasantly surprised how many good kid options it offered.
Let's start with the downsides as a kid's destination. A minor downside is that it's a 4+ hour drive from our house in Mountain View. There are closer destinations that don't require a half-day in the car. A more serious downside is that all of the roads getting to the Mendocino coast are twisty and not kid-friendly. We had to take a break on the way back after the Navarro River stretch of the 128 nauseated Jacob. Jacob ranked the twisty roads as his least favorite part of the trip. Another major downside is that fog is a constant fact of life along the coast, especially in July when the Pacific water is cold and it's in the 90s inland. So temperatures remained cool all day long right along the coast (and cold in the mornings), and we didn't get a lot of sun--even though it was a beautiful sunny day a few miles inland.
With that caveat, I'll narrate some of the things Jacob and I did in our 2 1/2 day trip. You can also see the photo album at Flickr.
Point Arena Lighthouse. Grade: A
Jacob has not previously shown interest in lighthouses, but frankly, who doesn't like lighthouses? The Point Arena lighthouse has a number of advantages, but the biggest attraction was climbing 125 stairs to the top of the 115 foot concrete cylinder. Jacob scrambled up the stairs like a mountain goat, reaching the top before all of the adults (many of whom huffed and puffed their way up). Note that the staircase is pretty narrow, so we had to stop a number of times to let opposite-direction traffic pass.
The old Fresnel lens is now on display in the small museum, so it's possible to get a good look at it too. Now, all of the work is done by a tiny light on the lighthouse top’s exterior. At the top, a docent provided some good color commentary; we then got to walk along the catwalk (I think he called it the "gallery") right below the lighthouse room for some excellent unobstructed views of the coastline. (The lighthouse room has the same views, but the windows were dirty). From the top, we watched a sea lion rookery just offshore and birds of prey (mostly turkey vultures) riding the wind currents over a nearby punchbowl. Overall, the tour within the lighthouse column took about 20-30 minutes, perfect for curious boys with typical attention spans of 7 year olds. We also poked around the museum a bit and the grounds as well. As a bonus, from the cliffs I easily spotted a whale within a few hundred yards of shore!
Admission was a little high for adults ($7.50 per) and a bargain for kids ($1 per). For the two of us, the $8.50 admission was an excellent value. For a larger group with multiple adults, the economics may be less favorable. Their hours aren't entirely predictable. Their website said they close at 3:30, but they were open to 4:30 on a weekday in July.
Overall, the lighthouse was a big hit. Jacob ranked this as one of his "highlights" of the trip.
B. Bryan Preserve in Point Arena. Grade: B+
In the middle of nowhere--Point Arena (population around 500)--and in the cool fogbelt along the Mendocino coast, is a globally important African game preserve, including 3 types of antelopes (kudu, sable and roan) and two types of zebras (Grevy's zebras and mountain zebras). Giraffes are coming next. The proprietors, Frank and Judy Mello, appear to be passionate African animal lovers with the time, money and curiosity to devote their lives to living a fantasy. Admit it--when you were young, you thought: wouldn't it be cool if I could live on a ranch with several dozen amazing African animals? For the Mellos, that dream is their reality.
Even better, the proprietors share the experience with all of us. They run daily tours at 4:30 to coincide with feeding time. Space is limited--they can only take as many people as they can fit in their Land Rover and truck--so reservations are essential.
The "tour" itself is a bit of a misnomer. This is a preserve, not a zoo, and it's run like a true mom-and-pop operation. There is no road signage or welcoming booth. You drive up the driveway, park next to the barn, and try to figure out where to go next.
The tour starts in the barn, where Judy gave us some background information on the preserve and each of the animals we would see. As props, she used taxidermied heads of the various animals. We then walked around the barn to see some mountain zebras, then climbed into the antiquated open-air Land Rover to drive around the preserve and see the other animals.
The result is like a bargain African safari. We had an up-close-and-personal encounter with dozens of majestic animals without having to travel 6,000 miles to Africa. The animals were just a few feet away, drawn closer to us by their dinner. The animals aren't tame, so for the most part they were behind fences, but this was still an intimate interaction. Judy let the kids toss some apples into some of the pens; Jacob gave several good tosses.
I downgraded the tour's grade as a kid-friendly destination for a couple of reasons. First, although Judy did OK as a tour guide, this was not a professional-quality tour. Rather, the Mellos are hobbyists sharing their hobby. Second, at an hour-and-a-half, the tour stretched Jacob's attention span. For him, I think once he saw one zebra, the marginal utility of the next zebra diminished rapidly. By the end, he was more interested in playing with the other kids on the tour than checking out the animals. As a result, Jacob surprisingly did not rank this tour as a highlight.
I should add that as an adult destination, I would grade this an A. Despite the tour's casualness, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and loved watching the animals. Zebras are too cool, and the antelope were pretty nifty too. The proprietors have two really lovely cottages that they rent out, and what a delicious destination for an adult getaway.
The tour is almost exclusively outdoors, so no matter how warm you feel waiting for the tour to start, bundle up tightly for the inevitable chilling wind that will blast you. The tour cost $20 per adult and $10 per kid, a decent value for being immersed in the unexpected Point Arena savannah.
Kayaking. Grade: A
The Mendocino coast offers several kayaking options, including sea tours, river float trips and (in season) river whitewater trips. I think a tour of the sea caves or coastline usually will be more interesting than the river tours, but Jacob has never kayaked before, so I chose a less complicated river float trip.
We took a Noyo River tour from Liquid Fusion kayaking. This proved to be an excellent choice for three reasons. First, the tour was easy paddling even for novices. Second, we were the only customers on a Wednesday morning tour, so we customized the trip to our specific interests. The tour wasn't the cheapest, but having a private session for 90 minutes turned out to be an excellent value. Third, the proprietor Cate is a former schoolteacher, so she did a great job engaging Jacob.
We kayaked from Dolphin Isle harbor down to the main harbor and back on our 90 minute tour. Along the way, we saw a couple seals in the river, many birds (osprey, kingfisher, woodpecker, ducks, swallows and a beautiful Great Blue Heron) and evidence of river otters (but no otters themselves). Jacob initially loved the opportunity to paddle, but eventually he got distracted by the surprisingly fascinating (to him) floating seaweed in the river.
Jacob ranked the kayaking as a trip highlight. It was a great way to whet his appetite for more.
Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. Grade: A
Glass Beach is a triple play as a kid's destination. First, the beach is covered in seaglass washed up from when the area was a dump. It may be my poor memory, but it seemed like there was less seaglass than I saw in previous visits. Don't expect a mile-long carpet of multi-hued seaglass; instead, the densest parts now are just small patches. Still, the colorful mixture of seaglass, shells and rocks was fun to poke around.
Second, Glass Beach has some of the better tidepools in the area. Jacob spent nearly 2 hours running from pool to pool, watching the tide flow in and out. We didn't find many critters, but their absence wasn't a dealbreaker.
Third, the bluffs are covered in wild blackberries, and we spent a little time looking for a snack. Most weren't ripe in mid-July (too early in the season), but the quest was fun. Lots of flowers too.
Glass Beach is convenient and free, and our visit enjoyably consumed a few hours of time. An excellent destination.
After the success at the Point Arena Lighthouse, Jacob enthusiastically responded when I proposed visiting another lighthouse. However, this one was a mostly a bust for him. I think he expected we would climb to the top of the lighthouse, but that wasn't allowed. The park includes several 100 year old buildings that represent a complete lighthouse installation, including the lightkeepers houses and various other buildings. The tiny museum in the picturesque lighthouse building was not interesting to kids. One of the keeper's restored houses was open for inspection but Jacob was only mildly interested.
We walked around the headlands as well. The "South" trail started out strong, but when we turned inland, the trail petered out into a bunch of game trails. We didn't get lost (it would be impossible to do so), but I hate it when trails are that confusing. I assume the lack of trail maintenance is due to the state budget crisis (the visitor center was closed due to budget cuts).
Despite all those strikes against the park, the visit was saved by a seal colony right by the lighthouse that we could watch easily without binoculars (binoculars did help). We counted at least 22 seals at one point, and we spent a half-hour watching seals trying to get out of the pounding surf and then blubbering up the steep slopes to avoid the splash zone.
Entrance into the park is free, but they request a small donation to access the tiny museum. Parking is about 1/2 mile away from the lighthouse. It's possible to rent one of the keeper's homes for a vacation stay; that looked like an interesting choice.
Van Damme State Park in Little River. Grade: B.
The Mendocino coast is blessed with several excellent state parks. Russian Gulch State Park is my favorite. It has the most interesting hikes, and the headlands are amazing.
Van Damme State Park has a lot to recommend it, but it suffers from a few obvious limitations. The biggest limitation is that its centerpiece attraction, Fern Canyon, remains partially closed to hiking due to storm damage from over a decade ago. You can hike about 1.5 miles in (further than the trailhead signage misleadingly indicates), but even getting that far requires scrambling over a few massive downed redwood trees blocking the trail. However, not being able to complete the hike feels somehow like the park is cut in two. Even so, the Fern Canyon hike is very nice, although my favorite Fern Canyon is in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park north of Eureka. The hike is best in the rainy season, so the canyon was not at peak fern-iness during our mid-July visit.
Jacob enjoyed the Fern Canyon hike. The trail is level, wide and well-marked. Ferns and redwoods are everywhere. Most exciting to him was a tree growing out of a downed redwood at an angle that made it look like a "J." All around, this is a very kid-friendly hike.
There are two other hikes in the park: a short hike to a bog, and a loop around the Pygmy forest. We didn't do either on this trip, but on a previous trip I didn't find the Pygmy forest all that interesting. Due to the soil conditions, the trees' growth is stunted, so very old trees look like they are young saplings. But to the untrained eye, it just looks like a young forest. (The forests in the Yukon close to the treeline all look like this). Van Damme also has a small beach (with a kayaker concession) at the coast, but no headlands comparable to Russian Gulch's.
The campground has about 75 camping spots spread out over a mile or two. The layout is very typical for California state parks. Some sites are very close together; but even the more spread-out sites offer little aural or visual privacy. Fortunately, during mid-week, the campground wasn't too rowdy, but nevertheless you're likely to hear your neighbors for as long as they are awake. The campground "host" was invisible.
Each site has a park bench, a firepit and a food locker. Our site (#38) was shaded by a stand of evergreens (unfortunately not redwoods) on a sloping hillside, with two level tent sites. The bathrooms were a brief walk away. They were in OK condition but bring your own soap. The bathroom lights automatically turned on after dark, but we needed our flashlights inside the bathrooms at sunset/dusk before the lights turned on. We didn't take advantage of the various ranger-led activities (which were thin mid-week) but they were fairly typical for the state park system; most of them cater to kids. Firewood is sold at the visitor center, and the website advertises wi-fi at the visitor center too (I didn't try it).
In mid-July, we had virtually no bugs and it was light until about 8:45 pm, but temperature were cool--a damp high 40s with a light wind at breakfast-time that required us to put on jackets and use the car as a windbreak.
One of Van Damme's many advantages is its proximity to Mendocino town--3 miles and less than a 5 minute drive away. We paid $35/night plus the online reservation fee. I found a few sites still available for our mid-week stay with less than 2 weeks advance notice (Russian Gulch and other nearby state parks were all sold out by then). It was a good value for a prime sleeping spot on the Mendocino coast.
Some other things we did:
* Golden Gate Bridge vista point. I believe this was Jacob's first time over the Golden Gate Bridge, so we stopped at the vista point on the Marin side of northbound 101. I had faint hopes that we might be able to walk across the bridge, but at 10:30 am on an otherwise lovely summer morning, it was uncomfortably cold and completely foggy (i.e., couldn't see the tops of the bridge or across the Bay to San Francisco).
* picnic lunch at Sonoma Coast State Beach. Hard to go wrong with this. Jacob ranked this as one of his highlights.
* hike at a nameless (?) vista point in Sonoma County. There was a nice <1 mile loop that was perfect for stretching legs, seeing flowers and getting some views--though the fog blocked most of the panoramas.
* lunch at Cafe 1 in Fort Bragg. Jacob rejected the Living Light raw food storefront for lunch, which screwed up my meal plans. Instead, we tried Cafe 1, a few blocks up Highway 1 and recommended by the Living Light folks. In an old-style diner, the restaurant served a mix of old diner favorites and modern vegetarian cuisine--all organic. I wish more restaurants were like this. We heartily devoured everything we ordered.
* dinner at Lu's Kitchen in Mendocino. I have a love/hate relationship with Lu's Kitchen! It has erratic hours and only serves lunch, so more often than not, it's going to be closed when you visit. And it has only outdoor seating--a chancey proposition with the fickle coastal weather, and no table service. But the wonderful food--and the lovely flowers in the garden--makes it worth tolerating the many quirks. We got lucky and arrived just before it closed. Jacob ranked his Golden Tofu dinner with peanut sauce as a highlight.
June 28, 2010
Netherlands and Paris Vacation Reflections
It took me 42 years to make my first trip to Europe; then, my first two trips to Europe came within 3 weeks of each other. First, at the end of May, I went to a conference at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, followed by some time in Amsterdam. Then, about 10 days later, I returned to Paris for an OECD meeting. This post recaps some of my observations seeing Europe for the first time through 42 year old eyes.
The Netherlands were a great introduction to Europe for an American who doesn't speak any foreign languages. There was plenty of support for English-speakers. Most Dutch speak English flawlessly, and many of the museums and other tourist attractions had parallel English and Dutch explanations (indeed, many times they included French and German translations too). Plus, navigation by train/tram was mostly painless. I didn't ride a bike but the seemingly every Dutch person did. I didn't see a single bike helmet the whole trip, though.
I'm going to start with a seemingly small detail but one that colored my entire trip. For a country that has battled having too much water for centuries, the Dutch make it frustratingly hard to get drinking water. There are no drinking fountains, water was rarely presented as a free option at meals, and bottled water was overpriced. I guess the dutch lack of interest in drinking water makes some sense given that historically unprocessed water was unsafe to drink. Instead, at mealtimes, orange juice, beer and buttermilk were commonly served. Fizzy carbonated drinks were also popular.
Perhaps related to the difficulty getting hydrated, the Dutch approaches to bathrooms differ radically from American sensibilities. First, most bathrooms (public and private) are tiny. Public restrooms typically had an inadequate numbers of stalls/urinals. Second, it was almost impossible to find free public bathrooms. I figured the small and infrequent bathrooms completes a weird logic circle--the Dutch don't drink water, so they don't need bathrooms. The lack of public bathrooms has led to public urination problem in Amsterdam, which has responded with "pee guards" in dark corners that are designed to throw urine back on a (presumably drunk) offender. Pee guards have been through multiple innovation iterations. Apparently, it makes more sense to innovate ways to dump pee back on public urinators than to offer more free public bathrooms.
Consistent with the lack of Dutch freebies, it was virtually impossible to find cost-effective Internet access as a tourist. I didn't find any open WiFi signals, the hotels gouged, and I didn't see many cybercafes. Even Erasmus University wanted to charge me 30 EUROS for guest Internet access. No thanks.
My grades for some common tourist destinations:
[note: I'm generally a pretty tough grader, but my grades will look high because the tourist attractions I went to were, for the most part, world class.]
* Rotterdam Harbor tour. Grade: A-. A great look at a very active harbor. My only beef is that the recorded audio repeats everything in four languages, so on the hour-long tour, there was less than 15 minutes of English narration.
* Delfshaven. Grade: C. An old Rotterdam port--one of the few parts of Rotterdam that wasn't obliterated by WW2 bombing. Unfortunately, there was no "there" there. It's a small island in the middle of Rotterdam sprawl, and the remaining buildings were not worth the detour. Worse, I went to find the vegetarian restaurant Bla Bla, which was unexpectedly closed with no posted hours.
* Kinderdijk. Grade: B. This UNESCO World Heritage site is the remains of a windmill-powered drainage system for a polder. The area was studded with more windmills than you've ever seen in any one place. But other than the thrill of seeing lots of windmills near each other, there wasn't much more to recommend the site.
* Slot Loevestein. Grade: B. A nice 14th century castle bordered by two scenic rivers. The renovations were nice but the tour itself was oddly unenlightening. Getting to the castle involved an adventurous tour through surprisingly bucolic Dutch countryside.
* Free walking tour of Amsterdam by New Amsterdam tours. Grade: A. This free walking tour was a great introduction to the city and visited most of the highlights in the central city, including Dam Square, the Royal Palace, the New Church, the Old Church and the Waag. The guides impress upon their audience that they work for tips, but our guide did work hard and it was a bargain even with the tip.
* Canal boat tour. Grade: B. This was a bit of a disappointment. The canals make for a pretty tour, but the boat tour was not much more insightful than just walking around.
* Red Light District walking tour (I also took a tour by New Amsterdam tours). Grade: A. The Red Light District is fascinating, but I was not comfortable walking around there on my own. Numerous people there were surly and unfriendly and, in many cases, drunk. Fortunately, the tour answered all of my questions. One note about the women in the windows: most of them looked incredibly bored--while waiting, they were smoking, filing their nails and checking their cellphones.
* Van Gogh Museum. Grade: A. At its core, a great museum requires great content, and this museum has that. Van Gogh's work is moody and amazing, and it is so much more vibrant and electrifying in person than in washed-out reprints. His paintings virtually jumped off the walls crackling with excellence, even when placed side-by-side with works of other extremely talented artists. I spent several hours at this museum and enjoyed every minute. I bought my ticket in advance and skipped a 200 person long line. Afternoons are less crowded than mornings.
* Jewish History Museum. Grade: A-. On my trip, I wanted to understand why the Dutch were so tolerant of the Jews compared to all other Europeans. This museum did not directly answer the question, but it came close.
Amsterdam's Jewish community initially populated by Portuguese Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Amsterdam had already established its economy on trading, and the Portuguese Jews brought valuable trading contacts (especially with other Jews spread out as part of the Diaspora). Plus, Amsterdam itself was already composed of plenty of transplants.
Thus, a symbiotic economic relationship developed. The Portuguese Jews brought significant extra wealth to Amsterdam, and thus they were tolerated. I missed the time window to see the Portuguese Synagogue (it has limited hours), but given its importance to the Portuguese Jewish community, I wish I could have seen it. Ironically, at the same time the Portuguese Jews were ascending in the Amsterdam community, Catholicism was officially banned in Amsterdam--creating a bizarre situation where Jews were legal and Catholics were not.
Counterintuitively, then, the Sephardic Jews initially were the wealthy Jewish community. Meanwhile, the Ashkenazim Jews from Eastern Europe were poor, but the Portuguese Jews provided economic support for them, which in turn meant that the Amsterdammers tolerated the Ashkenazim as well. Eventually, the Portuguese Jewish community was economically ruined by the Dutch East India company's collapse, while the Ashkenazim Jews ascended in wealth and prominence and started providing economic support for the Sephardics. Eventually, the Holocaust destroyed the Amsterdam Jewish community.
If you're at all interested in Jewish history, especially Amsterdam’s unique relationship with the Jewish community, I enthusiastically recommend the museum. I allocated only 70 minutes; it would have benefited from 2 hours or more.
* Anne Frank House. Grade: A. I've always been a little uncomfortable that Anne Frank's story gets more attention than the stories of millions of other Holocaust victims. Nevertheless, Anne Frank's story is poignant and heart-wrenching. The self-guided tour tells her story very well without being overly sentimental. It subtly communicates the tragedy of her death and how the world is less rich without her--and the millions of other Jews (and others) whose lives were cut short.
Meanwhile, the museum provides a glimpse into the duality that many Dutch feel towards the Jewish community--the Franks and van Pels were saved by Dutch gentiles, but many Dutch feel that they didn't do enough to resist the German persecution of Dutch Jews. I sensed this psychological duality continues even today.
I bought my ticket in advance, which required me to set a specific time appointment. This helped skip a long line. Going in the late afternoon meant I wasn't crowded in the small rooms.
* Rijksmuseum (the Dutch National Museum). Grade: A. What I loved most about this museum is that it didn't try to cover all of Dutch history. Instead, it focused on the Dutch "golden age" in the 17th century when Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated metropolises in the world. The amount of wealth that flowed into Amsterdam during that period is staggering, and the Rijksmuseum presented the opulence in all its glory. The silverwork, pottery, furniture and other craftworks were all remarkable; the dollhouses were especially mind-blowing. Also, in a collection of remarkable Renaissance paintings, Rembrandt's skill, use of light and ability to manufacture drama stood out against his talented peers.
* Begijnhof. Grade: B-. This is an old part of the city, including the oldest wooden house from the 15th Century, an old convent-like community, and a 16th Century English Reformed church. It's a peaceful oasis in a dense and crowded city. But there really wasn't much of interest to see, although I did enjoy the church, which has catered to an English-speaking community for centuries. A bonus freebie: I went back through the Amsterdam Historical Museum, which has a free-admission hallway filled with 17th century old master paintings of militia companies (another rare freebie).
* Vondelpark. Grade: B. Vondelpark is the biggest park near Amsterdam's city center, and it is well loved by Amsterdammers. On a warm early June evening about 7 pm (the high latitude means that the sun is still high in the sky at that time), the pathways were packed with bikers, runners, skaters and others. The park was laid out in a typical Europe manner--tightly constructed with every element carefully organized--although at least we could walk on the grass (unlike the Paris parks). I personally do not like these overly manicured parks very much. There's something to be said for raw nature, not nature reinterpreted by people. I also got nervous for my personal safety in some of the less well-traveled parts of the park, especially around stoner hill where everyone was brashly toking up in public.
* Amsterdam's Flea Markets. Grade: C. No bargains, but lots of junk. Cities in the Arctic joke that they are where cars go to die...Amsterdam flea markets are where junk goes to die.
* Amsterdam Architecture. Grade: A. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, especially in the city center. It has a beautiful foundation of 17th century architecture that has retained its feel, but the more recent additions--especially from the 19th century--are also beautiful.
The vegetarian scene in the Netherlands was generally OK. Amsterdam had a number of good vegetarian destinations. I especially enjoyed a satisfying but basic meal at De Waaghals ("the dare devil") near de Pijp, although at the cost of about 20 euros.
Some odd standardization issues. To turn on a light switch in the Netherlands, you press down (normally, in the US, you press up). And to flush a toilet typically requires a push button rather than depressing a lever. I wonder why there hasn't been international standardization on these user interfaces? Also wondering why the Europeans don't use a top sheet on their beds...?
A final observation: the Dutch are tall. I am about 5' 8", and I looked eye-to-eye with most Dutch women and looked up to just about every Dutch male. Even the bathroom urinals are set high, presumably for the tall Dutch men.
See my photo album of Paris.
There's little I can say about Paris that hasn't been said many times before. Let me group my overview reactions into "things I liked" and things I didn't.
Things I liked:
* the tourist attractions. World class. More commentary on some of those attractions in a moment.
* walking around. Paris' architecture is beautiful. I was surprised how much of the architecture dated to the mid-19th century and not earlier. This is due to the city's redesign then. But the mid-19th century architecture was very aesthetically pleasing. I liked the flourish and details, the pretty stone, and the wrought iron fences around window balconies and patios. More generally, Paris was full of visual treats everywhere. I felt there was a surprise around every corner. The main attractions were also close together, making it easy to walk everywhere.
* the metro. It was PACKED during rush hour, but the metro gets high marks for convenience. There were stations everywhere, and the wait for another train was rarely more than 2-3 minutes.
Things I didn't like:
* the crowds. More than anything, my dominant memory of Paris will be standing in line. There were lines for everything! Of course this is especially true for the tourist attractions, although I didn't go during peak tourist season. I can understand why Parisians tire of Americans, because we overran the town. At the top of the Eiffel Tower, almost everyone was speaking American English. Paris is a pretty dense city and the ratio of tourists to resident Parisians is uncomfortably high in the summer.
* the weather. In a word, it sucked. At its best in mid-June, it was 70 and sunny but hazy and humid. More typically, it was overcast and humid, with drizzle, rain and even thunderstorms.
* the expense. Paris is expensive like any big city, but it was hard for tourists to find any bargains. Money just flies out of the wallet, especially when eating out. But I did like the cheap baguettes.
* Charles de Gaulle airport. I can't recall a more baffling airport to navigate.
* all the smokers...everywhere (but fortunately not inside restaurants).
Some comments about the tourist attractions:
* Notre Dame Cathedral. Grade: A. This was a truly amazing building. The details were incredible. I would have loved to spend more time exploring this treasure. If my travels take me back to Paris, I will definitely revisit.
* Eiffel Tower. Grade: A. The Eiffel Tower is beautiful to look at, the views from it are spectacular, and it epitomizes superlatives (i.e., once the tallest building in the world). However, I was most impressed with its elegant engineering. Every design choice is a remarkable monument to late 19th century ingenuity. As a result, I'm giving it an A despite its two structural limitations as a tourist attraction. First, it is super-crowded, so the lines and overall mass of humanity can be ridiculously oppressive. Worse, in June the weather improves in the afternoon…exactly the peak time for crowds. Second, the Eiffel Tower has some interpretative material about its construction and engineering, mostly on the 1st floor (which they didn't even merit a stop on the way up). However, the materials are poorly laid out and surprisingly thin. The Eiffel Tower would benefit from a bona fide museum to showcase its brilliance.
* Arc de Triomphe. Grade: B. The Arc de Triomphe is a stunning monument. It is a cultural icon and aesthetically beautiful--grand in scale but also replete with wonderful details. I was especially interested in the 500+ military generals permanently inscribed in the monument (some in larger lettering than others). It's an interesting social statement about what the community rewarded (the leaders, not necessarily unexpected "heroes"). I saw similar celebrations of 19th century individual accomplishments throughout Paris.
The monument is an "A" attraction, but I downgraded it because the paid admission was surprisingly a tourist trap. For 9 euros, I got access to the interior, which was supposed to be a museum but was remarkably content-free, and the rooftop--a nice view but partially duplicative with the Eiffel Tower's views. I could have gotten 90%+ of the value of visiting the monument from the free portions (which allow you to visit the exterior base) without paying the admission fee.
* Champs-Élysées. Grade: C. I'm not much of a shopper. especially at the high end, so this was not a place for me. It reminded me a lot of Magnificent Mile in Chicago (not a compliment). The most remarkable thing is that I saw at least 2 McDonalds within a few blocks of each other.
* the Louvre. Grade: A-. This is probably the most spectacular museum I've been to. The massive and palatial physical setting lets you know, before you even get started, that this is not your ordinary museum. Then, the collection. Wow. I started with some "highlights"--the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, etc. All cultural icons. Then I went a little deeper into the Roman and Greek antiquities, the 19th century French paintings, the Italian late medieval and Renaissance paintings, and the French sculptures. The Louvre's collection is overwhelming, so perhaps it's better to think of the Louvre as about 10 museums in one, each of which would be among the world's finest if separated out.
I was blown away by the depth of each collection. It was dramatic evidence of the immense wealth that flows to the capital city of a colonial imperialist. The museum has so many treasures, it doesn't know what to do with them all. The "throw-away" items stashed obscurely in a corner each would be the centerpiece attraction at almost every other museum. I ended up spending a couple extra hours at the Louvre more than I had planned, as I kept addictively negotiating with myself "just one more room."
So why only an A-? Four knocks on the Louvre. First, they advertised an English highlights tour that I built my day's schedule around, but it was canceled without any notice when I showed. Second, I got the audio tour, but the first machine konked out on me in the middle of the museum, costing me valuable time to go back to replace it (there were at least 3 of us who showed up simultaneously with failed machines--apparently the handheld devices aren't very reliable). Third, the museum layout is thoroughly confusing. For example, it took me quite some time to figure out how to enter the sculpture garden. Finally, the Louvre is (surprise!) massively overcrowded, in many places oppressively so, although I did go to some rooms that were refreshingly quiet.
* Tuileries Garden. Grade: B. A typical and large Parisian manicured garden (no enjoying the grass) between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde. There were fewer flowers than I may have expected, but I got excellent views in every direction.
* The Jewish Quarter. Grade: B. An especially old part of the city with apartments towering over narrow streets. There was evidence of a robust Jewish community, including synagogues and kosher butchers, but the community is now a small fraction of its former self. Still, I liked poking around, but I would have benefited from taking a guided tour of the area.
* Walking along the Seine. Grade: B. Every walk in Paris is a treat, but walking along the Seine wasn't clearly better than other walks. I got a little nervous for my personal safety going through dark underpasses.
Paris was generally a disconcerting place for a vegetarian tourist. Although I found I was able to communicate successfully with most Parisian servers, I still inherently distrusted the vegetarianism of dishes at non-vegetarian restaurants no matter what the server said. I had competent vegetarian meals at Le Potager du Marais and Le Grenier de Notre Dame (Paris' most venerable vegetarian restaurant--30+ years old). Both weren't cheap (20+ euros), and each meal consisted mostly of unrelated mounds of different food on the same plate--a very different conception of a vegetarian meal than in the US.
Although generally it was easier for me to communicate in the Netherlands than Paris, Paris was a more friendly tourist destination in two ways. First, it was easier to find water and free public bathrooms. Second, it was easier to use credit cards in Paris than the Netherlands. The Dutch aren't big fans of Mastercard/Visa. However, unlike the Netherlands, many French attractions only had narratives in French with no English translations.
January 03, 2010
When is the Best Time to Visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?
Contrary to popular belief, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge experiences all four seasons--winter, spring, summer and fall. It's just that three of the seasons are really short. Winter is effectively nine months long and the other three seasons are each about 1 month. So what's the best time to visit? Each season offers its own opportunities and challenges.
Winter--September through May
Advantages: certain activities are possible only during this time, such as the emergence of polar bear cubs
Disadvantages: 24 hours of darkness between November and February, dangerously cold, risk of long blizzards, weather may prevent transportation, many animals have migrated for the season, extremely limited commercial tours available
Spring--first three weeks of June
Advantages: 24 hours of sunlight, weather has warmed up enough to be tolerable, bugs generally are limited
Disadvantages: weather can still be cold and fickle, rivers may still be iced over in places, hills and tundra may be mostly brown (not yet green)
Summer--last week of June to first week of August
Advantages: 24 hours of sunlight, weather is warmest that it gets, river water levels reach their peak (around end of July), July has best display of wildflowers
Disadvantages: bugs can be oppressive
Fall--last three weeks of August
Advantages: tundra changes colors, possibility of seeing the aurora borealis, temperatures are still tolerable (although snow becomes increasingly likely in second half of August)
Disadvantages can be rainy, may still be buggy
Prior posts on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:
* Review of Ah, Rose Marie Bed & Breakfast, Fairbanks, Alaska
* Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Reading List
* Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/Hulahula River Photos and Video
* Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/Hulahula River Trip Quick FAQs
December 13, 2008
West LA Vegetarian Restaurants Quick Reviews: Veggie Grill, Real Food Daily, A Votre Sante, Interim Cafe, Rahel
Lisa and I took a 48 hour veggie-tourist getaway to Los Angeles last weekend. Our principal agenda was to visit some old vegetarian favorites and explore some new ones. A quick recap of the tour:
Veggie Grill, El Segundo. Website. This is a relatively new chain with 2 locations in Irvine and 1 in El Segundo just a couple miles south of LAX. The menu architect is Ray White, who was also half of the brains behind my long-time favorite Native Foods in the desert. Because of their common heritage, the menu at Veggie Grill reminded me a lot of Native Foods--which is a good thing! The restaurant has been receiving accolades, including this year's VegNews' restaurant of the year, so we were anxious to try it.
Physically, the El Segundo restaurant is attractively designed, with the now-standard high ceilings, concrete floor and modern furniture. It looked like a hip college hangout. Patrons order at the counter, put a number on the table and wait for the food to be brought from the kitchen. Wait times were minimal at 5 pm on a Saturday, and seating was ample. By 7 pm the place was crowded but not full.
We ordered four items: the V-burger, the Carne Asada sandwich, the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin sandwich and the Beam Me Up chili. Entrees were $8-10. Everything was good, although I especially liked the Carne Asada sandwich, which I thought was a first-rate dish. We got sweet potato fries and steamed kale as side dishes, and both were very good as well. I'm not a huge fan of sweet potato fries but these may be the best I've had. I personally don't like kale but they put a nice dressing on it and made it taste palatable. I'd say it was the best kale dish I've had, and I wouldn't be adverse to ordering it again.
So, very high marks for this restaurant all around. I can't wait to go back and sample more things on the menu and get the Carne Asada again. The restaurant is so close to LAX that I may just have to swing by next time I'm flying in or out of there. Even better, I'm crossing my fingers that maybe someday the chain will expand to the Peninsula. I promise to be a regular and hungry customer!
Real Food Daily, Santa Monica. Website. I like Real Food Daily. I've gone there numerous times over the past decade, and I've never had a bad meal. The problem with Real Food Daily is that it's just a few miles away from a restaurant I like even more--A Votre Sante--and given our scarce time in LA, A Votre Sante usually wins out.
We went for Monday lunch and tried the Tac-o-the-Town and a weekly special, the Burger in a Salad. The food was good, but as the server told us, RFD does Mexican food really well, and the tacos were IMO better than the salad. I might focus on the Mexican dishes on the next visit.
My real problem is that RFD is expensive and, frankly, overpriced. Lunch entrees were $14-$17, about $5 more than comparable dishes at A Votre Sante and Interim Cafe (discussed below). So while the food is good, I think the food at A Votre Sante is better and cheaper. So I will gladly go back to Real Food Daily, but preferably on someone else's dime!
A Votre Sante, Santa Monica. Website. If I had to pick a single favorite restaurant in the world, I might very well pick A Votre Sante. It's not fully vegetarian (only about 1/2 the menu is vegetarian), but their vegetarian food is consistently outstanding. I have loved this place for 2 decades, and I go as many times as I possibly can. I've been disappointed watching their empire consolidate--in the 1990s, they had as many as 4 locations, and now they are back to just their original San Vincente location--although I was heartened to see that they had taken over the neighboring space, doubling their seating capacity, and had done a renovation that gave the interior a decidedly more upscale feel.
The surface had changed, but the food was just as good as I remembered it. It was so hard to choose only 2 dishes! I got the T&T, one of my favorites (along with the Dragontail, a classic), and Lisa got the Stir-Fried Vegetables. Yum! Both plates were completely cleaned before I left. I'll be back!
Interim Cafe, Santa Monica. i couldn't find a website for them. I wasn't able to make it to Interim Cafe, but Lisa picked up a couple of dishes to-go for our ride to the airport. The Interim Cafe is by the same folks who launched Newsroom in West Hollywood. Two years ago we tried the Newsroom and were less-than-impressed. It was fine, but not worth an extra schlep to West Hollywood. This time, Lisa picked up their basic burger and a stir-fry. The stir-fry was pretty heavy on the tofu but was otherwise fine. The burger was excellent, and I really enjoyed it. The menu is about 1/2 vegetarian, but it's a big menu with lots of attractive options. Prices were $8-$10 per entree, making this substantially cheaper than Real Food Daily. I definitely want to sample more things from the menu, so next time in the area I'll try to swing by.
Rahel, Little Ethiopia/Fairfax District. Website. I love Ethiopian food. Indeed, it's a little known fact that Lisa and I went to an Ethiopian restaurant (the Blue Nile in Berkeley, sadly now closed) on our second date. There is a cluster of Ethiopian restaurants in Little Ethiopia, a modest district on Fairfax, but Rahel stands out because it's entirely vegan. Furthermore, on our first visit 2 years ago, we thought it was absolutely terrific food. We've been salivating to visit again.
I think the best time to visit Rahel is for their all-you-can-eat lunch specials on the weekdays for less than $10. That's a pretty good deal. We went on a Sunday for lunch and instead got the Veggie Paradise combo. It was more expensive than I expected ($15/person), and I'm not sure we ordered the right combo because I remember our last visit including more options that were truly terrific. Nevertheless, the food was good, the service was good by Ethiopian restaurant standards, and we got more food than we could eat. We will definitely go back to Rahel, although because our last visit was a 4 instead of a 5 star visit, we probably won't view it as an essential stop.
Farmer's Markets. In addition to all of this eating, we went to the Sunday morning Santa Monica Farmer's Market on Main Street and the Sunday afternoon Brentwood Farmer's Market between San Vincente and Montana. Both were fine farmer's markets, although the Brentwood market had a limited number of produce vendors. Both farmer's markets had numerous vendors of ready-to-eat vegetarian food that was absolutely mouth-watering, and it took a lot of restraint not to pig out there instead of our restaurant destinations. If you're around, you might decide to pick a meal at the farmer's markets instead of the local restaurants--there are some good options.
July 02, 2008
Review of Ah, Rose Marie Bed & Breakfast, Fairbanks, Alaska
The Ah, Rose Marie Bed & Breakfast is a seven-room B&B in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. I spent 3 nights there in June 2008 before and after my Hulahula River rafting vacation. My buddy and I picked the Ah, Rose Marie because it was recommended by our tour company, which isn't surprising because the place caters to a lot of people going out to or coming back from the Arctic. While the place ended up being passable, I probably would not choose to stay there again if my travels took me back to Fairbanks.
The B&B is located in a mostly residential neighborhood about a $20 cab ride from the Fairbanks airport. The B&B is a convenient few blocks (a quick 5 minute walk) from the Chena River and the restaurants and other tourist attractions in downtown Fairbank's core center. Unfortunately, downtown Fairbanks is a so-so tourist destination; while it generally caters to tourists' needs, there is no grocery store (or even convenience store) in downtown, and the area outside of the core can get a little sketchy quickly.
The B&B is located on Cowles Street, a through street that gets a surprising amount of loud road noise. I stayed in the upstairs room facing Cowles Street for two nights, and the road noise was noticeable. You might try to avoid this room.
The B&B is a 1920s Craftsman-style house with 7 rooms. The rooms are generally small/cozy, and most of the rooms have some sort of goofy layout feature. For example, at least two of the rooms (the first floor room and one of the basement rooms) are advertised as having "private" baths, but in fact the bathrooms are outside of the room and across the hall.
The rooms and bathrooms were very clean/spotless, but their decoration was kitschy. Even I noticed the lack of style. The common areas were thematically decorated. There is a nice sitting area in the side yard.
Personally, I found the B&B noisy. The proprietor warned us in advance that Room A in the basement is noisy. Room A is right under the common areas and the floor/ceiling is just wood--no insulation or other material to muffle the sound. As a result, whenever anyone walks over the room (which inevitably is well before 7 am because people are heading out to their Arctic excursion), the floor/ceiling squeaks pretty loudly. If you are a really heavy sleeper, it may not bother you; but there was no way my buddy or I could sleep through the noise, guaranteeing an early start to our day.
We were warned about the basement noise, but I found the upstairs room to be noisy as well. As I mentioned, the front room faces Cowles and gets street noise. Further, noise from the common areas travels directly up the staircase to the upstairs rooms. This is not the noisiest place I've stayed, but I got less sleep there than I'd hoped.
Some other noteworthy attributes about the facilities:
* the second floor and basement are reached via a spiral staircase, which might pose an unexpected navigation problem for some folks.
* the first floor room is advertised as having a private bath. Not only is it across the hall, but the proprietor encourages other guests and outsiders to use this bathroom, so it's not very private.
* the B&B has wireless Internet access. Ask the proprietor for the password.
* there is a house cat, a short-haired Siamese named Tyla. Personally, I like friendly B&B house pets, but it's potentially problematic if you're allergic to cats.
* the proprietor graciously offers to provide free storage for your luggage while you're on a tour. Note, however, that the storage area isn't secure (it's just in an open area at the bottom of the staircase). I felt a little uncomfortable leaving my iPod and cash there. If you're going to take advantage of the storage option, you may want to minimize the number of valuables you store there.
Breakfast included a home-cooked omelet, some baked good (typically store-bought), a choice of cereals, toast, fresh and dried fruit and juice/coffee. Unlike some B&Bs, there were no quantity limits. I thought the breakfast was generous and satisfying. Throughout the day, the proprietor also makes available some sweets, fresh fruit, and lemonade/iced tea.
The proprietor infuses the house with a strong sense of his family. There are reminders throughout the house of his mother, the eponymous Rose Marie, and there's a small corner dedicated to his deceased wife and daughter who were killed in a tragic car accident in the 1970s. Superficially, this emphasis on family (among other things) gave the place a homey feel.
At the same time, the hominess is undercut by the proprietor's enigmatic mix of gregariousness and standoffishness (perhaps apropos descriptions of Alaska generally). At times he went extra lengths to please his guests; but at other times, I thought he was rude and condescending (both to me and other guests), easily annoyed (watch him get wound up if someone parks in the wrong place) and only grudgingly helpful. This volatility/drama was off-putting enough that, while I was away on my tour, I slightly dreaded returning to the B&B for my last reserved night.
Also, the proprietor lost a lot of credibility with me when I asked him about restaurants and he recommended a Thai restaurant (Bahn Thai) that he claimed was the best Thai restaurant in the world. Those are fighting words! Of course I had to try it. The food was competent, better-than-expected for being in the middle of Alaska, and good enough to go a second time. But c'mon, best in the world? The restaurant is no Cha'am or even Amarin, and it was ridiculous to insinuate otherwise. Given this puffery, I would rely on his recommendations cautiously.
It's inevitable that any hotel charging less than $100/night in Fairbanks during summer has at least one major defect with it. You usually get what you pay for, so you roll the dice and take your chances. In my case, if I needed budget accommodations in Fairbanks again, I'd probably roll the dice on some other place than try this one again.
July 01, 2008
Santa Clara County "Staycations"
After literally traveling to the end of the earth on my last vacation (Kaktovik, Alaska), my next few vacations probably will be closer to home. On that topic, the Mercury News ran a special feature this weekend on Santa Clara County as a tourist destination for locals (a "staycation"). Santa Clara County gets a little overshadowed by some of its showier neighbors (e.g., Monterey, Santa Cruz, the San Mateo Coast, the Pinnacles, Berkeley and of course San Francisco) but there's still a lot of neat things to investigate:
From my perspective, a newcomer wanting to explore Santa Clara County should try all of the following:
* hike in the chaparral, the redwoods and the marshlands
* tour one of our educational institutions. Stanford is the most logical choice and has plenty to do and see, but Santa Clara University's campus is nice too (especially the old Mission)
* tour the Silicon Valley technology community. Because there's no "there" in the Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum is a good place to start. A drive around the Googleplex, just around the corner from the museum, is a good supplement.
* eat. Check out how many of the reader-supplied suggestions relate to the fact that we have really good food here. With these culinary attractions, it would not be improper to organize a vacation around your lunch and dinner destinations, with other activities to fill in the gaps. Personally, I think any Santa Clara County gastronomic tour is incomplete unless it includes a stop at an ethnic restaurant on El Camino Real/the Alameda/Santa Clara Street (my favorite is Udupi Palace in Sunnyvale--get a dosa or the thali). The tour also has to include (1) a meal in one of the small suburbs' downtowns--there are hidden gems in each, (2) a stop at one of the local farmers' markets, and (3) a visit to one of the ethnic grocery stores, such as the Asian markets.
I guess you could also try to go to one of the more overt tourist traps, such as Great America, the Winchester House, the Gilroy Gardens or the Egyptian Museum. I've never been to the latter three, and I don't think most locals are attracted to places like the Winchester House.
Some of the places mentioned in the Mercury News articles that I haven't been but would like to go:
* Moffett Field hangar
* the Hanna House
* Hakone Gardens
* Mt. Hamilton, especially right after a snowstorm
For many years, I have also wanted to tour SLAC, but unfortunately the tours are on hiatus.
June 29, 2008
Free WiFi in San Jose Airport
San Jose Airport is now offering free ad-supported wireless Internet access to airport travelers. Hooray! The odd thing is that they still offer paid subscription connectivity as well. Hmm--wonder how well that will work? I've been avoiding SJC due to the limited flight schedule compared to SFO, plus the fact that every time I visit, they have reconfigured the driving access to make it worse. However, free WiFi might prompt me to reconsider!
June 28, 2008
Therma-a-rest Compressible Pillow Review
At Epinions, I posted a glowing review of the Therm-a-rest Compressible Pillow, one of the many gear items I procured as part of my Hulahula River rafting trip and one of the best investments I made for the trip. Check out my review there.
June 27, 2008
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Reading List
To prepare for my Hulahula River rafting trip, I wanted to read some books that would preview this foreign environment and give me a general orientation. However, I was surprised by the dearth of helpful reading lists about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Trying to develop a reading list on my own wasn't easy either. There are many books about the Arctic generally, but I was interested in books that focused specifically on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so that I could learn more about my exact destination. I found at least a dozen books about the Refuge and ended up reading these books:
Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Debbie S. Miller, 1990 (republished 2000)
Debbie Miller moved from California to become a schoolteacher in Arctic Village. From there, she took numerous treks into the Refuge. This book captures her experiences and impressions.
Debbie is a graceful writer who weaves a story well. Occasionally she gets a little preachy about the need to protect the Refuge from development, but for the most part her writing is informative, entertaining and entirely readable. I found the last chapter absolutely gripping as she describes taking her toddler to camp in the Refuge. As a parent of young kids, I cannot possibly imagine this--it's hard enough to travel there as an adult without kids, but bringing a kid just seems overwhelming. But her stories, especially the interaction between her daughter and a wolf, were moving and emotional.
The book did a great job giving me a preview of life as a visitor to the Refuge. This is the seminal book about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, written before the Refuge was "cool," and it is the template for all of the books that follow it. If you're going to read only one book before going to the Refuge, this is the one. Strongly recommended.
I look at Madsen's book as a complement to Miller's book. Like Miller, Madsen writes a travelogue about his trips in the Refuge and beyond. He also describes his Caribou Commons project and his relationship with the Gwich'in people.
If this was the only book about the Refuge on the market, I would encourage you to read it. But in light of Debbie Miller's book, this book is unnecessarily redundant. Madsen's writing is overdone and filled with groan-inducing metaphors; he recounts his stories with a hint of ego and self-importance entirely absent in Miller's book; Madsen recaps dialogue that he thinks is funnier that it actually is; and the book was in desperate need of more aggressive editing. Reading this book was tiresome and unenlightening, and I struggled to finish it. Not recommended.
Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Jonathan Waterman, 2005
This book is very similar to the Madsen book in a number of ways. Like the Madsen book, it is a travelogue of Waterman's experiences in the refuge. Waterman's unique angle is that he weaves in a biography of ANWR pioneers Olaus and Mardy Murie into his own stories, putatively showing how his experiences are similar to those of the Murie's.
Unfortunately, like the Madsen book, this book is deeply flawed. The entire book is wrapped up with an air of self-importance, the stories' drama seemed intended more to impress us about Waterman's courage than to enlighten us, the book was massively overwritten and desperately needed heavy editing, and the putative linkages between Waterman's experiences and the Muries are frequently incomprehensible.
I actually enjoyed reading about the Muries, and Waterman does a decent job telling their story. It made me wonder if a good biography about the Muries is available. That would be worth reading. However, this book is not an adequate substitute for a legitimate biography of them. Because it cuts between Waterman and the Muries constantly, the book is choppy and, frankly, the parts about Waterman just aren't that interesting.
Thus, like the Madsen book, I don't recommend this book. It only reinforces that Miller's book is so much better than the subsequent copycat books. Get Miller's book instead.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, Subhankar Banerjee, 2003
The Last Wilderness: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Kennan Ward, 2001
These two books are both photoessays of the Refuge, and in that sense they compete with each other. Both of them are filled with awe-inspiring, "how did they get that?" photographs that provide a nice visual preview of the Refuge. Banerjee is a bit of a johnny-come-lately to the Refuge; only a few years before publishing the book, he ditched life as a professional in Seattle to become a Refuge bum, and he is neither a trained wilderness expert nor an expert photographer. In comparison, Ward is a longtime Refuge denizen. While Banerjee does a fine job, not surprisingly I think Ward's photography is a little better. Even so, the overall compilation of materials in Banerjee's book, including essays and other textual material as well as the photographs, is a more enlightening package. Both books are meritorious, but if you're only going to buy one photoessay book, I recommend the Banerjee book.
Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, compiled by Hank Lentfer and Carolyn Servid, 2001
This book is a collection of short essays written by a wide variety of folks in response to the threat of oil development in the Refuge. The idea was to package up a bunch of statements against drilling or in praise of the wilderness value of the Refuge and present the collection to Congress. Perhaps this collection of essays has some historical value, but it has not aged well. Instead, I mostly found it worthless. A number of essays were written by people who have never been to the Refuge, and most of them are filled with redundant preachiness and philosophizing. Don't waste your time with this book. Not recommended.
Conclusion: If you're going to buy only one book, get Miller's Midnight Wilderness. If you're only going to buy two books, get the Miller and Banerjee book. Happy reading!
[note: the links are Amazon Affiliate links]
June 26, 2008
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/Hulahula River Photos and Videos
I've uploaded 216 photos (with explanatory titles) of my trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Hulahula River to Kodak Gallery's website. I haven't really edited the photos with care, and I hope to showcase a much smaller number of favorites in a future post. But if you would like to drink from the firehose now, check out the full collection. I have also posted 6 brief videos to YouTube.
Prior post related to the trip: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/Hulahula River Trip Quick FAQs
UPDATE: Jerry's photos.
June 24, 2008
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge/Hulahula River Trip Quick FAQs
I'm back from my 2 week celebratory adventure in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Northeast Alaska. I have a lot to say about this trip, and I will be blogging various observations and photos over the next few weeks or months. For now, I thought it would be helpful to respond to some of the questions I've been getting:
Where Did I Go? I rafted the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We started on a small commercial puddle-jumper from Fairbanks to Arctic Village. From there, we flew on a bush plane to the put-in on the Hulahula River (at East Patuk Creek). We landed on a gravel bar, although the gravel area had been cleared to facilitate repeat takeoffs and landings. Over the next 10 days, we rafted over 80 miles to a take-out spot called Six Mile a few miles inland from the Beaufort Sea. A bush plane landed on an infrequently used faint strip in the tundra to pick us up. The bush plane took us to Kaktovik, and we finished the trip with a commercial puddle-jumper back to Fairbanks.
Did I Go on a Tour? The tour was organized by Arctic Wild, a Fairbanks-based tour company. There were 6 customers (including myself) and 2 guides. Even at my advancing age, I was the youngest of the 6 customers.
Did My Family Go? I went without them. My wife generously let me go solo while she watched the kids. One person told me that I must have unmatched advocacy skills to convince my wife to do this. I will note that her 40th birthday is still to come, so I think she's making some big plans herself.
Was It Beautiful? The scenery was pretty, especially in the Brooks Range. It looked similar to what you might see in the Colorado Rockies. The coastal plain was flat and relatively feature-less. I thought its starkness was compelling, but most people would find it boring. Overall, I'd rate the scenery as a B or a B+. It was nice but not the most spectacular I've seen, and if scenery were the only goal, going to Colorado or Montana would be a lot cheaper and lower hassle.
Did I See Any Wildlife? Highlights include 7 grizzly bears, dozens/hundreds of caribou, dozens/hundreds of Dall Sheep (including numerous lambs), a porcupine, an Arctic fox, and too many birds to count, including golden eagle chicks, ptarmigans, arctic terns, long-tailed jaegers, golden plovers, mew gulls, and dozens of others.
How Was the Weather? The weather was better than I expected. 8 of 11 days were sunny or mostly sunny, and a couple of days were close to California-grade with sunny blue skies, temperatures in the 60s and light wind. There were a couple rainy days, and as we got close to the Beaufort Sea, we had a couple of very cold days (<40 degrees) with strong winds (15MPH+).
How Were the Bugs? By going early in the season, we mostly avoided the bugs. We had only 1 night when I considered using bug juice, and I tallied only about a half-dozen bites over the whole trip.
What Was the Highlight? The best part was the people on the tour with me. We formed a tight-knit and supportive community, and it was fun to share the experiences with such nice folk. Otherwise, 3 apex experiences stood out over the others:
* seeing two grizzlies mating
* a close encounter of the grizzly kind, when a grizzly ambled within 50 yards of camp
* a crystal-clear view from a ridgetop on Kikiktat Mountain at about 5,000 feet, with clear 360 degree views that included the Beaufort Sea coastline, views into Canada, and closeup views of the Brooks Range, including big peaks like Mt. Michelson and Mt. Chamberlain.
What Was the Lowlight? Due to a last-minute change in plans by our scheduled bush pilot, we had to leave the coastal plain a day early. This interrupted our planned hike from Six Mile to the Beaufort Sea coastline on a rare beautiful day on the Arctic coastal plain (temps in the 50s, sunny blue skies, light wind). Instead, we got an unscheduled extra day in blustery Kaktovik, a town that isn't thrilling for tourists staying more than a couple hours.
Was the Trip Scary? I had all kinds of fears going into the trip, including concerns about the wildlife, the weather, the bugs, the bush planes, the river rapids, etc. In the end, my concerns were largely ameliorated. We avoided the bugs; the weather was tolerable, especially with the right gear; the grizzlies wanted nothing to do with us; the bush planes were totally smooth; and the river rapids were manageable despite my limited skills.
How Was the Food? Overall, the food was good, and the guides did a good job accommodating my vegetarian needs. However, it was tough to eat on a diet set by someone else, and I definitely missed fresh fruits and vegetables.
Why Did I Pick the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? (Usually this is expressed with a pejorative undertone, as if the real question is: why didn't I pick a warmer vacation like Tahiti?) I have always been fascinated by the Arctic, and I wanted to experience it myself. However, going to the Arctic is very expensive, so I wasn't able to afford it in the past. At the same time, at some point later in life I will be unable to take a trip like this due to health concerns. So this was a good time in my life to take a trip like this. I decided to take a rafting trip because I wanted to see a lot of different terrain, and it's a lot easier to move gear in a raft than a backpack. I decided to visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because I wanted to see what all the fuss is about first-hand, plus it's a politically endangered refuge that may not be as compelling a tourist destination in the future.
How Do I Feel About Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? I have long opposed drilling there, but now I have my own first-hand observations about why it would be a bad idea. I'll address this issue more in future blog posts.
May 14, 2008
UpTake Launches Public Beta
One of my side projects is working with a new travel search website called UpTake, which is coming out in public beta today. There are plenty of travel content websites out there, but UpTake has an important differentiator. It enables consumers to do "theme-based" travel searching, such as a search for "family-friendly hotels" in Santa Monica. Theme-based searching better reflects the way that we approach many types of travel planning, but it's almost impossible to systematically do using existing search options. Under the hood, UpTake has some impressive semantic parsing technology to automatically categorize information into themes, allowing it to sort through mountains of information to provide very comprehensive data. The tools are working nicely for a public beta, but my "secret" hope is that they will enable a vegetarian theme, which would vastly simplify the searching I do today!
The "official" press release:
UPTAKE COLLECTS AND ORGANIZES ONLINE WORD-OF-MOUTH FROM THOUSANDS OF TRAVEL WEBSITES
Search and Discovery Site Launches Public Beta for U.S. Hotels,
Offers Web's Most Comprehensive Search for Travel Attractions
PALO ALTO, Calif. - May 14, 2008 - Travelers now have a vital resource for making better travel decisions with today's public beta launch of UpTake, a new vacation search site that has amassed the travel industry's largest database of hotels and attractions and analyzed more than 20 million online opinions from other travelers.
Founded by Yen Lee, former general manager of Yahoo! Travel, UpTake (formerly known as Kango) brings together content from thousands of trusted web sites like Expedia, Fodors, goCityKids, Travelocity, Virtual Tourist, and Yahoo! Travel, offering more than 400,000 U.S. hotels and attractions. "Unlike other travel sites, we are focused on delivering the most comprehensive coverage," said Lee. "We offer the broadest and deepest information about U.S. hotels and we'll be developing similar levels of coverage for other lodging and destinations later this year."
Sixty-six percent of American leisure travelers turn exclusively to the Web to research hotels when vacation planning*. But only 14 percent of users start their planning with online travel agencies like Expedia or Travelocity. Studies show travelers are looking for more relevant information in general and consumer advice in particular. "It's easy to make poor vacation planning decisions, especially if you're going somewhere for the first time," said Yen Lee. "Bad travel decisions are painful because your vacation time is so scarce. Our goal is to deliver relevant travel information from across the Web, to help you avoid decisions that leave you feeling dissatisfied with your vacation."
In addition to being comprehensive, UpTake provides tailored recommendations based on analysis of more than 20 million travel reviews, ratings, and opinions from over a thousand web sites. For example, UpTake recommends hotels for different travel themes based on a deep understanding of the reviews in its database. The site has also added "girls getaway" and "pet friendly" themes to its current "family-friendly" and "romantic" travel search themes, providing travelers more ways to personalize the search and discovery process.
"When you know where and when you want to travel, existing travel booking sites excel. But today's booking sites don't help you shop based on why you are traveling or who you are traveling with. UpTake is designed to give you better recommendations based on these fundamental questions of "who" and "why." said Lee, UpTake president. "UpTake matches a traveler with the most useful reviews, photos, etc. for the most relevant hotels and activities through attribute and sentiment analysis of reviews and other text, analysis guided by our travel ontology to extract weighted meta-tags. More simply, we break apart and analyze reviews and articles so we can recommend the best products for you."
For example, for a user looking for a family hotel in San Diego, UpTake analyzes its San Diego hotel catalog for attributes like "pool", "babysitting", "oversized rooms", "3 and 6 year olds" and for sentiments such as "like", "love", "strongly recommend. " UpTake users looking for San Diego romantic hotels will then get different results than those looking for San Diego family hotels. UpTake also tries to understand user intentions. If a traveler is looking for a hotel that is "good for kids", UpTake interprets it to have the same intent as phrases such as "child friendly" or "family vacation." By aggregating reviews and the most comprehensive selection of products on UpTake, the site will save travelers the time of going from site to site to find the right review for the right product to make your decision.
UpTake was developed to be complementary to existing travel sites. Like Google, it only provides a relevant abstract of the information and then offers a direct link to the site to find additional information. UpTake is also supplier friendly, providing a link to hotel websites, hotel phone numbers and addresses, photos from sites such as Hotels.com, Virtual Tourist, and Yahoo! Travel, as well as descriptions and reviews from other trusted online travel resources. In addition to lodging, UpTake also includes attractions like beaches, restaurants and parks.
"UpTake helps people make more informed decisions about where to stay. For independent hotels like ours, UpTake provides another way to convert our good word-of-mouth online into more hotel stays," said Andy Thomas, general manager of Catamaran Resorts.
UpTake's management team has extensive experience in travel, search and customer acquisition. Lee has more than 12 years of online travel and search entrepreneurial experience starting as a co-founder of the CitySearch San Francisco office and as general manager of travel, helped grow the overall travel category at Yahoo! to approximately $300 million in annual revenue. Co-founder Gene McKenna is UpTake's vice president of product, and was previously vice president of product at Acxiom Digital, a leading e-marketing and database marketing company. Dr. Huanjin Chen is UpTake's search architect, a role he had previously at eBay, and Dr. Boris Galitsky is UpTake's natural language scientist with more than 70 patents and publications. Elliott Ng is the company's vice president of marketing. Previously Ng founded two companies, Loyalty Matrix (sold to Responsys) and Netcentives (sold to Cendant and InfoUSA), where he launched the largest online loyalty program backed by frequent flyer miles. Ng most recently ran web marketing for Intuit QuickBooks.
UpTake recently changed its name from Kango, but the service will be available on both sites. To experience Uptake's vacation search site and take your first step to a great trip, simply go to www.uptake.com or www.kango.com.
Founded in 2006, UpTake has collected and organized more than 20 million traveler reviews, ratings, blogs and articles from across the web to help travelers to make better decisions about destinations, lodging and attractions. UpTake uses a travel ontology and natural language analysis to extract meta-tags from the collective intelligence it has collected and returns unbiased, personalized recommendations based on travelers' facts and feelings. The company is headquartered in Palo Alto, California with global engineering teams in Beijing and Moscow. More information can be found at www.uptake.com.
* Source: YPB&R/Y 2007 National Leisure Travel MonitorTM
December 03, 2007
Quiet Hotel Rooms
I am generally a pretty light sleeper, although since I've been a dad I often simply pass out from exhaustion when I'm traveling. When I stay in hotels, I am often frustrated by the poor soundproofing of hotel rooms. I find this particularly aggravating with high-end hotels, where the hotel clearly spend a lot of money to make the room seem elegant/upscale, only to have my experience degraded when I can hear my neighbors' TV or loud conversations. According to this recent NYT Times article, some hotels are now paying more attention to the soundproofing issues. I'm excited to see the results of this competitive endeavor!
December 02, 2007
NYT on San Francisco Vegetarian Restaurants
A couple of weeks ago, the NYT ran a lengthy article on vegetarian restaurants in San Francisco, spotlighting Greens, Millennium, Herbivore, Cha-Ya and Cafe Gratitude. I've never tried Cha-Ya, so I'll have to check it out. Of the others, Herbivore is my favorite. The food at Millennium is better, but at a premium price. On a cost-benefit basis, Herbivore is a better deal. I wouldn't go back to Greens on my dime (although the view is splendid), and Cafe Gratitude is farcical in its feel-good approach, plus I'm not a huge raw foods fan.
I thought it was amusing that the VegNews editor complained that she's bored of the vegetarian offerings in town. Even if the City lacks good South Indian restaurants like Udupi Palace, San Franciscans are blessed with their options!
November 18, 2007
Mendocino Anniversary Trip: MacCallum House, Cafe Beaujolais, Mendocino Cafe, Living Light Cafe and More
Lisa and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary in Mendocino, my favorite tourist destination of all time. Great scenery, great food, lots to do. This time, we stayed at the MacCallum House right in town, which turned out to be a disappointment. See my Epinions review of our stay at the MacCallum House. Read my other reviews about Mendocino:
This trip we tried Cafe Beaujolais for the first time. It doesn't try hard to cater much to vegetarians, so I wouldn't recommend it on that basis. However, the two options we found were both excellent. The bread was terrific too. We went for lunch, and I think that's a much better value than dinner. Two odd facts: (1) the floor noticeably slopes, so it's like eating in a mystery house; (2) at our lunch, we were the youngest couple there by at least a decade--at my age, this doesn't happen very often any more.
We also went back to Mendocino Cafe, one of my all-time favorite restaurants. I like it because it's casual and fun with terrific food. However, I was disappointed to learn that some of the putatively vegetarian dishes have undisclosed fish sauce in them. Ask before you order!
Finally, we were blown away to discover the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Fort Bragg, which bills itself as "the premier organic raw vegan school in the world." Who knew that Fort Bragg could support a major raw foods cooking school? They have a cafe as part of the school, so we were thrilled to try it out. I'm usually not a big fan of raw foods restaurants; I find them overpriced and typically not very tasty. This place definitely wasn't cheap, but I thought it served the best raw food dishes I've had. I thoroughly enjoyed everything we tried. I think Fort Bragg gets unfairly overshadowed by Mendocino, but the Living Light Cafe is yet another reason to spend some time there.
November 17, 2007
Mineral Restaurant, Murphys, California
Over the years, we have found vegetarian restaurants in some wacky/unexpected places, but Mineral Restaurant ranks up there as one of our most surprising discoveries. Mineral Restaurant is a high end vegetarian restaurant designed to compete with other five-star Northern California vegetarian favorites such as Greens, Millennium and The Ravens. But instead of being located in a major metropolis like San Francisco or an eco-friendly upscale tourist town like Mendocino, Mineral is off the beaten track in downtown Murphys, a lovely but tiny town in the bucolic Gold Country about an hour from Stockton. How in the world can this small community support a vegetarian restaurant, let alone one charging top-of-the-line prices?
Mineral seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much. It celebrated its 1 year anniversary, which is probably 11 months longer than anyone expected, and every seat filled on a Friday night in late October (so make reservations). Then again, the restaurant only seats 20 (including the bar but excluding the outdoor patio). But they run a lean operation, with a staff of two—the owner-server and the owner-chef. So between low labor costs, high prices and filling to capacity on the weekends, perhaps the economics work out OK.
Mineral uses big plates to serve small portions. I suspect many meat eaters laugh when their plates arrive; this visual presentation may psychologically reinforce that they are going to go home hungry. But the three course tasting menu (which is what everyone orders) was plenty of food. At the end, we were too stuffed to contemplate dessert.
Although the restaurant isn’t fully vegan, the restaurant is an excellent choice for a vegan looking for a special meal.
Because Mineral’s menu changes constantly, I’m not going to critique each dish. Instead, to generalize the experience, most dishes had multiple and complex flavors, of which one was typically a little sweet. My wife absolutely loved the food, and she ranks it among the best she’s ever had. I was less enthusiastic. I thought the food was good but overly complicated and expensive--including the wine tasting, we ended up spending about $60/person. I would be just as happy spending $15/person at a much lower-frills but still tasty restaurant like Udupi Palace or Native Foods.
Although I’m not sure about the value proposition, I enthusiastically recommend that you check out Mineral if you’re willing to spend top dollar for a top quality culinary experience. It’s certainly competitive with Millennium as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in Northern California (I think Greens is overrated and isn’t close to either). Better yet, enjoy a weekend as a tourist in Murphys. There is plenty to do, see and eat. As an added bonus, come back to Mineral a second time for lunch. Lisa and I both thought their “X-burger” made for an outstanding and affordable lunch.
UPDATE MAY 2008: Perhaps the economics weren't so great after all. Mineral has rechristened itself as the "Mineral Wine Bar and Kitchen' with a revamped, noticeably cheaper and far less vegan-friendly (but still vegetarian) menu.
July 08, 2007
Wunderlich County Park
I have three main criteria for a great local hiking park: interesting enough to warrant multiple visits, reasonably quick to drive to, and no entry/parking fee. A number of parks along the 280 meet these criteria, but three stand out as my favorites:
* Edgewood Park
* Arastradero Preserve
* Wunderlich Park
Wunderlich Park makes the list for one major reason--only about 10 minutes up Woodside Road (Highway 84) from the 280, it's one of the most convenient ways to access a redwood forest. It's also nice because it offers a few nice panoramas of the Bay and has a number of great loop trails that get the blood flowing without being painfully steep. One other plus: below the Meadows, most of the trails are well-shaded, so this park is a good choice even when it's too warm for more exposed trails. Trails are well-maintained and signed, and there are free maps at the parking lot, so it's very hard to get lost.
My favorite hike is to start on the Alambique Trail and take it to the Alambique Flat, a terrific redwood grove that meanders up a quiet canyon. As second growth redwood forests go, Alambique Flat is as good as it gets. It's a perfect spot for lunch or quiet contemplation. I then continue to the Meadows, which isn't very meadow-like but does offer good mountain views. From the Meadows, I continue down the Bear Gulch Trail through Redwood Flat and back to the parking lot. This is a great 6 mile loop trail offering lots of redwoods, bay views and mountain views, plus some good exercise.
As a variation, at Redwood Flat, turn along the Redwood Trail (which exits the redwoods disappointingly quickly) and go to Salamander Flat, where there's a small and not especially attractive reservoir. I then take the Madrone Trail (which has more redwoods than the Redwood Trail) back to the Bear Gulch Trail. This adds a little extra exercise and variation to the trip.
Another variation is to continue from the Meadows up to Skyline. I must confess that this doesn't do it for me. After the Meadows, the trail follows a relatively boring fire road. It's satisfying to reach Skyline, but the ennui usually isn't worth it.
Instead of going up the Alambique Trail, an alternative is to hike up Bear Gulch Trail to Redwood Flat (3 miles RT). This portion of the Bear Gulch Trail goes through many redwood groves, making this a great redwood experience. At Redwood Flat, you can turn around and retrace your steps, or make a small loop by going to Salamander Flat and taking the Madrone Trail back to Bear Gulch Trail.
A few other things to consider:
* this park is popular with horses, so watch your step. On the plus side, no mountain bikes!
* even though it's well-shaded, always bring plenty of water
* at peak times (i.e., weekend mornings) the parking lot can be full
* Bear Gulch Trail follows Bear Gulch Road, so it will get a little road noise. Alambique Trail follows Woodside Road for the first mile or so; it gets a lot of motorcycle and truck noise. As with most parks on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it also gets a fair amount of airplane noise from planes heading to SFO or the local San Carlos/Palo Alto airports.
June 13, 2007
Israel Trip Recap
A recap of all of my Israel trip-related posts:
* Frommer's Israel book review
Israel Trip Reflections
It's a little late, but I made a list of contemporaneous observations during my Israel trip 6 months ago. In no particular order:
* In Israel, places have been built, torn down, and rebuilt, in many cases over the course of centuries (or even millennia). In many cases, interesting sites have been modified to reflect the then-current ruler, which changed multiple times over the eons. So this leads to an interesting philosophical question: if modern day archivists wish to restore ruins, what era should they restore it to? With the evolution of history, there is no single definition of authenticity or accuracy.
* At the same time, the history is still being written, and this era shouldn't be ignored either. It was weird seeing people still living in the "ruins" of the old city of Akko, which was a Crusader castle that was extensively remodeled by the Ottomans. Assuming we wanted to restore Akko to make it more authentic, are the modern residents any less a part of the history? This reminded me a bit of the gorgeous Ottoman walls around the old city of Jerusalem. They were not used for their contemplated defensive purposes over the course of 5 centuries--until the 1967 war, when the Israelis had to dislodge the Jordanian army from the old city (there are even bullet holes near some entrances).
* Excluding the historical stuff, Israeli architecture is generally not very aesthetically pleasing, but Tel Aviv and its suburbs was particularly conspicuous. Many buildings are unadorned concrete cubes with flat roofs. I imagine it's what Soviet architecture looked like.
* The compulsory military service plays a big role in Israeli life. It acts as a type of social glue not unlike a fraternity/sorority. For example, one colleague told me that certain law firms are "tank" firms, i.e., comprised of lawyers who were part of the tank corp and, through that, developed a common identity.
* Advertising in Israel rarely featured celebrities--in stark contrast to the US, where so much of our advertising is celebrity-driven. My initial assumption is that certain religious subgroups would object to celebrity advertising, but no one supported that hypothesis. Perhaps it's because there are relatively fewer homegrown Israeli celebrities? Or perhaps Israeli advertising is just behind the US, and a few years from now it will catch up?
* Israel is a cat country. There were cats everywhere. At the University of Haifa conference, one cat walked into the conference room, found a seat, took a bath and then curled up for a nap for a couple hours. No one seemed fazed by the extra attendee.
* Israelis smoke a lot. Of course, I come from California, which has virtually banned smoking in public places, and I know smoking is more common in the rest of the world. But people smoked everywhere, even where there were "no smoking" signs. On the first night, someone lit up in the restaurant dozens of feet away, but it still made my eyes water. It reminded me why I'm a huge fan of rules against smoking in restaurants!
* The diversity of produce in Israel was amazing. (Of course, we have it pretty good here in California, too). It was disorienting seeing bananas growing in the desert near the Sea of Galilee.
* Speaking of food, I loved being able to get tasty $3 falafels wherever I went. Why can't we have this in the US?
* Particularly in Jerusalem, it was amazing to see people dressed up in all different types of religious garb. I didn't even recognize most of the outfits. I wouldn't say that Jerusalem was an integrated city, but there seemed to be significant tolerance for different outfit choices, much more so than here in the US. At the same time, one's choice of dress was often a major political statement; down to different kepahs signaling which Jewish sect the wearer belonged to. This also contributes to rampant profiling, which was disconcerting to my American sensibilities. Also on dress--most religious sites banned shorts. That was tough on me!
* Israel used to be a near-socialist economy. Perhaps socialism (everyone pitching in together and making sacrifices) was a necessity when the country was literally in a fight for its existence. I'm not saying Israel's existence is now assured, but the country has moved on, both economically and psychologically. From my vantage, there were almost no visible vestiges of socialism.
* I was surprised at how much trash was everywhere. My understanding is that some communities can opt out of paying taxes, but then trash pickup service gets cut. It was amazing how much trash was piled up right next to sacred sites.
* Israelis eat late. Breakfast often starts at 8. Lunch was typically around 2. Dinner was often at 8 or later. I wasn't able to tell if this was due to some effort to harmonize with European hours? Israel was 2+ hours ahead of Europe, so maybe the schedule is pushed back to better sync up with European trading partners? It reminded me a little of the dynamic with NY and the rest of the US. New York is generally a late city; in many business circles, 9:30 or 10 is an acceptable start time for the workday. In the Midwest, which is one hour behind NY, the schedule was generally one hour earlier than NY (all the way down to the prime time TV schedule, which expressly is 1 hour earlier than Eastern time) to better sync up with New York. In Milwaukee, on New Year's Eve, the TV stations even show the Times Square ball dropping live, meaning that Milwaukee celebrates the New Year at 11 pm. And in California, we don't do everything 3 hours earlier than NY, but anyone dealing with NY works an earlier schedule. This is especially brutal for those in the financial industry (many of whom start when the opening bell rings at 6:30 am Pacific); but even I was affected; when I had NY clients, I usually tried to start my work day at 8 am, which was already midday (11 am) for my clients.
* Israel is so rich in antiquities, there was no visible effort to prevent tourists from destroying or picking up artifacts at sacred sites. Many amazing sites had effectively no security, and one tour guide even encouraged us to pick up a millennium-old souvenir from Caesarea. I contrast this with the very tight efforts to restrict such behavior in the US, where our physical cultural resources are so limited that we guard them very, very carefully.
* The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a truly remarkable place. I need to spend a lot more time there to fully appreciate it. However, I found one aspect especially noteworthy. The building is owned collectively by 6 different Christian churches, but they have divided the building into different property spheres that (as I understand it) are tied to who maintains the building. As a result, any maintenance effort has implications for property ownership, and the result is that maintenance efforts that cross property boundaries have property rights implications--which leads to paralysis. So the building is falling apart and in desperate need of maintenance, but the property allocation structure prevents that. It made me wonder if there would be some way to create tradeable property rights that would facilitate maintenance rather than inhibit it. So not only is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher an important place spiritually, but it may be a laboratory for the problems created by miscalibrated property rights.
* The "streets" in the old city of Jerusalem are too narrow for modern cars/trucks, so goods move into/out of the old city on narrow tractors. They travel around blind curves at a high rate of speed. It reminded me a little of the angry tractor-bull scene from the movie Cars.
* Walking around in Israel, I was routinely bombarded by dozens or even hundreds of personal commercial solicitations an hour--especially in the markets and tourist destinations. Verbal spam, so to speak. I wonder which is worse--the dystopian view of personalized broadcast ads from Minority Report, or the real-life assault of humans soliciting other humans?
* I loved the opportunity to hang out with a very eclectic group of international tourists in Jerusalem. I did some extra traveling with a Pentecostal Afrikaners couple from Namibia and a Church of Christ couple from Brisbane, Australia. (My wife still gives me a hard time that I spent so much time on the Christian historical sites).
* Israel is a country of high transaction-costs of living. Israel spends a lot of its GDP on security and defense--these are necessities, but they are "sunk costs" in terms of improving the quality of living. Plus, Israel simply can't produce as much output as the US due to the extensive Israeli and Jewish holidays. Finally, a fair amount of time is spent bargaining over goods, which I found very tiresome and unproductive. It's amazing Israel has as robust an economy as it does given how many disadvantages it has.
* Most people speak English, but A LOT of signs are only in Hebrew. I found it surprisingly difficult navigating around independently without speaking/reading any Hebrew.
Remarkably, six months later, I'm still sorting through my personal experiences and observations from Israel. It was that rich--and that complicated--a travel experience. For that reason (among others), I commend a trip to Israel for anyone who has the chance to go.
June 08, 2007
Climbing Everest...in Shorts?!
People do so many stupid stunts nowadays (and usually throw the video up on YouTube for everyone to see) that it takes a lot for a stunt to be impressive, but this one floored me. Wim Hof, a Dutch mountaineer, announced that he would climb Mount Everest wearing only shorts. This was not an apparent suicide mission; he'd already proven his chops by climbing Mont Blanc in shorts, by running a half-marathon in Finland (ground temp: -35 degrees) barefoot in shorts, and by holding his breath underwater for almost 6 1/2 minutes under the North Pole ice cap. Now, I'm known for wearing shorts even when the temperature is pretty cold, but clearly this dude is in a different league altogether!
Unfortunately, he didn't make the top. Instead, due to a nagging foot injury, he turned around after getting over 24,000 feet in shorts. Still, an impressive feat; also impressive is that he made it over 20,000 feet wearing sandals as his footwear.
While his summit attempt didn't work this year, he says he will try again in 2008.
January 15, 2007
My decision to join Epinions was motivated significantly by ideology. Simply put, I was sold that it was better to make decisions predicated on the collective wisdom of multiple trusted contributors than on the guidance of any single product reviewer. Further, very few product reviewers have my unique tastes, so I loved the idea that, through Epinions, I could find a credible author who shared my idiosyncratic interests rather than relying on the generic lowest-common-denominator advice of the typical product reviewer.
Thus, I felt a little odd buying the book Frommer's Israel to help with my Israel trip. Not only was I going to rely on a single author for many important decisions, but I was paying $24 for that privilege. However, international travel can be complicated, and I must confess that I felt pretty overwhelmed by my Israel trip. The free Internet resources just weren't getting it done for me. I needed comprehensive, accurate and current information, and finding that information from the Internet was daunting at best.
It turns out that the book was very helpful. It was packed with good stuff that helped me make smart choices and avoid wasting my time. It was also portable, which was a big help when I was offline. Finally, I'm sure I saved more than the book's cost through its money-saving tips. It turns out that even in this era of a million viewpoints available for free on the Internet, there still can be value to dead-trees guides by a single author.
January 08, 2007
Israel Tourist Destinations
During my Israel trip, I tried to squeeze in as many tourist destinations as possible. To avoid getting myself into unsafe situations, I didn't travel independently. Instead, I generally took organized tours (such as those organized by Egged/United Travel). I prefer to travel independently, so doing organized tours was a little frustrating--the group moves only at the pace of the slowest member, and we didn't spend enough time at some sites. However, I think it's impossible to fully enjoy many Israeli destinations without a knowledgeable tour guide to explain the significance of the site. A good guide makes a huge difference!
Here's my recap of the destinations I hit during my stay, along with my grades as a tourist destination:
* Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth (where Mary and Joseph lived). Grade: B. It's a relatively modern and undistinguished church (by Israel standards), but the grottoes are interesting.
* Capernaum (home of some of the apostles, and maybe Jesus). Grade: B. There are extensive and interesting ruins, as well as a very old synagogue. The Sea of Galilee setting is very pretty. But the ruins are not as interesting as other ruins, such as Masada.
* Tabgha (Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes). Grade: A. Another pretty setting on the Sea of Galilee, and interesting Byzantine mosaics. This is a brief stop, but it's a good one.
* Yardenit (Jordan River baptismal site). Grade: D. Boring. Lots of dead fish floating in the water. Plus, the river is now lined by eucalyptus trees, so it hasn't retained its historical look. It was fascinating, however, to see the infrastructure built to do mass baptisms in the yucky Jordan River water.
* Drive down Jordan River valley. Grade: A. Beautiful scenery of the land of milk and honey.
* Caesarea. Grade: A. Caesarea was a Roman resort town built to overlook the azure Mediterranean Sea, and it's a spectacular display of Roman excess. This deserves at least a half-day of guided touring.
* Old Akko. Grade: A. A well-preserved and pretty Crusader fortress, with dungeons, tunnels, banquet halls, etc. The old city itself is interesting as well, but the Old City of Jerusalem is even nicer.
* Rosh Ha-Nikra. Grade: C. This reminded me some of Big Sur: high bluffs overlooking the coast (with a restaurant on top, just like Nepenthe) and sea caves. But the caves are unremarkable compared to the many sea caves on the California coast, and here they charge for access! Unless you'll never make it to the CA coast, save your money. One big difference from Big Sur: the proximity to the Lebanon border, with military installations all along the hillside and Israeli warships patrolling the waters.
* Masada. Grade: A. Masada is famous as the last-stand stronghold of Jewish rebels, and deservedly so. The physical setting is beautiful--a 1,000 foot high mesa in the desert along the Dead Sea coast. The ruins are also terrific. In particular, the Roman siege fortifications are nearly intact, and the ruins are generally well-preserved throughout. I think Masada warrants a full-day guided tour (including the hike up and investigation of the Roman siege camps).
* Ein Gedi Spa. Grade: B. This was an access point to swim in the Dead Sea, plus take a mud bath and lounge in some hot springs. Bring your bathing suit and towel, but you might buy disposable sandals from them. (You will really want sandals to walk across the "beach," which is rocky, and wade in the Dead Sea, which has a rough salty bottom, but wearing your own sandals into the Dead Sea will permanently skankify them). Personally, I didn't find the Dead Sea swim all that interesting. The buoyancy was a little neat, but there were stern warnings not to get any water into our faces/mouths, so I was constantly worried that a little splash or carelessness would lead to some pain. Ultimately, this stop struck me as more of a checklist stop (i.e., go to lowest place on earth--check. Float in the Dead Sea--check) than a place that was actually fun to visit.
* Drive along the Dead Sea. Grade: A. The Dead Sea is lined by towering desert peaks. It reminded me a lot of Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.
* Yad Va'Shem (Holocaust Memorial). Grade: A. An intensely powerful and moving experience. It tells the story of the Holocaust, and how an entire nation became complicit in committing atrocities against the Jews, better than anything else I've ever seen. Note that this is not a "fun" destination. It literally made me physically sick to my stomach. I couldn't eat the whole day after experiencing this.
* Israel Museum. Grade: B. The big draw is the Dead Sea Scrolls, although they were a little unremarkable to see. I spent a lot of my time looking at the old Judaica and the recreations of synagogues from around the world. It's amazing how many Jewish traditions have remained constant across the centuries and across the entire globe. The museum also had a modestly interesting temporary display of old coins. However, I was very disappointed that the archaeology wing is shut down until 2009-10. I'm most interested in the antiquities, so the wing's closure eliminated one of the main draws. Also, I went at night (on the day I went, the museum was only open 4-9), so I couldn't enjoy the outdoor setting or the sculpture gardens. If you go, go in the day.
* Jerusalem's Old City. Grade: A. The Old City is a fascinating and complicated place. It reminded me a little of the discussion in Shrek about layers. (Shrek: "Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers." To which the Donkey ultimately points out that parfaits have layers too.) The Old City has layers, both physically and meta-physically. I could spend years exploring the Old City and still not appreciate all of its layers. It's a fascinating destination. For me, the experience was enhanced staying in the Old City, which gave me great proximity to everything (but be careful about safety). Some subdestinations within or near the Old City:
- The Western Wall. Grade: A. The wall of Jerusalem stone is physically beautiful, and spiritually it's iconic for Jews. Go on Friday after sundown and see the orthodox Jews come to pray and party. But at any time, you can see devout Jews in various states of rapturous worship around the wall. It's very moving.
- Temple Mount. Grade: A. The Dome of the Rock is a stunning building from the outside (no idea about the inside...). The entire plaza is a serene yet spiritual setting.
- Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the putative site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection). Grade: A. In a city filled with boundaries and turf wars, I think no building better illustrates the challenges of harmonization than this one. Collectively owned by six church organizations, the building hardly reflects a cooperative spirit. Instead, because of disputes between the churches about their property rights, repairs and upgrades are regularly stymied, leading to a building that's both impressive and dilapidated. The building is filled with interesting but subtle details; to fully appreciate this building absolutely requires a knowledgeable guide. (I ended up going twice with 2 different guides and got completely different perspectives from them).
- City of David. Grade: B. The site of King David's old Jerusalem (outside of the current Old City's walls), this is undergoing active excavation. The most interesting aspect today is the ability to explore the ancient water system, including the hidden tunnels that helped Jerusalem survive sieges. However, this site is still a work-in-progress and will be more interesting when some of the excavations are complete.
- Tower of David (the Citadel). Grade: B. An impressive and attractive fortress at the Jaffa Gate, the Citadel reflects the layers of Jerusalem--it's an aggregation of Jewish, Herodian, Crusader and Ottoman construction (and a few others as well). There are exhibits that focus on the history of Jerusalem, which makes this a good first stop. (I went as my last stop, so the educational content was a little redundant by that point). Currently, they run English-language tours about Jerusalem's history at 11 am each day. Unfortunately, they do not run a tour that talks about the fortress itself, which seems worthy of a standalone tour. There are great views in every direction from the top of the Citadel.
- Mount of Olives sites (including Pater Noster Church, Dominus Flevit Church and the Garden of Gethsemane). Grade: B. The Mount of Olives has beautiful views of the Old City, some neat churches and lots of cemeteries.
Overall assessment: Israel is an interesting and complicated place. From a tourist standpoint, the religious and historical sites are truly unique. Anyone interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim history, Roman history or Medieval history will find terrific stuff here. However, I was also struck by the geographic similarity between Israel and California, and how well California fares as a tourist destination with top attractions like the Channel Islands, Santa Barbara, Death Valley, and (my favorite) Mendocino (not to mention more famous stops like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Wine Country, etc.). So while I was glad to go to Israel, it also reminded me that I am blessed to have a world-class tourist destination in my (figurative) backyard.
December 29, 2006
Israel Hotel Reviews
While planning my trip to Israel, I found TripAdvisor somewhat helpful in assessing possible lodging destinations. So I decided to contribute two reviews of my own on the Cinema Hotel in Tel Aviv and the Christ Church Guest House in the Old City of Jerusalem. More on my Israel trip shortly...
October 06, 2006
Slinky Factory Tour
I have many "life goals" I want to achieve before my time is up. Some of these are conceptual and hard to measure, such as--be a great father, husband and family member/friend and make a positive contribution to society. Others are "check the box" in nature, such as my decades-long quest to climb 100 of the tallest peaks in Southern California. (In 15 years, I've climbed 54).
Today, I checked one of those boxes. My wife and I have collected Slinkies for the last 12 years. I explain why here. We now have over 300 Slinky-related items. Naturally, for more than a decade, I've had a burning desire to visit the mother ship, the source of my joy, Slinky nirvana--the Slinky factory.
I finally made my pilgrimage. This weekend, I am at a conference in Pittsburgh, about 90 miles from the factory. So I arranged my schedule with a free morning. Early this morning, I hit the road to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.
As I drove into town, I was surprised to discover that Hollidaysburg doesn't do anything to celebrate the Slinky. No "Home of the Slinky" sign. No Slinky-themed burger joint. No stores selling Slinky T-shirts. There were not even any signs pointing the way to the Slinky factory (in fact, it's pretty hard to find--it was mismarked on Google Maps, and the factory is nestled between a forest and a junkyard). It's as if the town doesn't care that it's home to one of the major brands in the world.
There are no direction signs in part because the Slinky factory doesn't cater to visitors. They don't offer tours, have a visitor's center or provide a factory outlet/store (they used to but they closed it down). I drove past the junkyard to a poorly marked and unremarkable building, pulled off the street onto some unmarked asphalt, and walked in the door.
There was a display case of some slinky items in the foyer, but inside the door, there was no receptionist. On the right was a conference room with various Slinky items strewn about. On the left was a large but sparsely populated cube farm. A woman asked if she could help me. When I said that I was looking for the Slinky outlet, she told me that it was closed.
My quest could have ended there, but I took a gamble. A number of years ago, my wife had called the factory looking for an item we saw on eBay called "Slinky art" (or sometimes called "Slinky pooh")--the extrusion of plastic Slinkies at the end of a job to clean the line. She spoke with a woman named Charlene who helped her order this as a special treat for me. I remember my wife mimicking her voice, and I had a hunch I was talking to Charlene. So I asked if she was Charlene, and that provided an ice-breaker that allowed for a little dialogue.
A man walked over and Charlene introduced him as Tom James, the son of Richard and Betty James (the inventor and initial owners of the Slinky) and the manager of the enterprise. We started chatting a little. I asked if they had any more Slinky art, and he invited me back into the factory to rummage through their bin. He issued me some goggles and off we went.
Unfortunately, the factory was relatively quiet. They manufacture Slinkies 4 days a week (20 hours/day), and I came on an off-day. They were manufacturing some third party branded Slinkies-as-schwag, so I got to see the Slinkies being "printed" and then baked. Otherwise, the factory was rather unremarkable, except it had a lot of inventory for the holiday season.
All told, Tom and Charlene generously gave me about a half-hour of their time. I walked out the door a very satisfied Slinky loyalist. I also walked out with a number of goodies: an item of Slinky art (we picked one of the smallest we could find--most of them were a couple of feet tall, too big to carry on the plane); the 14k gold Slinky in a wooden box; a not-yet-shipped colored metal Slinky in a box autographed by Betty James; some Slinky-branded coloring books; and some great memories.
April 09, 2006
Travel Schedules of Law Professors
When I was in private practice, I rarely traveled for business. In my eight years as a lawyer, I can recall 5 trips to Dallas (all for the same client), a client trip to San Diego and a few presentations out of the Bay Area (three trips come to mind). I’m sure I’m forgetting a few, but mostly the business trips stand out because of their exceptional nature.
Life is much different as a law professor. I travel constantly. I don’t think I fully appreciated how much travel the job would involve. As a law professor, travel takes me to new audiences; it also allows me to build and reinforce social relationships. So right now I travel a lot—-more than I expected, more than I would like, and way more than my wife and kids would like. In the 18 month period from January 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006, my business travels have taken/will take me to the following destinations:
Chapel Hill, NC
Chicago (6 times)
Lansing, MI (2 times)
Minneapolis (2 times)
New Haven, CT
New York (2 times)
Palo Alto (3 times)
San Francisco (2 times)
Santa Clara (3 times)
Washington DC (3 times)
My tally: 13 states and 13 different law schools in 18 months. More significantly, this amounts to 34 different business trips in 18 months, or almost two trips a month.
I’ve realized that this level of travel is not sustainable. I lose a lot of productive time on the road, but more importantly, each trip requires me to leave my wife to single-handedly take care of our two young kids, and that’s just not fair to her or them.
As a result, I’ve been looking for ways to cut back on travel. One cut was easy. For the past 4 years, I’ve been actively involved in the American Bar Association. I’ve enjoyed the experience, but the price of admission has been high—-right now, based on my various obligations, I am committed to 6 trips a year for the ABA. By dropping out of the ABA, I can save those 6 trips a year.
I will also probably say no more based on cost-benefit analysis. From Milwaukee, the travel time to participate in East Coast events is comparatively low—-most East Coast and Midwest destinations are a two-hour flight away, and in many cases I can get nonstop flights from Milwaukee. For example, in February I flew nonstop to Washington DC as a day trip. However, starting next academic year, when I’m based in California, trips to the East Coast will require almost 2 full travel days. Thus, going forward, the trip’s benefit will have to outweigh this significant transaction cost. This surely means that I’ll take a pass on trips I would have taken without hesitation from Milwaukee.
(Fortunately, with my new administrative duties, I can bring people to Santa Clara, so I will have a mechanism to continue my social relationships without my having to travel at all.)
I’m sure some of you are thinking that I must have racked up some major frequent flyer miles with all of these trips. Unfortunately, I’ve scattered my miles. I tend to pick flights based on price and schedule first and airline brand second. The result is that I have one free ticket on just about every airline, but most of those are effectively unusable given the stringent redemption requirements imposed by airlines. Despite my low brand loyalty, I did take enough trips on United Airlines last year to make premier status. With my resolve to cut my travel, we’ll see if I can earn the status again this year.
December 26, 2005
When we flew to California last Monday, the thermometer read 1 degree. I guess one is better than none, but it was cold. [How cold was it, Eric?] It was so cold that our plane froze. As in, the airline couldn't start the plane because the engine was frozen.
This seemed odd, because surely frozen airplanes can be anticipated and avoided. After all, as cold as 1 degree is, it gets colder--much colder--in Milwaukee and other cold-weather airports, and it's not like the cold temperatures were unexpected. Maybe the airline was feeding us a line, but if the plane truly was frozen, I think someone screwed up. Don't they have engine heaters for airplanes?
To Delta's credit, virtually without hesitation they immediately made arrangements to put passengers with connections on other flights. However, these types of scrambles almost always set in motion a series of events that inevitably result in unhappy travelers.
In our case, we switched to a United flight but, unsurprisingly, our bags didn't make it. And after waiting 2 hours in the San Francisco airport for our bags to arrive on the next flight, we were disheartened to find only 3 of 5 made it. However, to United's credit, they did deliver both of the missing bags within 30 hours, and they did (grudgingly) loan us a carseat to allow us to drive home safely.
However, I'm still stuck on how an airplane freezes. Of the many things that can go wrong during Winter travel, this never occurred to me as one of the major risks.
December 05, 2005
It's the Most Unpleasant Time of the Year
Traveling between the Midwest and New England during December means two unavoidable truths:
1) Weather delays
2) Non-stop piped-in Christmas tunes playing throughout every corner of the airports
It makes for a very unpleasant combination!
October 09, 2005
Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy Putting Your Head in Someone Else's Lap
I previously blogged about how airlines fail to consider the attention consumption consequences of their repeated communications with passengers. I had a great example of this on a flight this weekend. The flight left at 6:20 am, so all of us were pretty groggy. About 1/2 hour into the flight, when I would estimate 2/3 of the passengers were dozing or asleep, the lead flight attendant got on the loudspeaker and said:
"We're going to begin our beverage service. If you are asleep, we don't want to disturb you. So if you're asleep but want a beverage, just put your tray down."
Gee, thanks for being so considerate of sleeping passengers. However, did it occur that your announcement would wake up many passengers, so most of the people who want to sleep won't need to rely on the tray-trick? Next time, if you really want to help sleeping passengers continue sleeping, maybe the loudspeaker isn't the smartest way to declare that intent.
But the announcement that irritates me the most is the "Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight" mantra that virtually every pilot invokes. Passenger response is virtually Pavlovian. When the pilot sends us that friendly wish, several dozen seats on the airplane immediately recline to the max.
I don't understand why airplane seats are designed to recline at all. Maybe there's some medical reason. Perhaps consumers demand it, although given the Pavlovian response to the pilot's well-wishes, I think a lot of passengers don't really think about it until prompted.
All I know is that passengers get a pretty small volume of space to begin with (maybe 18" x 20" x 5 ft), so allowing another passenger to make a couple inch incursion into that space is pretty material. Accordingly, when a passenger reclines his/her seat, it typically triggers a cascade of reclined seats behind that person as each passenger tries to reclaim a few extra inches of volume from the passenger behind them.
If I'm trying to work on my laptop, even reclining my own seat isn't sufficient. I've had times when I simply can't get the laptop screen open enough to see it. United's Economy Plus solves this problem somewhat, but it's still a problem.
My preference would be to eliminate the ability of airplane seats to recline at all. But if that's too severe, then pilots could and should simply retire the "sit back" mantra/Pavlovian trigger. Or perhaps pilots could modify it to remind people to sit up straight.
August 19, 2005
I Am an Elite Frequent Flyer
Since the late 1980s, I've flown a few hundred of thousands of miles. However, I almost always pick an airline based on price/schedule instead of brand loyalty. As a result, I currently have a free ticket on a half-dozen different airlines, but I've never made it to premier status on any of them.
Until now. On my last trip, I finally crossed the threshold and joined the ranks of United Airlines' premier members for the very first time. I feel like I've entered the inner sanctum. Will this truly be the promised land of economy plus legroom, early ingress and egress, and bonus miles bonanzas?
It brings to mind an episode of Frasier where the brothers joined a snooty and exclusive health club. When they got in, they discovered there was another level of membership behind a fancy door. This started a sequence of social climbing to enter the increasingly more exclusive areas of membership until, ultimately, the fanciest door is the one that leads to the outdoors dumpster.
In my case, I have no desire to reach the 1K club. I spend too much time away from my family as it is. But once I delight in the privileges of premier membership, will I be able to gracefully regress back to common frequent flyer status if I don't continue to fly as frequently?
August 18, 2005
Airlines, Attention Consumption and Noise-Canceling Headphones
On almost every flight, I'm reminded of how airlines do not try to avoid unnecessary consumption of passengers' attention. Some of this is the fault of the FAA, which requires various announcements and disclosures. Other consumptions presumably are attributable to "failure to warn" tort doctrines. Yet other announcements are purely discretionary. Whatever the reason, in aggregate, I'm constantly frustrated with how often I am interrupted/disturbed by the flight attendants and pilots.
Consider, for example, the announcements at the beginning and end of a flight where the captain informs the flight attendants to prepare for takeoff and landing. If the communication is between the pilot and the flight attendants only, why is the announcement made to the entire airplane? If the airlines tried to conserve their passenger's attention, they would find a way to allow the pilots to communicate just with the flight attendants and leave the passengers out of it.
Otherwise, many of the announcements are untargeted. A welcome to frequent flyers (don't care). An invitation to join the frequent flyer program (already a member). The announcement about the movie starting/stopping (sometimes I care, other times I don't). And, of course, the safety demonstrations that most of us simply ignore. There's no way for me, as a passenger, to customize the information to my interests. All announcements are one-size-fits-all, and that means many of them are not relevant to me.
As a consequence, I find it very hard to nap on the plane. Now that I'm a parent, I do sometimes collapse out of exhaustion. Even when I do, though, the periodic stream of announcements keep any nap pretty short. But even when I try to work, especially on the computer, I find the announcements disruptive and unwanted.
I mention all of this because, on my last flight from San Jose to Chicago, I saw at least a half-dozen passengers using noise-canceling headphones. I tend to be a late adopter of technology (i.e., I still don't own a cellphone), but I've already queued this up on my wish list. With these headphones, I wouldn't care how many announcements the airline made; I could just tune them out and blissfully sleep/work away. I'm waiting for the price to come down, but I will definitely be getting a set.
Of course, the promulgation of noise-canceling headphones poses a problem for the airlines and the FAA. How will the necessary information be disseminated if everyone has checked out, technologically speaking? Will the airlines/FAA ban the use of noise-canceling headphones during some announcement phase? Will some form of "assumption of risk" develop? (i.e., if you miss the necessary disclosures because you're using noise-canceling headphones, tough bunnies for you). Will the airlines use more invasive forms of disclosure and consent like the current charade of "I need to hear your verbal assent" for passengers in the exit rows?
To date, the FAA and airlines have felt no incentive to consider the attention consumption costs of their announcements and disclosures. They have had no real incentive to manage the consumption of passenger attention, so they have gotten gluttonous. Now, technology is striking back. Will a technological arms race between the FAA/airlines and passengers ensue?
UPDATE: Vic at the Conglomerate discusses his experiences with noise-canceling headphones.
August 16, 2005
The Ubiquitious Internet, Part 2
Car camping is down 28% since 1998. Backpacking down 33% in the same period. How to stimulate interest in these activities?
Some campground operators think they have found a solution: offer wireless Internet connections at the campground.
I'm a big fan of Internet connectivity when I travel, and perhaps global wireless Internet coverage is inevitable, but for now, I have mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, Internet connectivity when I camp could be a real plus. It would provide a good way to get real-time weather reports and trail/road conditions, a non-trivial consideration. It would also allow me to get more information about attractions, such as history, trail maps, etc. I definitely have informational needs when I'm camping, and easy access to the Internet could solve many of those.
On the other hand, one of my great joys in camping is being unconnected. I don't own a cellphone and I can't use my laptop when I camp, so I am truly unplugged. In June, I camped 3 nights in Death Valley, 2 of them at a campground at 8,000 feet in the Panamint Mountains. What a great way to decompress and reflect!
If I had an Internet connection, the temptation could very well have proven irresistable. Instead of doing information detox, I would have been perpetuating information overload. There's a value to wild spaces, and wireless Internet coverage perhaps changes the nature of these spaces in modest but significant ways.
In any case, the advent of electricity and wireless Internet connectivity ultimately will portend the end of car camping for me. Currently, if I go to remote enough areas, I can still find car camping that isn't like camping in downtown Manhattan. However, I think those days are progressively ending; it will become harder and harder to find a remote enough area. Eventually, I think I'll have to give up car camping and go backpacking to find truly peaceful areas. The double bonus is that I don't have any intention of lugging my heavy laptop in my backpack!
August 09, 2005
JD Power Survey on Hotel Satisfaction
JD Powers released its survey of hotel satisfaction. A couple of paragraphs caught my eye:
"While many brands push the envelope to introduce new amenities and innovations such as satellite radio or Internet check-in, the study finds that brands that improve on offerings in the tried-and-true comforts of home that make for a convenient in-room experience tend to receive considerable boosts in customer satisfaction scores. Amenities of particular interest to consumers include a complimentary breakfast, in-room refrigerators and coffee makers, pillow top mattresses and high-speed Internet access.
An example of this is Omni Hotels, which improves dramatically to rank highest in the upscale segment. Omni Hotels is the first upscale hotel brand to offer free wireless Internet access in guest rooms. Three top-ranking Hilton brands all offer free high-speed Internet access: Hilton Garden Inn, which ranks highest in the mid-scale full service segment; Hampton Inn & Suites, which ranks highest among mid-scale limited service hotels; and Homewood Suites by Hilton, which ranks highest in the extended stay segment. In addition, Hampton Inn & Suites and Homewood Suites by Hilton also offer complimentary hot breakfasts."
Yes, yes, yes! I hope hoteliers are listening. In my perfect world, every hotel would give me free Internet access and a refrigerator/microwave. The former lets me get the information I need. The latter lets me control my meals. This is especially important because sometimes my vegetarian options are slim, but I can pick up a frozen meal at the grocery store (that I locate through my Internet connection).
A great example of what not to do. I spent two nights this weekend at one of the higher-end hotel chains. $16/day for Internet access! $2 to make a call to an 800 number! No refrigerator or microwave, so I was forced to eat out every meal. I would have been far happier in a Hampton or a Homewood hotel at a significant discount price-wise.
June 23, 2005
Chicago Tribune Lauds Milwaukee
Milwaukeeans have a love/hate relationship with Chicago. Milwaukeeans tend to have an inferiority complex but also disparage Chicago's traffic/drivers/expense/general bad attitude.
However, this love/hate relationship is not reciprocated by Chicagoans. Instead, the most dominant attitude by Chicagoans towards Milwaukee is complete indifference. I'm constantly amazed at how many Chicago residents have no idea where Milwaukee is or why they might stop there. I'm pretty sure a non-trivial percentage of Chicagoans confuse Milwaukee with Minneapolis, so they think it's hundreds of miles away. In fact, downtown to downtown is about 90 miles, and it's an easy 100 minute train ride or a quick 90-105 minute drive. I do the drive (or take the train) at least once a month either to downtown Chicago or to the nearest Trader Joe's in a northern Chicago suburb--it takes a half-day to do the roundtrip, but it's not a big deal.
Thus, given the indifference, it's a noteworthy development when Chicago's major daily comes out singing Milwaukee's praises.
This is not to say that Milwaukee is the most compelling destination that Chicagoans could imagine. But my sister and brother-in-law, and their two nieces, came from California to spend a week with us in Milwaukee and had a good time. I was petrified about this because the Midwest generally doesn't have a whole lot of "California-grade" tourist attractions.
Nevertheless, we found plenty to occupy a couple days. We spent one morning driving the lakefront, seeing the Beer Baron mansions on Lake Drive, stopping at the hip and college-y Alterra coffeehouse on Lincoln Memorial Drive (in the old pumphouse building), checking out the Art Museum and touring Marquette (including the fascinating Joan of Arc chapel). We had a great vegetarian lunch at Beans & Barley, went to Cosi for a S'mores dessert and then toured the Sprecher brewery. That night, we went to a movie in a state-of-the-art movie house for a couple of bucks less than the California movie houses. Another day, we took them on a walk in the Schlitz Audubon park. The frogs and turtles were mostly hiding, but the wildflowers were everywhere!
We didn't even get to do everything on our list--we were going to take the family to Cedarburg (my wife, in particular, likes the massively-overpriced caramel apples) and the Pabst House and a ballgame at Miller Park. They will just have to come back for more fun!
FWIW, the Miller brewery tour is better than the Sprecher tour. As the Tribune article points out, the video is hilarious, and I liked touring the beer caves. The tasting at the end...well, it's Miller products, and tasting it fresh from the brewery doesn't really improve the experience in any noticeable way. However, they allow you to send as many free postcards as you want to your friends, so bring your address book. And the tour is free! The major plus for the Sprecher tour? All the free soda (of seven varieties) you can drink. (Only problem: both my wife and I thought all of the varieties, other than the root beer, weren't that good).
So my hope is that the Chicago Tribune article starts to lift some of the mystery about Milwaukee. Perhaps that will lead to less indifference and more interaction between us.
June 18, 2005
The Ubiquitous Internet
On my recent travels, I found that many hotels are now offering Internet access for free--not the high end hotels, where they charge for everything, but the 2-3 star hotels that need some marketing hook to pack the rooms. I booked two rooms through blind bidding (one through Priceline, the other through HotWire) and both had free Internet access. Bonanza! I felt like I hit the jackpot. We haven't quite gotten to the point where I am assured of being able to find free Internet on the road, but it seems to be getting closer.
Listen up, hotel operators. Where I have a choice of hotels and your competition is offering free Internet access and a competitive room rate, you will lose my business every time. I'm too cheap to pay for access (or I may have difficulty getting it reimbursed), but it absolutely makes my travel experience better!
In a similar vein, I note that United Airlines has been given the green light to offer Internet access during flights. I'm sure this will be too pricey for me, at least initially, but the die seems cast--in the future, I will have continuous access to the Internet when flying, when staying at my hotel, when waiting in the airport, hanging out at restaurants or coffee shops. Eventually, the Internet will truly be everywhere.
UPDATE: NYT readers vent about wi-fi charges at hotels.
May 19, 2005
Every Milwaukeean has their favorite time to escape the crummy weather. For some, it’s January and February when the weather is the coldest and the days are the darkest. For others, it’s March, when other places are experiencing Spring and we’re still suffering through very cold and cloudy days. For a few, it’s summer, when it’s too hot and humid for those Milwaukeeans who have ice in their veins.
For me, it’s May and early June, when the weather has nominally gotten warmer but it is still crummy. The last 2 weeks have consistently been in the 40s and low 50s with rain/dark clouds. That alone wouldn’t bother me, but after having crummy weather since mid-October, I’m really tired of it.
Fortunately for me, I’m escaping Milwaukee and its crummy weather for the next three weeks. I’m traveling to the Bay Area, Seattle, Las Vegas, Death Valley and Los Angeles for a mix of business (presentations/conferences) and pleasure (camping and hiking). Even when I’m not at conferences, I’ll be grading exams and working on papers—but at least I will be able to do those outdoors in the sun in shorts and sandals!
Because I don’t expect to have continuous Internet connectivity during my travels, blogging should be spotty for the next three weeks. I’ll be back in Milwaukee June 13, when blogging should return to normal.