Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “vacation”

Freeway Free in San Francisco: A Touch of Class

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My father used to say, in justifying a splurge, “It only costs a little more to go first class.”  This is no longer true when flying across the country, perhaps, when an upgrade to first class was a two-digit expense, but it can still apply to other aspects of travel. When my childhood friend came for a visit, we decided to spend a weekend in San Francisco together, and we went in style.

Instead of paging through TripAdvisor, we simply made a list of what we wanted to do.  We wanted to have easy access to a BART station, since traveling up to the city by BART is much easier than driving and parking (not to say cheaper), and we also wanted access to public transportation.  We wanted to be able to walk to the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, as the Magritte  exhibit was on my friend’s bucket list. We wanted to be close to some good restaurants, and we wanted to be able to get to Golden Gate Park.

20180706_181641webWe ended up staying two nights at the Palace – the grand dame of San Francisco hotels, with its glass-domed atrium, high-ceilinged rooms, and courtly servitors.  Our room had two queen-sized beds, a marble bath, and cozy bathrobes to wear afterward. 

One morning we had breakfast at the Palace buffet in the sunlint atrium.  We were early, so we had first pick of a continental buffet which included yogurt, cottage cheese, excellent fruits, cold cuts, cheese, pastries, toast, jam, bagels, cream cheese, lox, juices, cereals, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea… we did not miss the scrambled eggs and sausage from the steam table.

We walked to SFMOMA, as planned, and spent a luxurious four hours exploring all seven floors, broken by an excellent lunch at the Café 5 on the 5th floor.  (OK, “first class” might have been down on ground level at the highly regarded but often crowded In Situ – but we decided “first class” also means “no waiting.” 20180707_124430web

That evening we walked to The Grove, a trendy restaurant half-way between the Palace and MOMA.  We people watched, ate wonderfully, and ambled back to our hotel for a swim and soak in the pool and hot tub located three floors up from our room.

The Grove is also known for its Sunday brunch, so we opted for their poached eggs on asparagus toast rather than another go-round at the Palace buffet.  Afterward we checked our baggage at the Palace and hopped the N-Judah street car to Golden Gate Park, where we took a Segway tour of the park.  (Yes, true luxury might have opted for a limo, but the N-Judah, again, involved no waiting. Actually, the N-Judah is just about everything you need to know about public transportation in San Francisco.  It starts at the King Street train station near the SF Giants’ ball park, circles the Embarcadero, dives underground past the Civic Center, and surfaces in the lower Haight on its way to Ocean Beach.  Give it a try!)

We  lunched at Nopalito’s, a top-line Mexican restaurant on 9th Avenue.  Here there was a wait, but it was made painless by the availability of a branch of the Green Apple Bookstore right across the street.

That evening  reclaimed our bags and BARTed back down the Peninsula, completely satisfied with our taste of luxurious living. And since my friend and I split the bills, it really did only cost a little more to go first class.

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Freeway Free in Alaska: Stopping Along the Inland Passage – Sitka

 

P1030429webSitka is the launch point for many voyages up the inland passage. But don’t be in a hurry to leave.  In addition to the compact and diverse shopping street , Sitka offers

  • The Sitka Sound Science Center.located in a former hydroplant on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, formerly a vocational training school for Alaskan natives, now a science center and working fish hatchery.
  • the Sheldon Jackson Museum,located in an historic building crammed full of over 6000 Alaskan native carvings, textiles, and other artifacts, collected by an early Presbyterian missionary  with a genuine appreciation for Alaskan native culture.

  • St. Michael’s Cathedral, a small but amazingly ornate monument to the courage and faith of early Russian Orthodox settlers, still operating as a working parish church.
  • Totem Park – Sargass National Forest, a largely open air museum of giant totem pole carvings,  and site of a battle between the native Tlingit and Russian traders.  The Park includes a very complete visitors’ center and a team of friendly rangers.

So put on your parka and gloves and walk down  Sitka’s Coastal Trail, making all the stops along the way before you board your cruise ship for points north!

Freeway Free in Alaska (actually you have no choice)

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Since there are only about 15 miles of freeway in the entire state of Alaska (built as a bit of a boondoggle between the capital city of Juneau and its airport), it is not much of a challenge to be freeway-free here.  The preferred method of travel is by water, whether by kayak, canoe, or cruise ship.

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Alaska was not exactly on my bucket list – I usually prefer to go to places where the food and language are exotic.  But once in the state I was enchanted – it still feels so WILD here.  The first day in Sitka, I strolled around the town and spotted a couple of bald eagles keeping watch over their territory from the top of the tallest tree in town.  Mt. Morecombe, which marks the entrance to the Sitka harbor, is a somnolent volcano.

The stroll of Sitka includes a main street of perhaps six blocks, with a harbor and historic park at one end, the coast range looming behind, and a second park looking out over the volcano and the bay at the other end.  The shops include quite a nice book store, a quilting shop with Alaska-themed print calicoes on offer, several craft shops offering carvings from driftwood or walrus tusks,  several small coffee shops,  and a restaurant offering fresh -caught salmon.

The standard wear for Sitka inhabitants involves jeans, down vests, and flannel. The shopkeepers and customers have an easy-going, relaxed air, as though there is nowhere else they would rather be, nowhere they need to rush off to.  I suppose those who want to be somewhere else than a small town in Alaska have already left.

The air is cool and brisk and smells faintly fishy.  I can feel myself relaxing, too.  There’s nowhere else I can be now, so I might as well be here.  I find myself a bench at the harbor, and scan the trees for eagles.  I turn, and find one perched on the apex of the church steeple, looking for all the world like a weathervane. Wild.

Freeway Free in Texas: A Stop-Over in LaGrange – a GEM!

20170407_122257.jpgW and I decided to spend some time in LaGrange primarily because it is conveniently about halfway between Houston and Austin.  We found a lot more to like than we had expected.

LaGrange boasts a real town square, with a Victorian-vintage courthouse which includes an interior courtyard with a fountain and a beautiful carved oak staircase.  Surrounding the courthouse are a number  of 1910-20’s vintage buildings , and some charming shops tucked inside those vintage buildings.

If you are hungry, Bistro 108 just off the main square offers some excellent eats.  On our visit the soup of the day was a corn chowder so good I wanted to lick the bowl, while the special of fried catfish was the best I have eaten of that species since I left Texas behind as a girl.

20170407_132055.jpgAfter lunch, a stroll around the square will bring you to the Texas Quilt Museum, a riot of color and pattern, usually with a special exhibit,  and staffed by friendly, well-informed volunteers. Their gift shop includes some great cards for sewers as well as wonderful textile crafts and some delectable antique quilts for sale.

The above quilts were part of a display from an International Quilt Exhibit – the leftward one is from Japan, the rightward from the US – I was fascinated by the complementary spiral motifs and colors from such disparate locations and cultures.

If you need some fresh air after the museum, Monument Hill/ Kreische Brewery State Historic Site is just a short drive out of town, and commands a spectacular view of the town of LaGrange and the entire Colorado River Valley.  The monument in question commemorates a squadron of LaGrange citizens who went off to fight the Mexicans during the Texas War for Independence, and were ambushed and either killed or imprisoned.

We missed the Texas History Museum which would have told us more about the ambush, but we did find a plaque honoring one of the town founders.  The plaque concluded its biography of the founder with “John Henry Moore died at he age of 80 on December 12, 1880…. The local newspaper carried a lengthy obituary extolling his many accomplishments and virtues. One week later a rebuttal was printed refuting these claims.”

Once in a while, you get to love Texas history.

Freeway Free in Texas: A GEM! Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

20170405_080617.jpgI thought I was accustomed to startling rock landscapes, having hiked to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, ridden a mule to the depths of Bryce Canyon, and driven dirt roads through Monument Valley.  But Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is in a separate class.  It features  a large pink granite dome which looks like something escaped from Yosemite, exfoliation and all, except it is the wrong color.  And except that, according to the geological information provided in the trail guides, most of this giant formation is buried under eons of silt deposits.  The summit is 1823 feet above sea level, offering wonderful 360 degree views of the Texas Hill Counry.  If it were fully exposed, it would cover an area as large as Manhattan, and be as high as Half Dome. 

20170405_082659.jpg The  Summit Trail is an easy two/thirds of a mile from the principal parking lot, which also offers convenient rest rooms and picnic tables for befoore or after your hike.  The climb  is steep and without handholds.  Recommendation – Bring a walking stick with a rubber tip to act as a third leg to brace you against the slippery rock and the howling wind which on our visit was blowing across the top at about  30 mph.  Recommendation #2 – make sure your hat and your sunglasses, if you need them, are both secured with a cord. The wind nearly took my hat as I crested the summit, and my sunglasses went flying  as I was grabbing for said hat.  After I had secured them in a Velcro fastened pocket  and wrapped a scarf about my ears, the whistling of the wind bothered me much less! Recommendation #3: wear a scarf.

But oh, it was bracing to be at the top!

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio’s Riverwalk

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My friend W had lived in San Antonio for several years, so when I revealed to her that despite 10 years in Texas I had never visited that most historic of Texas cities, she immediately volunteered to be my guide in and around the area. 

The Contessa Hotel where we stayed is actually a suite hotel.  We chatted up Nadja, the reception clerk, and explained how I had come from CA to see San Antonio and my old friend was acting as my guide,  so she gave us a nice set of rooms on the 12th floor with a sitting area with a view looking down the river,  or up to the Tower Life Building, a wonderful copper-roofed brick construction lit at night. We each have a double bed, and there is plenty of counter space and plugs for charging all our techno gear. The location, right up against the riverbank with an exit to the Riverwalk, could not be better. 

One of San Antonio’s soubriquets is “The Venice of America”, a name it owes to the San Antonio river which meanders through the downtown area.  Once a dank, flood-prone channel threatened with being paved over, The Riverwalk has been redeveloped over decades with charming sidewalks decorated with tilework, art, and blooming plants, plus what seems like one endless Mexican restaurant stretching end to end along both banks. It is a perfect pedestrian stroll on a balmy spring night.  We joined with folks from all over enjoying the sound of falling water, the bustle of river boats navigating up and down, the flower-decked carriages, and the cheerful babble of many voices having sipped many margaritas.

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We took a side trip to explore the art colony of La Villita (just closing down an open air street market, to W’s relief – browsing little gew-gaw shops is NOT her favorite pastime.}  Again, the bridges and plazas overlooking the river, coupled with the tilework and adobe architecture, make a place for wandering, lingering, sitting, and savoring.

20170402_184306.jpgWe had noted only a couple of restaurants which were not Mexican, and since W has a favorite Mexican place she has scheduled for us tomorrow night, we settled on the Little Rhein Steak House, which she remembered as being Germanic.  Maybe once, but now the menu is quite focused on steak, with a few shrimp and salmon and chicken dishes for the nonTexan visitors. We each ordered a salad and split a grilled salmon entree.  It turned out to be the right choice. – each salad was beautifully presented and nicely dressed, the salmon was plenty for two, we each got one asparagus spear, I ate the potato filling and W ate the skin, and we both felt quite satisfied. So our first day in San Antonio ended with the view from our window of the Tower Life Building lighting our dreams.

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: It’s Fun to Stay/at the YMCA

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Coming down from Rocky Mountain National Park, having gotten our full dose of quaintness at Grand Lake,   we were expecting more of the same.  But once we hit the T intersection with Highway 40, the next outpost of civilization was Granby, perhaps the most unpicturesque town in Colorado.  It is as though the town fathers along US 40 had gotten together and agreed to put all the useful, practical, unromantic elements necessary for civilization in one town: we passed a medical clinic, a truck stop, a modern hardware store, a fire station, and a post office, all seemingly made of the same uncompromising beige 1950’s era cinder block.   One building, the Longbranch saloon, shows on the town website festooned with flags and/or flowers, but maybe this is only for photo shoots.  Poor Granby is the ugly old-maid sister who makes herself useful.

Happily, we could breeze right by Granby.  We had already selected our local home base, an unfussy family-type resort at the Snow Mountain Ranch (AKA YMCA Camp of the Rockies) just a little further down the road.  In winter this center offers fine cross country skiing as well as an indoor pool and a roller-skating rink;  in summer there are hiking trails with great veiws, a canoeing lake for beginners, an archery range, horseback riding,  a miniature golf course (pretty bare of grass, but it’s there), and other outdoorsy things, as well as a craft center for rainy days.

Best of all, this place is ridiculously affordable.  A 2-bedroom cabin that sleeps five is $249/day.  There are also rooms available in various lodge building which can accommodate up to six people in a single room at true bargain rates, or you can opt for a yurt.   If you wish, at a very reasonable cost you can opt for three square meals at the cafeteria.  Food is about the quality of Denny’s, except for watery scrambled eggs in the morning.

So we hung out at the Y for a week, hiking, biking, and scaring the local fauna. (More on this next post)

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: The Other Side of the Rockies – Grand Lake

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Most non-Coloradans probably think of Denver when they think of the Rockies – the wonderful postcard panorama of the city’s skyscrapers dwarfed by the huge mountain range rising abruptly out of the Great Plains. Some might think of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, another tourist magnet.  If they get as far as Rocky Mountain National Park, most only  make it as far as the hiking trails around Bear Lake before turning back to Boulder or Ft. Collins or Colorado Springs or other east side centers.  But there is a lot to appreciate on the western slope of the Continental Divide.

We planned to eat lunch at the Trail Ridge Store at the Alpine Vistors’ Center, but we were delayed by road work as we slugged up and over the summit of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.  By the time we arrived, but the parking lot at  visitor’s center was full to over-flowing, and the  presiding ranger politely but firmly turned us away.  We coasted down the other side of the summit hoping at best for a coffee shop in Granby when my ravenous sister spotted a sigh for the Grand Lake Lodge – “Lodging/ Cocktails”. Where there is a bar, she reasoned, there must be bar food.  And thus we happened on  a hidden treasure on the west side of the divide.

The lodge itself is worthy of comparison to the great lodges of the National Parks such as the Ahwahnee at Yosemite and Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone.  It is built of local timber, and features an expansive veranda billed as “Colorado’s Front Porch.”  The veranda looks out over the lodge pool and the Grand Lake – a spreading expanse of blue shining far below the deep veranda of the Lodge.

Inside is a huge gathering room, with quaint twig-and-slat rockers circled around a huge firepit.  Since the weather was excellent, we elected to eat on the porch with that great view, but we could imagine on a cold or wet day how comforting that fire would be.

On separate trips to Grand Lake, we also discovered the eponymous town, a hyper-quaint log village beside the lake.  It boasts a wonderful ice cream shop (very welcome after hiking the nearby trails) as well as an informative museum of local history and an excellent repertory theater which offers three or four musicals rotating over the course of the summer, with cast members recruited from university theatre companies all over the country.  This summer we were there for “West Side Story” and lucked into Cabaret night, when the audience is invited to join the cast members after the show for some bonus music, each cast member presenting their own favorite song.  The performance is free, and the wine/beer bar is open.20171022_154109web

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Campus and the Mall

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Chatauqua Hall

The Flat Iron Mountains loom over Boulder’s western side, and many of the hiking trails in and around these peaks begin or end at the equally picturesque Chatauqua Institute.  This is a wonderfully conceived set of Victorian-era buildings arranged around a grassy meadow with the intent of promoting adult education in a healthful and beautiful setting.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800’s, and continues to fulfill its mission with artists-in-residence, concerts, films, and as a bonus, delicious food available during the temperate months on a wide veranda overlooking the meadow, and in the cold season inside a cozy lounge with a huge stone fireplace. 20170817_181344web

The films and concerts take place in a huge beamed barnlike structure which has burned several times over the history of the Colorado Chatauqua , but has always been reconstsructed in the spirit of its predecessors – think of a giant barn with good acoustics and lighting.   On a recent summer evening I attended a showing of a couple of Buster Keaton silent films, with an expert live piano accompaniment providing authenticity.  The audience of about 500 only half-filled the vast space, but the gleeful giggles of the kids seeing Keaton’s acrobatic pratfalls for the first time filled the space beautifully.

 

For  a different kind experience, visit the Celestial Seasonings factory just north of Boulder.  Here you can sip samples of dozens of different teas, and take a tour of the factory where the teas are stored, processed, boxed, and prepared for shipment.  Be warned:  If you are sensitive to odors you may be in for sensory overload here;  on the other hand if you are suffering from nasal congestion a few moments in the special room where the mint tea is stored will clear you out amazingly.

If you are interested in  more modern types of architecture, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is just a bit further up the road from the Chatauqua Institue, in a fascinating building designed by I. M. Pei.  The group of rectangular forms juts out of a ledge of the Flat Irons as though created by some upheaval.  The exterior is made of red sandstone that blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, and the views from the exterior plaze and the restaurant inside are to die for.  I have not eaten at the restaurant, but with that view how could the meal be less than delightful?  The exhibits explaining how cyclones form, how ocean currents affect climate, and so on, are also interesting, though you will likely have to compete with a busload of elementary school field trippers to get close to them. 20170727_105455doc

 

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Treasure-Hunting in Boulder

20170726_112617docOnce you are in Boulder, you could simply enjoy the atmosphere of the bustling University of Colorado campus, or spend your time hiking and rock-climbing in the FlatIrons above town.  But if your interests are less academic and less strenuous, your explorations may lead you to a number of Hidden Treasures.

Easiest to find and most likely to absorb a full afternoon:  The Pearl Street Mall.  Boulder was among the first small towns to recognize that its brick-clad downtown was a potential magnet for walkers and shoppers.  Instead of succumbing to the lure of Federal redevelopment dollars, and trading in the red-brick buildings for stucco blocks and a parking garage as did many similar towns, the town fathers opted for blocking off several blocks of the old downtown area, labeling it a Historic District, and converting it into a park for browsers and strollers.

One of the don’t -miss shops is the Boulder Book Store, a multi-leveled maze of marvelous tomes both new and used,  that looks like it was conceived by the same interior decorator as put together Ollivander’s Wand Shop in the Harry Potter novels.  It is almost impossible to enter this store and leave again without finding at least one volume you have always wanted to read, have been trying to find forever, or for some other reason cannot leave without.

Another don’t’-miss is Peppercorn, a housewares shop which as far as I can tell really does have everything.  If you have always wanted corn-cob holders in the shape of cows, or have been looking for a mango splitter, this is the place.  Happily, the staff knows their stock and can lead you directly to the item you ask for;  otherwise, you might wander forever among the fascinating cooking tools and cutlery. Sticking with the Harry Potter metaphors, this shop is like the Room of Requirement, stuffed with everything anyone might have ever wished for.

But the Mall is more than just shopping.  Almost every block boasts a fountain, sculptures, benches for sitting, and performance spaces.  On the day I last visited I caught a performance by a group of youngsters performing on xylophone.  A sunny day, an ice cream cone in hand… who could ask for more?

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