Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mendocino County: The Good Life at a Slower Pace

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 25, 2014.

Vast and strikingly beautiful, a little quirky, and in ways still undiscovered, or at least untarnished, Mendocino County is one of the Bay Area’s great refuges to the north.

Some days, fog blankets the coast, its villages and waterways cool and quiet in eerie splendor. Inland the warmer and sunnier valleys and mountain ranges are home to hundreds of miles of forest, farmland and an increasingly raved-about wine region. Traffic is nearly nonexistent. You will even (gasp) pass through areas without cell phone service. And guess what? You may not miss it.

If you've made it this far, you've gotten away.

Nature and History Bloom Along the Monterey County Coast

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 25, 2014.

From the old adobes and winding streets of Monterey, to the pastoral beauty of Carmel Valley, and the mountains and dramatic seaside cliffs of Big Sur, coastal Monterey County has many worlds to offer.

One of the many fantastic views on Route 1.

A look at things from the water is always a fun way to get your bearings. Bounding across Monterey Bay and pouncing over ocean swells in a 33-foot, military-grade former Coast Guard inflatable speedboat, Fast Raft is a thrill ride that also comes with a message of learning about and safeguarding the ecosystem and its wildlife. Trips can vary with weather and interest, but the craft is fast and light enough to get down to stunning Point Lobos or up to Elkhorn Slough and back in under three hours, with plenty of sightseeing in between. It’s also maneuverable enough to maintain a safe distance from the whales, dolphins, otters, sea lions and several species of sea birds that are likely to cross your path as you navigate past rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, lighthouses and some of the most famous and exclusive golf courses in the world.
A cool, misty morning on the links.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lake Tahoe: Bask in Blue

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 25, 2014.

The streams of summer visitors to California’s great sapphire jewel in the Sierras might seem a little farther away when you’re dangling 40 feet above the forest floor, your brain a heady mix of pine-scented adrenaline.

Or you’re lazing in a kayak, adrift in the cooler, early morning air over the glassy water’s surface, shards of mountain framing the distant shoreline. Or maybe you’re perched on a volcanic outcropping a thousand feet above the lake with nothing but the wind in your ears. Experiences like these are why some are drawn to the shores of North Lake Tahoe.

A rare morning finds the lake silent.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Devil’s Slide: A Dramatically Shifting Shoreline Gets a Hiking Trail

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on April 13, 2014.

Pacifica’s newest hiking trail is a step back into history, both ancient and modern, showcasing striking views of the Pacific and the forces that shape its ongoing, often destructive encounter with the California coast.

Beneath the beauty, powerful geologic forces are at work.

The sometimes fog-shrouded and always breathtaking Devil’s Slide Trail – which opened to the public March 27 and was formerly a perilous section of state Highway 1 south of San Francisco – is generously called a trail. It is mostly a gently sloping, paved roadway with easy access for hikers of all skill levels, as well as for bicyclists and equestrians.

The northern part of the path wends through slanting layers of gray and brown sediment as old as 60 million years, forced upward from the ocean floor through the grinding of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The southern section consists of sturdier granite pushed northward from what is now Southern California. Between the tectonic forces pushing them together and the relentless surf, Devil’s Slide is fitfully collapsing into the sea. 

Millions-of-years-old layers of marine sediment thrust into the sky.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Nevada: A Road as Lonely as You Desire

You've put down hundreds of miles already, driving through open space, and an earthy rainbow of grassland, canyon and red-sand statuettes, and the drab, dusty towns of western Utah, when a flinty-faced miner on a sign ahead casually informs you that you're crossing the border.

Nevada's Route 50, aka "the Loneliest Road in America," welcomes you. Only 400 miles to go.
(Note: The kind folks at the Nevada Commission on Tourism inform us that the "loneliest" moniker was co-opted from a negative review by Life Magazine in 1986 of the 287 miles between Ely and Fernley. But who's counting?)

Both the sign -- little more than an orange-and-brown "Welcome to Nevada" -- and its accompanying motel/casino/petrol station barely register against the blustery backdrop of this state's immense high desert, where sunlight saturates the air and earth. Snow-capped mountains are strewn across the horizon and the road points straight, disappearing into their foothills.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Bali: Still Paradise?

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Feb. 2, 2014.

An unseasonable patter of rain cools the baking sand. Past the beached husks of ruined boats, outside a withered hut, a woman attends to a centuries-old task: extracting salt crystals from the sea. She welcomes a curious visitor with a smile and keeps at her work. Though this spot is known to outsiders, there is no pretense. It is more like stepping into another time and another world.

Once a pristine refuge, the Indonesian island of Bali was discovered by Western tourists decades ago. It’s a challenge for travelers more interested in experiencing some semblance of a place as it truly is (or was) than escaping into a tropical fantasy of cocktails and comfort at a seaside resort. We should consider ourselves fortunate when we can have a little of both.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Tastes of Taiwan: Aboriginal to High Art

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Jan. 7, 2014.

To embark on a whirlwind culinary tour of Taiwan is simply to scratch the surface, revealing flavors underneath both ancient and subtle, bold and refined.

For an island known worldwide for its vibrant tech sector, urban sprawl and the occasional legislative brawl, one need only head southeast a short distance from the capitol Taipei to enter a more placid stretch of coastal towns, factories, rice paddies and beaches.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Mississippi: Blues in the Hill Country

Visions of the Alaskan frontier are loitering in the back of my mind. It's a searingly hot July afternoon and I'm at a ranch in northern Mississippi, sweating through my shirt on a quest to unearth for myself one of America's great musical traditions at the roots.

The particular strain of the blues that was born and bred in the hills southeast of Memphis (and overshadowed in popular culture by the legends of the Mississippi Delta) has a unique sound: evocative, percussive, trance-like. A year ago, I had no idea it existed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Austin, Texas: Fevered Dreams in the Brisket Waiting Line

I'll fess up, I only went to Texas for the barbecue. It was February -- as good a time as any for a spontaneous road trip -- and I'd recently come to the stunning realization that I hadn't yet tasted that most fabled of authentically American meat preparations. So, in order to purge this shameful omission from my record, a bold plan to taste the dark, smoky heart of the Lone Star State was hatched.

But before I regale you with tales of ultra-slow-cooked, oozing-with-its-own-juices, melt-in-your-mouth, deceased animal carcass glory (Spoiler: Actually, I won't spend much time on that. It's been cooked to death already.) I feel I must at least detail some of the journey.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Detroit Is Not All Ruin

Detroit's been in the news a lot lately, and for justifiably negative reasons. I would, however, caution my friends in the media, as well as their viewers, that this city is much more than a former industrial powerhouse now teetering on the brink of ruin.