Winter thou goest – Part II
By now, you’ve rested and eaten and are ready to get out and start exploring. Well, you’ve come to the very best place to do that on the West Coast (maybe the world, LOL?).
The challenge in California has always been, not what to do, but what not to do. This is especially true of the northern half of the state, because it is gifted with every feature that attracts visitors and home buyers, both. It boasts mountains with world class skiing and snowboarding in winter, lakes for boating, shorelines with miles of glittering clean water and pale, windswept sands, forests with some of the worlds oldest and most magnificent trees and farmland enriched by year round growing seasons and good soil. The fruit and vegetable capital of the world is in Central and Northern California. In turn, this bounty supplies farmer’s markets and dining establishments like no other place I have ever been, save the Amazon basin.
So, my task here is to tell you how to plan your visit to take advantage of these treasures without running yourselves ragged, trying to do it all. If you have a few days, a week, two weeks, a month or a season, you will be able to see more and more of what NoCal has to offer. Since I started you in Oakland, because it is a microcosm of the best of California in one small area, I suggest you envision your visit in radiating concentric circles out from that starting point. If you choose instead to jump to another area for a day, the wonderful thing is, there are many to choose from. You could go to the fairy tale coastal town of Carmel, and then visit Half Moon Bay in one direction and the stunning Monterey Peninsula in another. If you want to drive up to Lake Tahoe, you can visit the seafood lover’s dream, quaint Sausalito and Marin County and its affluent neighborhoods on the way there or back. You can drive to the Redwoods and see the perfectly preserved early Victorian town of Eureka while you are there. And Oregon and its miles of forests and streams will be in proximity.
But, if you choose to stay within a day’s driving distance of Oakland, or just to walk around the neighboring villages, as they are referred to, to Oakland itself, you will still have a varied, exciting, relaxing and memorable experience. You don’t need to go far — you are truly in a visitor’s wonderland right there in the East Bay.
Let me also recommend several ways to get here. I would skip flying into San Francisco’s airport, SFO. It is a hassle in many ways, including getting a rental car, which takes an inordinate amount of precious time. Choose Oakland Airport instead. It is clean, modern and less known, hence fewer complications, both when arriving and leaving and renting a car. If you didn’t even want to rent a vehicle, you can take BART, the rapid transit system from Oakland Airport right into the heart of town. The entire metropolitan area of San Francisco and the East Bay are served by clean and efficient trains.
If you are driving up from Southern California, you have two choices: the scenic route along the Pacific or the more efficient Interstate 5 through the desert. In winter, the 5 is a breeze. You can make the trip door to door in 6 hours from Downtown Los Angeles, for example.
Hugging the coast via El Camino Réal, the 101/1, will take about 9 hours but you could stop over in beautiful Big Sur.
If you do, stay at the Ventana Inn and enjoy a hot tub soak under the stars, overlooking the sea. It is magical and they not only have beautiful rooms, but exquisite food as well. In fact, it is perfect for honeymooners.
While you are there, why not check out Esalen Institute and take a class? That route takes you through picture perfect Carmel, too. You can also take the Amtrak Metroliner Coast Starlight along this same route. Beautiful, quiet, and relaxing. Leave in the evening to arrive next morning in San Francisco and then take BART to Oakland.
One thing I love about Oakland, is its close proximity via a long shoreline to downtown San Francisco. If you can, take the Ferry at Jack London Square to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market on the other side. The views along the way are stunning and when you land, you will be in one of the premiere gourmet food spots on earth. The SFFM is a permanent installation with restaurants, snack bars, fresh produce and gourmet specialty food stalls and right near transportation into Downtown SF. One thing to do is find a honey or jam stand featuring locally produced condiments, in the nearby fruit basket of eastern and central California. You can do the Market in a morning and return to Oakland for something else in the afternoon. Or stay and visit Ghiradelli Square and the Embarcadero district of San Francisco, have dinner there and watch the sunset, then take the last ferry back to Oakland at night. Check the schedules.
Before we get too much farther along and stray into San Francisco (especially since it is easy to find information as to what the main attractions of the city are in so many other places and we have limited space here), I want to be sure I give you places to visit in Oakland proper and its environs. Oakland is the third largest city in California but is small enough to boast a variety of unique neighborhoods. The areas listed below are known by name as villages, each with a different character and filled with shops, restaurants, landmarks, period residences, and
walking routes of interest: * Piedmont Avenue * Temescal * Rockridge * Grand Avenue and Lakeside Drive * Jack London Square and the Oakland Waterfront * Downtown Oakland. While you are at it, why not take a swim in Lake Temescal? Or stroll around Lake Merritt and view its bird sanctuary?
For transportation getting around town without taking a car, check into the BART system and the AC Transit system. And, of course, there is always Uber. So whether walking, bussing, training, driving, or Ubering, this concentrated yet expansive area is totally accessible, almost around the clock.
Another area immediately adjacent to Oakland and well worth visiting is Berkeley. The University of California Berkeley’s 1200 acre campus itself is studded with rolling hills, gardens, forests and park-like lawns. The original layout and architecture are the work of renowned academic architect Frederick Law Olmstead who designed other elegant campuses in the 1880s. There are paths on which to stroll, the beautiful library that is open to sit and read awhile and soak up the classic atmosphere and all kinds of great places to pick up bargains and have coffee that ring the campus.
Once you are in the Berkeley campus area, you are in walking distance to special spots, for shopping and just absorbing the famous Berkeley environment. There are cafes and clubs for music at night and independent bookstores. Throughout the East Bay, mom and pop establishments take precedence and you are harder put to find a universally frowned upon chain store.
Right nearby are more villages and venues for being entertained. You may want to check out each, for its particular features: Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive * U.C. Museum of Paleontology * U.C. Botanical Garden * Tilden Park * Lawrence Hall of Science * Takara Sake * Pyramid Alehouse (I think the one in Berkeley is closed, so try the one in nearby Walnut Creek) *Scharffenberger Chocolate (the Scharffenbergers are friends of and were business associates of my late father-in-law) * Berkeley Bowl *Gourmet Ghetto * Fourth Street * Solano Avenue * Westbrae and Northbrae * San Pablo* Telegraph Avenue. Go to the links and scroll all the way down each page for an annotated list of restaurants to shopping to sightseeing points of interest. When you are on Telegraph — the main drag in Berkeley — check out Kathmandu Imports for the most gorgeous colored hand woven garments and articles made from Tibetan and Nepalese fabrics. I typically buy scarves for gifts there and people drool over them. Don’t go by the website, which is strangely unappealing and limited. Just go there and you will see what I mean.
Let me say a few special words about the Gourmet Ghetto. I gave you the link so you could see the best aspects of it yourself. But there are two places you simply must not miss: The Cheese Board and Chez Panisse.
The latter, first. Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse, was the original instigator of the gourmet revolution of the 1960s that started right here, just a few steps from the Berkeley Campus. Alice later went on to advocate what is commonly called now “slow food” which is opposed to the fast food junkaholism that has dominated the post WWII eating economy. Waters grew the fresh foods in her Berkeley area garden and cooked them in her restaurants, the recipes for many of which appeared in her cookbooks. I have been to Chez Panisse several times. There is typically a long wait to get an advanced reservation and can be a harried experience once you arrive and have to wait anyway. The food is good, maybe even great. For the price, the wait, and the hype, I will let you decide if you should do it, just once or skip it. But, it is truly a one of a kind event. The menu changes every single day, depending on what is fresh and local that morning. The quality of the place has remained stable over decades. If nothing else, take a selfie in front of it!
The Cheese Board has similar issues. First of all, there is a long line to even get in the door, and then a long wait to choose from a stupefying array of the most exotic and exquisite cheeses and breads you have ever had. I would do it, if I were you. It is well worth it. Pick up their bread making book while you are at it. Try the cheese breads among others. Sigh, just talking about this makes me want to jump in the car and head north right this minute.
Two other places you really should go while in that Berkeley campus area are Masse’s pastries – OMG, I won’t tell you why. Just go and you will know. And, of course, the first, the original and best Peet’s Coffee. The finest coffee sold in this country started right here in Berkeley.
One more recommendation for the ladies here is one of my favorite clothing stores, ever, Earthly Goods in Berkeley on Vine Street. Wonderful, classic but up to date clothes for virtually any body type, shoes and accessories, a bit costly but with great sales. Check it out.
Once you feel you have exhausted all of Oakland’s riches, you know you are right in the center of an area so loaded with attractions that I would have to devote another series of posts to cover them all (which I might do in the future). But, here is a short list of some of them — among them ones I mentioned at the top of this post and in Part I, starting with the Monterey Aquarium, a must-see if you are traveling with children. Redwood Empire * Sierra Mountains * Sonoma County * Lake Tahoe * Carmel * Big Sur * Marin County *Monterey * Sausalito * Muir Woods * Yosemite * Napa Valley * Mount Tamalpais * Palo Alto and Stanford University.
Images: Oakland and its environs in the Public domain from travel sites, Chambers of Commerce and the establishments themselves