Thursday, October 27, 2011

Peter Piper picked a pumpkin patch past the perpetually packed previous patches

Ah, pumpkin season! That time of year when driving to Half Moon Bay involves lengthy waits while cars slowly pull in and out of three of the most popular pumpkin patches in the Bay Area - Lemos Farm, 4-Cs, and Pastorino - all of which converge on the same spot along Highway 92, slowing traffic to a crawl at best, a stand-still at worst.

In short, pumpkin patch hell.

Now lean in, and I'll tell you a secret:

There's a pumpkin patch that has half the crowds and twice the parking of those other, better known patches. It also offers much more to do, including a 2-acre hay maze, haunted barn, train rides, petting zoo, pony rides, and picnic areas.  And you can reach it avoiding 92 altogether, taking an alternate scenic route through the redwood-dense back roads of Kings Mountain. Interested?

It's Arata Pumpkin Farm. The kids and I went today, finally exploring the pumpkin bliss that has been beckoning behind a huge guerilla (as seen from Highway 1) for years. We were not disappointed.

First, I should say that the the maze is serious. Like, get lost in for hours serious. I wouldn't want to go in there with a child younger than five, or with anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. We were fortunate. Just when I was beginning to despair (the kids were trusting that Mom knew what she was doing all along), I asked for help from three young boys who seemed to know what they were doing. They led us through, and through, and through, and through, and finally we emerged from the exit victorious.

"We try to make it fun," the one boy who seemed most at home there said. I'm guessing his family runs the place, but I'll never know for sure. Another family we had run into repeatedly in the maze later confessed they never made it out the exit. Not sure if they found their way back to the entry, or used one of the emergency exits. They had fun trying, though.

By contrast, the Haunted Barn, while fun, was not adult rated. Seven-year-old Esme cruised right through, undaunted by the spooky scenes set up in the dark. Emil got spooked, but he's easily spooked. The train ride was totally P rated (for preschool), being small, and running on a tiny track. That is one area where I felt a little nostalgic for Lemos Farm, and it's spooky train ride. But really, all the other things that Arata offers made up for that. The pony ride rocked, the petting zoo was fun enough, and we picked out some pumpkins to take home and carve (it is a pumpkin patch, after all!), but I will say this: in the end, it was all about the maze.

Arata Pumpkin Farm is located at 185 Verde Road in Half Moon Bay, and will be open this Friday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (can you say night labyrinth?), and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can pay for activities a la carte, or do what we did and buy a pass that allows you to do everything ($20 for kids, $15 for adults, although they didn't charge me, since I had to accompany the children on everything anyway).

How to get there via back roads:

From the Peninsula, just follow Kings Mountain Road off of Highway 84 in Woodside. It winds up to Skyline, where it turns into Tunitas Creek Road, and winds on downs the mountain. Turn right at the Tunitas Creek cut off near the bottom of the hill, and it will take you right where you want to be on Verde Road. It's not a super fast drive, but I can almost promise there will be no traffic, and the drive is draw-dropping beautiful.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Digging East Bay Treasure, Annie's Annuals

Today I'm taking you Bay Area travelers over to the East Bay to dig for treasure. You may not find any precious metals on this excursion, but you can find some botanical gold.

Any serious gardener knows that planting season is not in the spring, when everything is all crazy and inspirational in full bloom. Oh no. To get that kind of spring splendor, you have to think ahead. In the Bay Area, fall is the time to plant. Just before the rains. Mother nature does all your watering, and the result is splendiferous.

In the six years that we've been dug into our hillside home, surrounded with redwoods but blessed with a nice little clearing that gets a fair bit of sun, we have planted a butterfly garden dominated by - but not exclusive to - native plants, as well as a vegetable garden, a privacy hedge, and various other little shady and sunny spots. Making my tours of all the local nurseries, I noticed that some of the most wild, funky, surprising, alluring plants (I know, a lot of adjectives, but trust me, these plants deserve them!) all seem to come from the same place. The name "Annie's Annuals" popped up over and over again.

Calceolaria integrifolia ‘Kentish Hero’
Then, while visiting the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show this spring, I discovered the Annie's Annuals booth. I swooned. Needless to say, I was soon planning my own pilgrimage to this Bay Area botanical institution.

One of the nice things about this nursery is that most of the plants come in 4" pots, which means they are young and and very reasonably priced. One of my favorite finds there is Calceolaria integrifolia ‘Kentish Hero’, also known as pocket book flowers. It  immediately became a centerpiece of my flower garden, with its prolific orange blossoms. 

I also found the long-sought silver bush lupine, a persnickety but gorgeous native wildflower, at Annie's after searching high and low everywhere else for a couple of years. Unfortunately, it didn't survive, but I will try it again. I knew before buying it that it was very tough to transplant, which may be why not many nurseries carry it.

Even if you don't have your own garden, a visit to Annie's can be a pleasure. There are so many incredible plants to ogle, you could consider it a varied and fascinating botanical garden, as well as a place with its own particular character. The actual nursery hides in a questionable Richmond neighborhood behind a barbed wire fence. But once inside, it's like you've entered another world. This may not be a firm rule, but I swear I didn't see a man working there. The place exudes this kind of girl power pride, and the flowers there seem flirtatious, inviting you to look at them, eager to show off their own personalities.

Some of the things that make Annie's plants stand out? Most are grown from seed, without greenhouses, so they are naturally hardened off. The particular micro climate there allows them to grow a wide variety of plants, from cool climate fans to sun lovers. They are also grown without growth regulating hormones, so they are more green (in the environmentally friendly sense). 

Why go now?  Annie's is currently having its fall sale, and everything is 20% off.

Annie's Annuals is a little difficult to find, but if you follow the directions on their website, you shouldn't have any problems. (You can also buy plants online, but then you don't get to see their wonderful nursery.) 

Happy planting!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Living the NightLife

Picture this: girls in flapper dresses sip their cocktails while fish swim overhead. Looking up through the  aquarium, you can see a rain forest towering even further overhead, and young men sporting jaunty hats and dashing jackets wind their way up through the rainforest swarming with butterflies. They look down and laugh, seeing the people (us) who seem to be swimming underwater at the floor of the rainforest.

That was one of the surreal moments I experienced at the California Academy of Sciences last night. It was Thursday night, when the museum puts on an adult-only party that brings out the inner child. Last night's theme was Prohibition Era, and many people came dressed in costume to enjoy the cocktails, music, and displays. Ken Burns' new documentary on Prohibition was screened, as well, accompanied by a wine tasting. 

I've been to NightLife about three times since the museum re-opened it's doors in September of 2008, and it's an awesome way to experience the $500 million new building, with it's extensive aquarium, 4-story rainforest, state-of-the-art planetarium, and beautiful living roof. When the museum first opened, NightLife was off the hook like a crazy club scene, with long lines and packed dance floors. It's mellowed a bit since then, but still draws a decent crowd.

Last night, as I stood on the roof with an architect friend visiting from Beijing, we looked at the de Young museum, an SF icon in its own right which was darkly glowing in the fog, from the roof of the Cal Academy, and agreed that the fog made the experience even better. Then we took our cocktails and headed downstairs for more NightLife.

Interested in checking it out? NightLife runs from 6pm to 10pm every Thursday night. Tickets cost $12 per adult, $10 for members. You have to be 21 or up to go, and they do card. For more info, go the Cal Academy NightLife page.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Blushing for Blush

The 80's are back. Legwarmers are appearing in stores again, along with tight jeans and shirts with only one shoulder strap. And let us not forget the frozen yogurt.

Back in the day it was TCBY, but now it's more of a tiny mom and pop chain kind of thing, with serve yourself stands and toppings bars. With two kids to entertain, I've tried a lot of yogurt stores over the past year. But we recently checked out one that opened in downtown Burlingame that we really liked.

Blush is a small franchise, with five locations around the Bay Area: San Francisco (near AT&T Park), Dublin, Milpitas, Walnut Creek, and Burlingame. It is a little different than most of the other fro-yo shops that have popped up like mushrooms recently.

First of all, it's not a serve yourself place. Unfortunately, that means I can't get the teeny-tiny amount I usually do at other stores. But it makes up for that in a number of ways. Most importantly, it's a better quality yogurt, made from all-natural, organic Strauss dairy products. It's sweetened naturally with fruit juice. The other thing that I really like about Blush is that the space is more comfortable, with lots of seating. Okay, I admit I could do without the huge TV screens they have. But I do like the little patio out back of the Burlingame location.

So poof out your hair, squeeze into those skinny jeans, and head on over to Blush for a 2011 take on frozen yogurt. 

Here are the details for the Burlingame location:
1212 Donnelly Ave.
Burlingame, CA
(650) 558-8889
Sunday through Thursday, 11am-10pm
Friday and Saturday, 11am-11pm

Details for their other locations can be found here.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Raving about Rave

We had dropped Esme off for her first day of school, and Emil was disconsolate. Life is so lonely without your big sister around. So when he said he really wanted a burger for lunch, I wasn't going to deny him. This is how we ended up at Rave Burger in San Mateo.

Rave has a comfortable, hip vibe to it. There are funny cartoons about meat decorating the walls, and I have to admit I was entertained by them. But really, if the burgers aren't good, then what's the point of fun cartoons? 

Don't worry, the burgers are good!  They are made with Niman Ranch beef, after all.

Emil ordered the slider off the kids' menu ($5) that came with fries and sliced apples. I had the Greek Burger with a vegetarian patty (I'm not really a vegetarian, but I don't eat meat all the time), which was loaded with tomatoes, feta, tatziki sauce, and olive spread ($9.50). I opted for the salad over the fries. It was yummy, and I kind of enjoyed the irony of eating my veggies surrounded by all those carnivorous cartoons.

So next time someone near me needs a burger fix, I know just the place to go.


The details:
144 E. 3rd Avenue
San Mateo, CA 94401
(650) 342-6689

Sun-Thu: 11:00AM - 9:00PM
Fri-Sat: 11:00AM - 10:00PM 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Seal Point Park Equation: views + art + education = Bay Area bliss!

This morning, we took advantage of this gorgeous weather and packed up the car - kids, bikes, and dog included - to hit one of our favorite Bay Area parks: Seal Point.

If you haven't been to Seal Point, here's the skinny: Located right on the San Francisco Bay in San Mateo, it's part of the Shoreline Park duo (combined with Ryder Park next door, which offers a fun, German-style playground and great water feature). Seal Point has paved trails and dirt trails that go up a hill to provide even more striking views, as well as a decent enclosed dog run.

The kids love to cruise along the wide, flat bike trails. There are signs spread out through the park with information on Bay Area ecology, and the kids enjoy stopping at each sign no matter how many times we've been there. Today we read about Harbor Seals, migratory birds, and the life that thrives in the mudflats. We also took full advantage of the binocular-style view finders, seeking out distant landmarks or boats floating in the water.

There are kinetic sculptures placed along the dirt trails that climb the hill. Such fun! They beckon from a distance, shimmering, whirling metal, sometimes appearing like fabric blowing in the wind. When you get up close, you realize that many of them have auditory elements, as well, ringing bells and singing with the movement of metal.

A snowy egret hopped along with us for a while today. I stopped to watch a plane coming into SFO, and was able to tap into that feeling of arriving in a new place, seeing the view as the people in the plane are seeing it. A placard showed me the Bay Area landmarks visible from the park, further evoking this birds eye perspective.

To get to Seal Point, take Highway 101 to the 3rd Street exit in San Mateo. Follow 3rd Street east. You'll pass Ryder Park first, and then turn left into the parking lot for Seal Point.

May the egret be with you.

Sign explaining the view from Seal Point

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tapping into Bay Area Resources: The Foundation for Shamanic Studies

Living in the Bay Area provides so much opportunity. There's nature: redwoods, ocean, rolling hills. And there's arts: symphony, jazz, rock and roll, theater. But there's also the high concentration of incredible people doing interesting things. And that results in opportunities to expand your horizons by taking workshops and attending lectures.

I spent this past weekend in one such workshop. Along with about 80 other people, I chanted, drummed, and rattled, while I explored how creativity can be spurred by shamanism. Yes, I said shamanism. You're probably picturing a medicine man from some ancient tribe, and you're not off the mark. If you pictured Val Kilmer acting like Jim Morrison in the Doors movie, well....

The class I took was taught by Sandra Harner, wife to Michael Harner. Michael is known as the father of modern shamanism. He has studied shamanism in various cultures around the world, and he has made some intriguing findings. First of all, people who are considered wise people, medicine men, or shamans in various tribal cultures all around the world all have very similar practices. They use ritual drumming or drugs to induce a trance, and then make spiritual journeys. (Don't get too excited - the Foundation's workshops all use drumming, not drugs.)

Michael and Sandra believe that the shaman has very real and important work to do on Earth. Shamans are compassionate healers who work with spirits, and they have a very strict code of ethics. In order to revive shamanism in modern culture, Michael created the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, an organization that aims at introducing shamanism to the Western world, and preserving tribal practices where they are threatened.

If you're interested, I suggest reading Michael's seminal book: The Way of the Shaman. If you're still interested, then check out the Basic Workshop.  The beauty of shamanism is that all knowledge is based on first-hand experience. In the Foundation's workshops, you get to experience spiritual travel for yourself.  So get out there and find your inner shaman.