Monday, June 29, 2009

Quintessential Berries: Pick 'Em Yourself

Have you tasted a real raspberry lately? I mean, a berry whose ruby color isn't fake or artificially enhanced, and whose sweet juices coat your tongue like jammy syrup, completely unlike that anemic, cardboard-tasting fruit from your typical chain grocery store?

All-natural berryliciousness might be closer to home than you think. is an online directory of organic fruit orchards and vegetable gardens across the U.S. It can help you find an organic farm in your own backyard that you didn't even know existed. The website also has information on harvest seasons and u-pick tips for beginners. Did you know that you only need about 15 minutes to pick a quart of fresh strawberries in peak season? So, now you've got no excuse not to try it.

Our local farm, the Avila Valley Barn, always has an incredible spread of fresh berries and veggies in its store, and lets you pick your own in season. If you're passing through San Luis Obispo County, CA, it's an easy stop just off U.S. Hwy. 101 at the main exit for Avila Beach. Once you're good and dirty (and sticky!) from picking berries all afternoon, head just up the road to Sycamore Mineral Springs. Reservations for private hot tubs ($12.50-$15 per person/hour) are highly recommended (call 805-595-7302); they're open till midnight daily (last reservation 10:45 p.m.).

Don't forget to take along your u-pick harvest when you climb the stone stairs to your hillside hot tub, so you can nibble berries while soaking away sore muscles and stargazing up through the trees. Now, that's a sweet ending.

Photo: Avila Valley Barn (Michael Connolly Jr.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Action Alert: Support Funding for California State Parks

As the California State Parks Foundation has reported:

"On Monday, June 15th, the Budget Conference Committee voted to eliminate $70 million in General Fund support for the state park system for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. As an additional action, the committee also voted to adopt the State Park Access Pass and develop a dedicated funding source to keep California's state parks open. The State Park Access Pass would institute a $15 surcharge on vehicle license fees of non-commercial vehicles, in order to provide Californians with free day-use access to state parks, and generate much-needed revenues for the state park system."

The legislature has yet to approve the State Park Access Pass program. Aren't the more than 270 state parks in California, protecting over 1.4 million acres of land for outdoor recreation, endangered species habitat and more, easily worth 15 bucks a year?

Take a minute today to tell Governor Schwarzenegger and politicians in Sacramento that you support the new California State Parks funding initiative: Thank you!

Photo: Elephant seals near Hearst San Simeon State Park (Michael Connolly Jr.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sonoma: Tip-a-Canoe (and a Travel Writer, Too)

It's summer, and even northern California is heating up. Time to bare those untanned limbs, slather on the SPF-gazillion sunscreen and cool off in lakes, reservoirs, swimming holes -- whatever you've got nearby.

When you're paddling a canoe in the bucolic Russian River in California's Sonoma County wine country, you've really only got two choices: go upstream one way, then float back; or go downstream with the current and have someone shuttle you. Here are the pros and cons.

If you rent from Johnson's Beach in Guerneville, it'll only cost you $25/day. But you'll be stuck paddling in the most crowded part of the river, and what goes up must come down -- you're seeing the same scenery twice. If you go with Burke's Canoe Trips ($59/day), you're just as much on your own, but you've got 10 glorious miles of river to paddle before you arrive at the shuttle stop, just upstream from Johnson's Beach. Oh, and the shuttle? A dusty, retrofitted school bus crankin' reggae tunes.

I can tell you this for sure: pick a partner who knows how to step into and out of the canoe without capsizing it. Now that the flood-control dams are open, the river is running deeper and swifter than you might expect. Last week, my dunking only put me in a foot of water. Embarrassing, but at least we didn't lose our paddles.

Afterward, as you wind back to US Hwy. 101 on CA Hwy. 116 from Guerneville, past the minigolf course and Ace Cider Pub (live music nightly), don't pass up Screamin' Mimi's ice cream parlor in Sebastopol. A scoop of cold apple sorbet or lavender cream just might make you forget all about those lobster-red sunburned knees.

P.S. If you wait until September 12-13, you can hit Guerneville's Russian River Jazz & Blues Festival, too.

Photo: Russian River (Sara Benson)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Las Vegas: Mad Dash to the Rodeo

These days the travel deals and discounts in Las Vegas are amazing. Seriously, hotel rates are the lowest I've seen in years. But summer -- when temperatures in the concrete jungle of the Strip skyrocket above 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- may not be the optimal time to visit Las Vegas (unless you're just looking for the sexy pool scene, baby).

So, start planning your winter getaway to the desert now. From December 3 to 12, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) rides into town, with bucking broncos, calf roping and more. Tickets (from $45) sell out fast, but as of today there were some available directly from UNLV Tickets. Even for sold-out shows, you can still purchase a "Mad Dash" ticket, which lets you sit in unclaimed seats after the performance starts. If you can't find a seat within 30 minutes, you're entitled to watch the action from the concourse -- or get a refund.

NFR week is always a riot in Las Vegas. Play Texas Hold 'em poker with Stetson-hatted ranchers downtown on Fremont Street at Binion's, then knock off your holiday shopping list at the huge Cowboy Christmas Gift Show.

Casino hotel rates for rodeo week have not been jacked up yet, so it's a good time to make a reservation (refundable, in case you find something better later).
  • The Trump International Hotel, just off the Strip across from the Fashion Show mall, will rent you a studio apartment suite for $89/night, plus taxes and a $15/night resort fee. Sign up for their promotional emails, and you might get an e-coupon for an additional 25% off.
  • The Kampgrounds of America (KOA) park, behind Circus Circus casino hotel, rents brand-new, vintage-style Airstream trailers with cool modern amenities like satellite radio and TV, plus outdoor BBQ grills. Rates are currently running at $159.95/night, plus tax. That's no bargain! But earlier in 2009 we stayed here for just $50/night. So keep checking the KOA website for "Hot Deals."
If you want to stay where the rodeo folks do (after all, who knows who you'll meet downstairs in the bar), click here. The steer wrestlers will be at Hooters -- 'nuff said.