Monday, April 28, 2008

Anderson Valley

First time in Anderson Valley, glorious time. Despite the many "Closed" signs hanging at restaurants doors suggesting April's last weekend is "off season", we enjoyed sunny days in the 70s, a light breeze at the river, chilly nights and no bugs at all.

While camping in one of the four rustic cabins of Hendy Woods State Park, we spent an afternoon wading in the waters of the Navarro River, visited The Philo Apple Farm (a local culinary mecca with a splendid orchard), tasted some wines at Husch and Standish and hiked to two hermit huts in the redwoods and then to Big Hendy Woods, the biggest redwoods grove in Anderson Valley.
What a treat!

For this weekend escape, we were joined by our friends Cath and Danny and their two boys Alex and Evan. Early risers they are these British boys! At daybreak they were probably jumping around the tent while our dreaming lot were stil snoozing in the cabin. However the noise of a bicycle outside drew my oldest one out of her slumber and off she went on her bicycle too.

As we let the childen go wild on their bicycles, Cath and I dutifully packed a picnic lunch. The advantage of visiting off season is that the campground was literally empty (only 25% full) and one of the two loops was closed right next to where we were (Ringtail cabin). This gave the children plenty of space to run around without having to worry about cars. However, Danny found out that off season can also mean "no hot water in showers" and came back shivering from his beauty trip. [The problem was fixed later in the day]

When everybody was up, we took off on foot on Eagle Trail to get to the Day Use area where the Navarro river can easily be accessed. On the way, we crossed a beautiful meadow in bloom surrounded by redwoods.

Just for that, it was worth leaving the car behind. I quickly lined up the kids in the grasses for a picture to capture this rhapsody in green. Alex was holding his walking stick, Iris was picking flowers (a dangerous activity in state parks) and Louise was blinking because of the sun.

The river was quietly gurgling a few hundred feet away. Cool and crystal clear, it revealed mossy pebbles and shallow edges. We set up "camp" by the riverside and once in swimming suit, the children attended their sand play business without paying much attention to us except for basic needs. Cath took a nap, Danny built a moat around an existing sand castle but Iris and Alex crushed it flat so Danny built another castle surrounded by yet another moat. Cedric helped with fortifications, I with sticks, Louise with "trees". The trick was done.

Except for a few ducks and geese, we didn't get much visit at all which I found very surprising given our proximity to the parking lot. Summer months must be very crowded and warm but I don't know if the river will be there in August. It was really not very deep (three feet max?).

Around 2pm, Cath and Danny decided to stay while we left to visit the area. The Philo Apple Farm was our first stop and a lovely one at that. Hundreds of daisies peppered on the green grass between blooming apple trees, a ladder left standing in the field, baby goats born last week in the goat pen behind the beehives, it was great and very refreshing. The honor payment system of the apple juice stand and its many jams and chutneys testifies of the kind of life lead here. It's quaint and rural and the glitzy Napa Valley crowds are far away. While they would enjoy the cooking classes, they'd require a four-star spa under the stars with essential oils treatments and organic lavender pillows.

The Philo Apple Farm has a lot more to offer. The manicured gardens, the garlands of white lights between the trees, the gipsy cart on wheels in the orchard all make for a very serene atmosphere that makes you want to breathe as hard as you can. Of course, I haven't discovered The Philo Apple Farm. Just check out the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset Magazine or VIA Magazine to see where my inspiration came from.

Next step, the wines. We knew Anderson Valley had a solid reputation for wine so we headed to the Standish winery. I was intrigued by the fact that the tasting room was set up in a former apple dryer. As soon as we stepped in, a woman smiled at us and offered crayons and coloring books to our girls. What a clever idea! They sat at a big wooden table and we sipped our wines without chasing them. I mentioned the Napa crowd earlier because I read that's what the Anderson Valley inhabitants are afraid of.

However, the owner of the Standish winery was moaning about how much better the valley visitation would be with proper marketing and how the Boonville Hotel didn't do as well now that they stopped Monday and Tuesday nights for the locals (but it's lovely inside, we should go and check it out). Indeed, we were the two only ones in the tasting room. Could it be the $22 rose, $36 oaky whites and $40 reds? I found prices steep but that's happened to me before in unexpected places like Amador County so I should know better. Anyway, four tasting wines later we left with six bottles and continued our way to another winery called Husch.

There, our girls found another activity in the garden as they helped the gardener (a former nanny and mom) water mulch and flowers. The experience was entirely anti-Napa: we tasted 12 wines for free. Some of them were really nice and the prices much more reasonable than Standish (on average $15) so we even became members of their wine club!

Back to the campground, we unwinded a little bit before going out for dinner. Our goal: the Andeson Valley Brewery restaurant. OK, we should have checked before it was open. Remember, off season? An hour later, we came back to the campground for a last-minute barbecue.

The second day saw us take advantage of the state park's trails. We equipped the children with walking sticks, packed bottles of water, a fake fishing rod and off we went. Our first stops were for the Hermit Huts of the weird Russian guy who lived 18 years in the wilderness of the woods. Quite fascinating to see how precariously he lived: a hollowed-out burnt log for a roof, a few fallen branches for walls and the bone chilling night temperatures of the redwoods at night. It's a miracle he survived all that long in the forest.

From the Hermit Huts, we continued along Hermit Hut Trail all the way to All Access Trail where we ended up deep in the redwoods.

Such majesty is hard to fathom while writing this here at my desk. It was peaceful as if the pine needles covered trails were absorbing sounds around. A little bit further we got to the meadow of the Day Use area and crossed it to get to the upper loop of Big Hendy Grove. We saw the most beautiful oak tree in the meadow.

By then, the children were tired and one by one started breaking down. Fortunately the underbrush was covered in clovers and I explained to my four-year-old that if she found a four-leaf clover, she could make any wish she wanted. She joined her hands, closed her eyes and whispered "I wish with all my heart that the fairy godmother will help me fly." There, that's for me telling lies...

As luck would have it, four-leaf clovers are nearly impossible to find and I breathed a sigh of relief when we got back to the campground. Phew, no need to go fairy godmother shopping for now. Instead, we were starving and drove to Boonville to grab a scrumptious pizza (pesto, shitake, goat cheese) at the General Store.
While our return to the Bay Area was uneventful, Cath and Danny's van broke down around Healdsburg. Despite Danny's paramedic skills, it passed away without an oily peep. RIP red van.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fairies in the Bay area

Do you believe in fairies? As a child I did. Now my two girls believe in them too. We have all sorts of fairies and elves around the house and outside the house. There are seasonal fairies like the Halloween Fairy and the Easter Fairy who take away all your candy at night and replace it with a present. There are orderly fairies like the Closet Fairy who takes away your dresses if you've had a tantrum wearing clothes selected by mom. There's the obvious Tooth Fairy but we haven't hit that age yet. On the elf front and apart from the Christmas usual suspects, we have mischievous night elves (we call them lutins in French) who entangle little childen's hair at night and leave it up to mom to fix bedheads.

Then there are winged fairies in the woods under the moonlight, the most interesting in my opinion. Now, wouldn't it be nice to build homes for them? I read the description of a fabulous fairy birthday party on a blog yesterday and it's inspired me for my girls' next birthday party. They'll be three and five, just the right age to build houses for little wood creatures. There was also an article entitled "Fantasy Island" by Rachel Simposon in Wondertime magazine laying down basic rules of building regulations for fairies: no uprooting or disupting of living things.

That spurred my curiosity: where would be good spots in the Bay Area to find fairies and build them houses?

Obviously, a Redwood tree grove would be ideal but any wooded area could be used. The damper, the better as you'll be likely to find moss, a most versatile building material (beds, roofs, gardens). Last thing, a few acorns or berries would be nice additions to fairy's home, if only because children could return and find the berries or acorns are gone, eaten by a squirrel, notoriously good friend of the fairy people.

Now, where do we go? Since Muir Woods, Stern Grove and the Golden Gate Park attract crowds, here are other quieter options.

My friend Sue told me about the Old Mill Park in Mill Valley. Conveniently it's located next to a library, across from a playground and a river creek runs through the bottom with a replica of the old mill. There's redwoods all around so it sounds nice if anybody lives across the bridge or feels like crossing it.

Closer to home, there's a redwood grove at Huddart Park in San Mateo but I wonder how easy it would be to feel isolated in such a popular park. I'll have to give it a try.

San Bruno Mountain County Park at the top of the San Bruno mountains is a lot quieter but from hearsay, weather can be windy and as cold as the coast so it's hard to plan for a day out with a 10 picnic index rating.

All the parks of the Santa Cruz mountains (Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Butano State Park) would be perfect choices but windy roads are not always my cup of tea. Out of the three, I'd select Big Basin, if only I've always been there on cold days and it has an eerie mountain atmosphere.

For an East Bay adventure, the Oakland hills are covered in redwoods and thee are some pretty nice quiet spots over there (the obvious Redwoods Regional Park but several others too).

Time to think a little Bob the Builder workshop in the woods!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Story of Stuff

As I got my daily digest from today, there was an intriguing email entitled " Before you buy more "stuff", please check this out". I'm not one to pass a good bargain and it's true that our house keeps seeing new additions almost every week. A new dress for my girls here, a great book there, a new music CD or a discounted DVD: the occasions are limitless. I know for a fact that a trip to Target is a risky trip because some prices are too good to be true, especially their $1 section with little items that make for great party treats for kids.

However when I went on the website of The Story of Stuff and started watching the 20-minute long nonfiction/animation on consumerism and its ecological consequences, it really hit a chord. I understood why the movie was so good when I read it was produced by Free Range Studios. They are the creators of the award-winning movie The Meatrix, a sharp critical eye on mass produced meat in the US, and the hilarious Store Wars, a spoof of Star Wars criticizing industrial food (the dark side of the farm) featuring smart food characters (Ham Solo, Obiwan Cannoli, Princess Lettuce and Cuke Skywalker amongst others) fighting in the Organic Rebellion against pesticides.

Coming back to The Story of Stuff, I think it enlightened me somehow. We just can't keep buying stuff, can we? I mean it's not like our walls are going to expand, are they? So I'm on my way to "de-cluttering" our basement by getting rid of some children's clothing (I've saved all my girls' clothes since they were born) and toys we don't use anymore. Check back on my progress in a month.

James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

What do you do on a beautiful summer day in the spring? You hit the beach of course. First we went to Crissy Field (with half of San Francisco) then we decided to get back to basics and go tidepooling. The James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve offers the best educational tidepooling in the Bay Area. Less than an hour away from San Francisco, the reserve is set on a stretch of rocky coast stuck between the surfs of Montara and Half Moon Bay.

We checked the tides and decided to follow the recommendations, get there one or two hours before low tide for best viewing. Before we started, I bought three Mac's Field Guide to California Coastal Invertebrates for each of the three children to peruse. Laminated, easy to hold with clear illustrations, they were instant hits as we stepped near a sea mussel and examined it. We found it on the guide and the children loved it!

We then left the sandy beach and cautiously proceeded towards the tidepools, trying not to squish algae and blob green seaweeds. The first inhabitants we said hello to were the Hermit crabs. I was reminded of Eric Carle's book A House for Hermit Crab that so aptly describes the life of an hermit crab in search of a home.

Once I showed one to the children, their eyes became super aware of their surroundings and they spotted hermit crabs everywhere around us. Here a little black turban snail moving, there a ringed top orange snail on the go, we were in hermit crab territory for sure.

A few limpets and acorn barnacles later, we started seeing colonies of sea mussels. At first they appeared in small clusters inside the tidepools, then they spread out like crazy. Andrew actually showed us an entire rock covered in spiky shiny petroleum color sea mussels. It was quite a sight and there was a seagull sitting on top of them preparing her menu for the day.

As we ventured further, we loved seeing the green anemones opening up in the water. Closer to the shore, they looked more like dirty spongy blobs, but further out they bloomed graciously and swayed back and forth as tides rolled in and out of the tidepools. I'm not certain whether they were aggregate anemones or green anemones but they certainly had that light pink coloration of the aggregate kind.

As we walked on, they also seemed to get bigger in size and the children loved pointing them out to us under rocks. Our two older ones (ages 5 and 4 years old) were frolicking about in rain boots whereas the two smaller ones (ages 2.5 and 1 year old) got scared by the tidepools and preferred being carried around.

As we kept looking for starfish (I told the children I'd seen a sunflower starfish at the same spot six years earlier and it had 21 feet), we stumbled upon the ethereal purple sea urchins, safely tucked inside round rocky cavities. Like the other tidepool inhabitants, once you see one, it seems you're surrounded by them. They looked like flowers yet the children knew they must not touch them. That's the spiky effect.

We were now almost feet in the water and even though the tide was still receding, the children wanted to get back to safer terrain. Louise started slipping on the rocks, Iris was whispering that it was scary. Only Andrew was so excited by his recent discoveries that his curiosity led him to explore a few more tidepools.

As the icing on the cake, we crossed the freeway to Virginia and Etheldore in Moss Beach where I'd heard stood a great community-built playground: Moss Beach Park. It really is great! Pirate boat, miniature lighthouse, dolphin slides, tot area, reclining swing for infants, nooks and crannies to play hide and seek, it was nice and the children couldn't get enough of running around. It got a little bit hot and as thefirst fits appeared, we knew it was time to retreat.