Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter Solstice at Muir Woods National Monument

Luminarias illuminate Muir Woods paths after dark. Photo by Frog Mom

Free shuttle for those who park down the road.
Photo by Frog Mom

December 21st, 2010 was an auspicious and cold date. Combining the longest night of the year with a solar eclipse, a full moon and almost clear skies, it was a night to remember and Muir Woods National Monument put on a great program to welcome families under the redwoods after dark. Twenty-two years old, this Muir Woods tradition attracts people from all over the bay and this year saw over 700 people facing cold weather and tricky parking to join the celebration. Beyond the actual organized activities, it was a unique opportunity to stroll in the famous redwood groves after hours - Muir Woods usually closes at sunset. I took my brother's family (him, his wife, a 2.5-year old and a 10-month old), my own girls (5 and 7 years old) and off we went to discover Muir Woods after dark. By a happy coincidence, we met my friend Beth on the trails, the person who initially told me about this event three years ago. She's a veteran of Muir Wood winter solstices (6th consecutive year) and was accompanied by her 7-year old twins, her 11-year old and her mother. As you see, it's a celebration for all ages.

Entrance of Muir Woods. Photo by Frog Mom

Since the activities started at 3.30pm, we got there a half hour early, hoping to park without struggles. What do you know, the main parking lot was already full, the overflow lot too, so we parked further down the road. At the entrance, rangers were already busy engaging visitors in crafting solstice crowns with vines and branches. Druid solstice traditions were not far in the air!

This was my brother's family's first visit so we hit the trail and decided to make our way slowly on the main path until Bridge #4. That way, they'd get a visit of the woods and the winter solstice. With a 2.5-year old walking, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of pace and I wanted to be back at 5.30 pm for the shadow puppet show. Well clearly, I didn't need to worry. My nephew was a trooper and thanks to my goofy brother who played tag with the kids most of the way, the little guy ran ahead of us the 4 miles (out and back). Not a single complaint. Not bad for a pint-size kid!

How tall the redwoods?
The woods were misty, fog was rolling in and the ground smelled of damp dirt - my favorite redwood weather, besides rain. Though the childen were more interested in running than admiring, us adults soaked in the meditative atmosphere of the redwoods - until my brother started goofing up again - next to the "Quiet zone"! Ach, having a goofball in the family sure isn't quiet. His wife shushed him immediately but lo and behold, the "Quiet zone" at Cathedral Grove resonated with the not-so-distant noise of an engine revving up on the hill. We looked at each lother and laughed. Someone else better be quiet!

Paper lanterns for night walks. Photo by Frog Mom

As we were approaching Bridge #4, I decided to trail off and explore the Alice Eastwood trail (for my family hiking guidebook - more on that in 2011) while the others went to Bridge #4. An hour and a good sweat later (I ran to catch up with them), I found them retracing their steps after Bridge #3. By then it was almost dusk and we crossed Redwood Creek to explore the trails west of the creek. In the distance, I saw some faint lights glowing on the ground. The luminarias were being installed! To guide visitors through the redwoods for the winter solstice, park rangers lay white paper bags with LED tea lights on the ground. Those create a magical glow at foot level as you progress through the forest and it's a lovely touch. That's when we crossed paths with my friend Beth. My girls were so happy to see their little friends that they took off on the spot! It was my first time meeting someone I know to the trails and I was elated. I also got to meet Beth's mom, a charming grandma who was discovering Muir Woods with her daughter and granddaughters. All of us walked back to the entrance where the real winter solstice action was about to begin.
The bookstore was stocked with solstice books and the gift
store with flashlights. Photo by Frog Mom
Now comes an interesting tidbit. Where most parks like Muir Woods would try to increase their parking capacity to accomodate more visitors, Muir Woods just reclaimed 2,000 feet off the main parking lot to restore a meadow by the creek. I can't say that it's going to help with transport but I love the idea of ripping off parking surfaces to give way to natural environments. "We are very progressive!" said the ranger who told me about the meadow project. Until the hard surface goes away, the area's being used for pedestrians and on Tuesday, that's where a stage and several fire pits were set up.

Realizing that dark was almost upon us, I rushed to the gift store to get flash lights for my junior troops ($8 each with a Muir Woods yellow pattern). To comply with the rangers' requirements not to use harsh lighting that night, the flashlights were already protected with a square of red cellophane. It's hard to believe but it's the first year the gift store was selling these little guys. To think of all the flashlights they could have sold in 22 years!

The Loosely Knits captivated audiences with strings, bells,
and winter tunes. Photo by Frog Mom

Back at the entrance, fires were going strong in the elevated pits and a the Loosely Knits, a group of musicians with a penchant for old world celtic-flavor music, were performing inside the visitor center. I saw moms bouncing their babies to the rhythm of the music, older kids completely in awe of the musicians, and people just content with standing around the little group to enjoy a nice musical moment.

Outside, I rejoined my group and we positioned ourselves for the shadow puppet show - at the last row. Unfortunately the amplification system was terrible and we couldn't hear much at the back (or just bits and pieces). After a few winter solstice songs (come on, you know "O Redwood Tree" and "I'm dreaming of a winter solstice", right?), Ane Carla Rovetta told a story she wrote about the creation of the mountain behind Muir Woods. Ane is a naturalist and artist who specializes in teaching about nature through storytelling and art. Sadly I couldn't hear everything at the back but I loved what I heard about the role of native wildlife in the creation of the landscape.

Shadow puppets tell stories at Muir Woods.
Photo by Frog Mom

As the shadow puppet show was next, I crawled to the front with the two youngest so they would have a chance to fully enjoy the show. The ground was wet, dirty and cold but who cared? There were at least a dozen kids and caregivers waiting for the show. The puppets didn't disappoint and included the local animals: moth, mountain lion, bat, snake, owl - oh yes, and a park ranger. Now the story itself could have used some Ann Carla Rovetta pixie dust. It went on and on about how the Muir Woods now served healthy food, and how its carbon footprint was reduced because the employees carpooled and trash was composted or reycled. I mean, come on.

Bring on the marshmallows!
Photo by Frog Mom

If you're going to perform a puppet show at 6pm in front of a family audience, don't give them the cafe's menu. Kids want a real story! With all the nice shadow animals and the great voices that were animating them, there was so much potential for a good story. Why talk about visitor facts only adults care about? Though I loved everything else, that story about the cafe (it came back twice at least) just didn't have its place there.

We had reached the limits of our little ones' attention at the end of the show when a few drops started falling. It wasn't really raining but it felt a bit colder and the kids were hungry for dinner. We cleared the way and the kids rejoiced in using their flashlights to come back to the car. Now that's an investment I know will come in handy when we go camping next week!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: Shrek the Musical rocks the stage with a few quirks

Fractured fairy tales give Shrek its quirky charm. Photo courtesy of SHN
"You're seven, Happy birthday! Now it's time to go away," sang Papa Ogre and Mama Ogre to their young Shrek, before telling him to hit the road and watch out for nasty people who'll hate him for his ugliness. "Every princess gets locked in a tower," said the king and the queen to their 7-year old Fiona, taking her to her prison with a cute kiddie suitcase where they packed her a "dollie" so she could wait for her prince. Now that was a kickass opening sequence! If only the rest had been as irresistible, Shrek the musical would be the best musical I've seen with the kids this year.

When Donkey steals the show. Photo
courtesy of SHN

On Wednesday, I was invited to see Shrek the Musical at the Orpheum Theatre as part of a mommy blogger event. To gather age-appropriate feedback, I brought my very own little Shrek-xperts: my two girls ages 5 and 7 and a little friend age 7. Impatience was palpable in the audience at 2pm and when the show started, all voices shushed immediately.

Two and a half hours later, this is what the 7-year-olds (grinning from ear to ear) had to say/yell to me: "That was awesome! It was so fun when Shrek and Fiona farted and burped at each other!" Proving the point, they tried to burp at each other. The 5-year-old went "Princess Fiona is so pretty" and sighed, cupping her hands and rolling her eyes.
 I was happy but deep inside, not entirely convinced. Here's what I think: this show is great for older kids. It's obvious the 2nd graders, the post-Captain Underpants crowd, enjoyed it. They talked about it at school the next day and were thrilled they met Shrek at the end. However it was too long for my 5-year old who almost fell asleep before the intermission. I wasn't that grabbed either at the end of the first act. I felt it dragged on and on and as a spectactor, I wanted either more acting and less singing or less of everything.
Princess Fiona's Pied Piper Rats dance is one of the best
moments of the show. Photo courtesy of SHN
The beauty of the movie is that it's 90 minutes long. It's action-packed, plot-driven and scandalously funny. The musical is 150 minutes long. Even substracting 15 minutes of intermission, that's 45 extra minutes of dance numbers and new songs that are not all that catchy. The show is redeemed by Broadway-quality singing and the biggest variety of moving sets I've ever seen but I still wish the show had been tightened more. Then it would have been perfect because the execution was fantastic.

Call me naive but I thought that Shrek the Musical was going to be a stage version of the movie. Sure, it's that and when it transcribes the movie on stage, it follows the script to a perfect T. However it also has an entirely different musical score, surprise twists, added scenes and that came as a surprise to me. I can't believe I was surprised, it's a musical for God's sake! Except for the song "I'm a believer," all songs are new. Some are A+ good - "I Think I Got You Beat," "What's Up, Duloc?" - but others are simply not my cup of tea - "Story of my Life," "Travel Song". Obviously there's a lot to say in favor of seeing musicals you already know (hey, easier to sing along), but I don't think I'll get the music to this one just yet.

Lord Farquaard is deliciously mean and egocentric. Photo
courtesy of SHN

Now the good news is, the "new" scenes are actually better than the original storyline. I loved when Princess Fiona danced with the rats of the Pied Piper or when Donkey sang with the three blind mice. All that rodent business was a riot. My girls loved "I Think I got You Beat" and all kids around me were in stitches when Fiona and Shrek exchanged loud burps and farts. Never underestimate the power of potty humor! The gingerbread man animated puppet was really well done and the tiny crooked legs of Lord Farquaard made us giggle each time he moved. I'll take that back: until the actor got up from his knees and my 5-year old looked at me in shock. He's a real man with real legs?? Wow, she was certainly surprised.

Donkey-dragon romance only happens in fairy tales.
Photo courtesy of SHN
Indeed, the four main characters (Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and Farquaard) survived the passage to stage very well. They even transcended their movie personae. Donkey sometimes steals the show - just can't help it, it's a great lovable character. Shrek is irreverent and generous, Fiona is funny and complex, and we love Lord Farquaard mean goofiness. However I can't say the fractured fairytales characters did as well. To me, the three bears looked like humans dressed up as bears. I wish we hadn't seen their faces because it made them not very believable for me. Not that the kids cared, by the way. They loved the Sugar Plum Fairy. And the wicked witch. And Gingy the gingerbread man. This morning at breakfast they were besting each other over "Yes Shrek's face is made of rubber!" None complained about this so take my words with a grain of salt. I bet the kids would love seconds of Shrek the Musical any day.

Have I mentioned the sets are unbelievable? I've hinted at it but I'll repeat it louder. The sets are super ingenious and move around so well you believe that the characters actually walk though the forest to get in front of the castle. I had no idea how they were going to render the gazillion backdrops of the movie and I was really impressed. Hats down to British set and costume designer Tim Hatley for impeccable scenic and costume design. That itself was worth the show.

Since kids are the target audience, I'd like to finish on what they liked most. No contest, it was the song "I'm a believer" at the end of the show and I agree on that. That song absolutely rocks and there's no better sendoff for a Shrek musical. All spectators stood up to clap, some danced and everybody smiled and sang along. Judging by the smile on kids faces in the lobby, I'd say it was a rousing success.

Go see Shrek with the kiddos!
Thanks to the Weekend Sherpa's e-newsletter, I can share a way to get tickets half price. Reserve your seats for just $49.50 (regularly priced $80-$99) by using the promo code 4SHREK at checkout. The offer expires on December 18th so don't delay. Get your tickets here.

And subscribe to the Weekend Sherpa's newsletter while you're on it. You'll get the inside scoop on lots of Bay Area places. It's easy, it's free and they know the Bay Area like the back of their hand. Sign up here.

Want to know what the kids thought? Check out this video put together by SHN:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hiking with Kids in the Rain: Surprise, it's Wet!

Hiking in the rain is better with a pink umbrella. Photo by C.G.
It's raining, it's pouring,
We're all going hiking!

If the idea of hiking in the rain with young ones gives you cold feet, think again. With the right prep, a hike in the rain is the closest you'll get to a VIP park experience: no crowds, vibrant greens, shiny leaves, slimy creatures and any parking spot you want. Yes, even at Muir Woods National Monument, the parking nightmare of all Bay area parks. So?

Kids + rain + redwoods = happy. Photo by C.G.
Come winter, rainy days become a staple of our weeks. Actually, it's raining outside my window right now and it's been raining since this morning. Usually rainy days mean indoor activities but I can only take so many days of non-stop downpour and home stay. Staying indoors too long drives me nuts. Same for my girls - they get cabin fever after 4 hours and after the 4-hour threshold their creativity and noise level reaches levels no human should have to endure. Getting them outside is not only a good idea, it's a physical necessity! So there: hiking in the rain.

Last week when we were in Redwood National Park to re-stage our home-made version of The Return of the Jedi, we took a hike with the girls in the rain. The hike to the Tall Trees grove of Redwood National Park is a 4-mile affair with 800 feet elevation drop. When it rains up there, it's cats, dogs and the entire elk herd too. No kidding, rain drops are the size of a fat pea!

Kids can have fun with their boots too. Photo credit: Western Chief 
 Since I knew it was going to be wet, here is how I prepped the hike:
  • Kids hiked in rain boots. Unless you get the very top of the line in kids hiking boots, they're always going to get wet after 2 hours of rainy trails and puddles. Good rain boots seal the deal.
  • Inside the boots, make sure those feet wear socks that are not going to slide down when walking. For girls, I'd even suggest tights to avoid complications. Our oldest one became miserable when her socks started crumpling at the base of the boot and gave her blisters around the ankle. Though her socks were the right size, they were just too stretchy and didn't stay in place. The end of the hike required fortitude and courage for her blistered feet.
  • On that note, pack blister-specific bandages. I'm now the proud owner of Up & Up Blister Care Cushions and Band-Aid Blister Bandages and I intend to pack them for all future rainy hikes.
  • Our girls each carried their kid-sized umbrellas. They're relatively small, bell-shaped and a pink shade of clear which makes sightseeing easier.
  • Legs were protected by snow pants and tops stayed dry and warm with snow jackets. Temps were hovering in the 30s, we didn't want to have to deal with hypothermia too. If you have good rain coats that are long enough and lots of layers, you're good to go.
  • Back at the car, I had a clean change of clothes for the girls. Minutes after we came back rather drenched from the hike, the kids were dry, warm and a lot happier.
    The redwood life seen from a kid's perspective. Photo by C.G.
  • I protected my backpack with a rain cover. Sports stores carry them in all sizes, from the city day pack to the multi-day ginormous backpack. Light weight, useful and effective.
In hindsight, the only item I should have thought about was the blister bandage kit or thick tights to avoid the blister problem. Snacks were eaten, water was drunk (though not a lot, you don't get that thirsty when it's cold and wet outside) and a good time was had by all.

Know what happens when you're not prepared? Another family started hiking with their kids just before us. When we arrived at the trailhead, they were wrapping their feet in plastic bags before slipping into their running shoes. Plastic shopping bags, I'm not making this up. Not sure that's a great idea.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Waldorf Schools Winter Fairs: Felt Gnomes, Beeswax and Winter Spirit

"The elves and the shoemaker" puppet show at the San Francisco Waldorf School
 Last year I attended to the San Francisco Waldorf School winter fair and it was such a hit with my kids that I will be going again this weekend. If you have never been, it's a great opportunity to find Waldorf-inspired (read, natural) stocking stuffers or gifts, eat home-cooked food and enjoy kids activities. The shopping part was particularly fun because the fair featured a kids-only room where kids could trade wooden stars for small items. You buy the wooden stars in fabric bags at the entrance and kids get to spend their stars on whatever they want. They can also find Pocket People and dig in big pockets to find a surprise gift (small wooden ornaments, felt purses, felt gnomes) in exchange for stars. It's as far from the big commercial malls as you can get.

 When I heard about the winter fair last year, I was researching an article I wrote for the called Waldorf schools celebrate the season with winter fairs this weekend. I was so intrigued by the storybook world and winter-based traditions that I decided to give it a try. Plus my friend Adrienne was one of the organizers so that tipped the decision. I brought my four-year old and a 6-year old friend  and this is what they loved most:

The Sleeping Giant

You step inside a dark room and sit on benches around the room. Kids sit in front. When everybody is seated, the door is closed and the play begins. The giant's wife comes in and talks about the giant's treasure - a treasure chest filled to the brim with shiny trinkets that all kids eye with great envy. The giant eventually steps through the curtain door and lies down on the bed. When he falls asleep, kids are invited to rush to the treasure chest, "steal" an item and go, go, go before the giant wakes up! The door opens and kids run outside out of breath - holding a cherished treasure. On the school's website there's a note that recommends the Sleeping Giant for kids ages 3 to 6 and "not for the faint of heart." Makes me giggle.

Acorn, pine cone and walnut candles by Bee Happy Candles

The Fairy House
That's the no-parents allowed kids-only shopping room. Parents wait patiently outside while their kids walk inside the Lavender Room with their stars and start looking for little treasures. My four-year old came out of there ecstatic with little wooden buckets and doll furniture wrapped in gaze - some of which ended up as stocking stuffers for her cousins a few weeks later.

The Cookie House
Ha! Another no-parents allowed place, except this one is dedicated to the sweet tooth. Kids go through a tunnel and emerge in a room where the walls and shelves are adorned with decorated cookies. Again, kids get to select a cookie of their choice based on the number of stars. The bigger the cookie - the greater the number of stars!

The Puppet Show
In true Waldorf tradition, the story of "The elves and the shoemaker" was performed by parents moving little wooden characters and props on a table. The girls were transfixed and loved the story. This year's show will be "The Magic Key."

"Picking a pocket or two" Waldorf style
 The Pocket People
Now that's an interesting idea I hadn't seen elsewhere. Adults stroll the school's grounds wearing a big cloak peppered with colorful pockets. Each pocket has a number of stars glued on it. The idea is that kids trade stars for surprise gifts. The element of surprise is what makes the pocket people so much fun - and I didn't see a single child leave disappointed.

Other fun activities include:
- The Cake Walk: a twist on musical chairs with a cake as a prize if the child ends up on the correct spot
- Gingerbread House: gingerbread house decoration
- Candle dipping, beeswax for kids

I so much loved some of the vendors that I got their details and included them in an article on green stocking stuffers. The walnut baby is still a cherished toy in my 5-year-old's bedroom. In the school yard, I stocked up on local honey (the beehives are located in the city - isn't that great?) and we listened to some music before heading home with all our stars spent. To be fair, I didn't think the savory food was that great but the kids' enthusiasm was certainly worth an OK meal.

Sunday, December 5th, 10am - 3pm at the Grade School Campus
2938 Washington St., San Francisco, CA 94115

Other Waldorf schools are celebrating the winter around the Bay Area:
  • Winter Faire at Summerfield Waldorf School & Farm in Santa Rosa. Saturday December 4, 2010 - 11am to 4pm  at 655 Willowside Rd in Santa Rosa
    2010 Holiday Faire at the Peninsula Waldorf School. Saturday, December 4, 2010 - 10am - 5pm at 11311 Mora Drive, Los Altos, CA

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Explore the Redwoods the Star Wars Way: Welcome to Endor, Redwood National Park

"Han, in front of you!" "Gee. Thanks for the tip, Leia." 
 Looking for a way to spice up a family day outdoors? Simple as pie. Dress up as your favorite movie characters and hit the trails! Short of the soundtrack and a few special effects, you're finally living the life of your idols. What better way to bring to life the silver screen? Here's how we ended with a few home-brewed scenes of The Return of the Jedi.

"Princess, stay close. This forest smells like a trap."

First came the idea. A year ago, I read that the movie's Endor scenes had been filmed at Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park. Almost in our backyard: it said "redwoods" and "California", it couldn't be that far. I had no idea where this park was but it jumped on my to-do list right away. Looking at the California map on my office walls, I realized Grizzly Creek was 300 miles and a solid 6 driving hours away. Gulp. I stored the idea and did some more websurfing on the Return of the Jedi locations, adding Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and a long-logged forest by the Smith River to my dream list.

A few weeks ago, my husband suggested we go up to Redwood National Park right after Thanksgiving. I was initially reluctant to go but then I thought "But of course! We can re-enact The Return of the Jedi!" I had these simply equations in my head that just made perfect sense. Redwoods = Endor. Our family of 4 = 1 Princess Leia + 1 rebel + 1 storm trooper + 1 Han Solo. Our teddy bears = Ewoks. The speeder bike pursuit, well.... that'd be hard with a kids' bike. It was just too geeky to pass.

"Arms up, hold it right there!"

Finally, we were going up north for sure, closer to the actual filming locations than I've been in many years. I didn't have time to call rangers or the Lucasfilm PR people to find out more but I decided I could do some research on site. I packed the costumes (see below for how-to guidelines) in the car and we set off, ready to fight the Dark Side in style.

We were staying outside the tiny town of Orik, a pocketsize coastal town that really looks like the kind of place where Twin Peaks could have been filmed. The dreary weather probably enhanced the sense of disorientation. By a strange coincidence, the Orik Market sells boxes of Snoqualmie Falls Lodge Old Fashioned Pancake Mix, Snoqualmie Falls being one of Twin Peaks's actual filming mountain towns. Weird, eh?

At the visitor center of the Redwood National Park, I asked where we could find the coveted redwoods. By the looks I got, I was neither the first nor the last to enquire. "Had they known that 20 years down the line people would still be asking about them, they may not have destroyed the Ewok village!" exclaimed the park ranger.

"Leia, your helmet's too shiny. Duck, will ya?"

No more ewok village. What was Lucas thinking? Hippies and Star Wars fans should have been consulted. It's like The Lord of the Rings mountain sets that were removed because they were built on national park land - they could have been used to spur tourism and encourage long-distance hiking!

Well then, that left the rest of the Endor scenes. Where to? Two main spots: as mentioned earlier, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park was a biggie (Tall Tree Grove, to be specific), as well as the Smith River old growth redwood grove that has since been logged. For the speed biker scenes, rumors go that the scenic route Avenue of the Giants was used.

"Told you it was too shiny."

Since the weather forecast for the day was rain and we were packing up the following day, that didn't leave us much time at all. Going to Jedediah Smith Redwoods fell through - time crunch. However I picked up a topo map of the area to find some old growth redwoods nearby. In the end, what really mattered was to find a redwood forest that would look like Endor. It didn't have to be the same exact one. Bingo! Just across from our vacation rental, there was a nice old-growth redwood grove with a bonus waterfall. Yoohoo!

As field practice, we all watched The Return of the Jedi that night and the girlsd rooted for the ewoks like there was no tomorrow. Then tomorrow came.When the sun showed up after 36 hours of rain, we all geared up and crossed the road to the Trillium Falls trail. The place was a fern paradise - slightly too slanted for our photo needs (the Jedi Endor scenes are mostly on flat terrain) but we made it work nonetheless. We didn't linger either. It wasn't warm in those outfits by 40F outside!

"Not so fast my friend. Han, still too shiny?"

The tricky part was finding tree branches sticking out so we could rest the camera and use the timer to take shots with the four of us - and the teddy bears which the girls called their "wookies." My husband carefully staged each scene and adjusted the settings on his camera because it's dark under the redwoods. Fortunately no one else was on the trail that morning but us. I say fortunately not because I care, but because our 7-year old told me this was embarassing. Good thing the little one got a kick just of walking with a teddy bear!

So there. The whole exercise took a couple hours, after which we hiked to the falls and they were a beautiful culminating point of a lovely trail. The guys at the parking lot thought we were weird-looking but we quickly explained and so we became the incarnation of awesomeness! Let's do that again, shall we?

"We got'em wookies. Let's go celebrate!"

Hollywood Trivia
If you too want to try to bring to life your favorite family movie, I fished some ideas on the internet, all within driving distance of San Francisco. In some instances, you'll have to drive the whole night but who cares when you can wear Jack Sparrow's head scarf and dreadlocks?
- Jurassic Park at Prairie Creek Redwoods State park (bring a truckload of plastic dinosaurs)
- The Princess Diaries in San Francisco
- Pirates of the Caribbean at Leo Carillo State Park and El Pescador State Beach
- Back To the Future at Jamestown and Railtown 1897 State Historic Park
- Willow at Mount Tamalpais State Park
- The Lost Boys at Sycamore Cove State Beach
- Star Wars: A New Hope and Return of the Jedi at the Death Valley National Monument
- E.T. at Redwood National Park
- Dr. Dolittle in San Francisco and Dr. Dolittle 2 in the Marin Headlands
- George of the Jungle in Woodside
Now comes the uber-geeky part: how can you look like a dashing Star Wars character if you don't want to buy it ready-made? Here's my little secret: Goodwill, thrift stores, whatever you call them. That's where my husband's vest comes from, as well as my black boots and blue pants. For the rest I needed a little guidance and what better place than the Rebel Legion website? I printed out the official costume standards for The Return of the Jedi off their Costuming Standards Master List. Gulp, the camouflage tops! 

"Let's go kick some more Dark Side ass. Off we go wookies."

It may be easy to find Princess Leia's cinnamon bun style hair wig or gold bikini but good luck with the Endor camouflage outfit. It's way at the bottom of everybody's Star Wars list! I bought 4 yards of camouflage fleece at Joann Fabric and Crafts, spray painted it with brown for earthier tones, cut out a big rectangle (measuring it'd come thigh length on the front and calf length in the back) and sewed two hooded ponchos. After I stitched the wrong side up twice, I finally understood how to attach the hood!

The head gear was the best part if you ask my girls. We all went outside and they watched in awe as I spray painted silver my bike helmet after gluing on a tight circle of military belting (2" wide, simply stapled). My 5-year old's bike helmet didn't fit the format so I used a plastic fireman's hat instead. Spray painting was fun! And now, I've got a unique bike helmet. Ready to explore the redwoods whenever you are!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Great Dickens Fair is open - get in line for the bangers & mash!

Theatre at the Dickens Fair includes spectacular costumes - and a good dose of humor! Photo by C. G.
 Where can you get the following for $20? Musicals, children's theatre, puppet shows, toy parades, folk dancers, Christmas carols, 700 actors in period costumes including children - all in 3 acres of re-created Victorian London streets? Think explorers clubs, antique bookstores in alleyways, tea houses, London docks with pirate cove, parlour games, traditional English pubs and a man-powered carousel. Where then? Why, at The Great Dickens Fair of course! If you have never attended this San Francisco holiday tradition, run to the Cow Palace in Daly City and catch up on fun because it's a real treat and the rumor goes that even in Britain they don't have a Dickens Fair quite as nice. I, for one, haven't skipped a year since 2004 and that's all my kids talk about all year until we go again.

Lovely faeries at the Christmas Pantomime - Photo by C.G.
 The folks at the Dickens Fair are not early birds - the fair opens its doors at 11am. So when I go, we show up early to find street parking and quietly make our way to the doors. At 11.01am sharp we're inside and enjoy the waltzing dancers of Fezziwig's Dance Party until the Christmas Pantomime is minutes away at the Victoria & Albert Music Hall. Last year we saw Aladdin &Cinderella Meet The Monkey King and we're going for seconds this year because it was plain hilarious.

The Gilbert & Sullivan show is also a great family performance because it's an hour-long redux of a longer actual musical - with great singers and sets. After a few years of Pirates of Penzance (our favorite so far), the Gilbert & Sullivan is now The Mikado with the delightful Yum Yum.

Between shows, we roam the streets of London and this is what we never miss because a Dickens Fair wouldn't be complete without them:
- The Candy Machine. Do your kids love the eggs & sausages machine in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? This one starts with a balloon, darts and extreme skill! Once you pop the balloon, watch the crazy mechanism bring your child a candy cane - through many a ladder, slide, catapults and more. Love it!

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is fun for the whole family!
Photo credit: Raymond Van Tassel
 - The Safari Carousel. Carousels date back to the 18th century. Back then they were just chairs on rotating arms. The first "horse and carriage" style carousels started appearing in the 1870's. The Dickens Fair's Safari Carousel draws long lines so get there early. A man clad in colonial attire pushes the animals where kids are seated and tells a fantastic safari adventure - with drum beats and fantastic finale. Kids get a great kick out of the man-powered effect.
- Boot the Cat. This one is so unPC, it's wonderful. Kids sit on a couch, grab a black boot and try to topple the cat on the fence. Great use for boots for which you've lost one foot.
- Children's Painting Garden. Oh we try to steer our kids away from this one but it's mission impossible. They just love painting a ceramic ornament to hang on our tree. Of course it weighs a ton and makes the trees' branches droop but they don't care - and now they're family keepsakes we cherish despite the kitsch factor.

Punch & Judy delight young audiences - Photo by C.G.

- Punch & Judy puppet show. Like there's no Renaissance Faire without grouchy Mr Punch and his pesky wife, there's no Dickens Fair without the pair either. Our kids love to watch the puppets quarrel and laugh at their antics. It reminds them of our French Guignol puppet character.
- Christmas Carols and the Paddy West School of Seamanship. Nothing says holidays like a bunch of Victorian ladies singing carols or rowdy sailors singing sea chanteys.
 Other than that what can I add? If your stomach is growling, you'll find delicious chicken pot pie, comforting bangers & mash, full-on turkey meals, fish & chips, pastas and sweet treats to tempt even content appetites. We love grabbing a paper bag of warm cinnamon crunchy almonds, they're so tasty when still warm. And for beer lovers, the Dickens Fair is trying something new this year. On December 12, the fair will host a BJCP-registered homebrew beer competition! That's on top of the absinthe and ale pubs. However, if as a true Englishman you want your beer served room-temperature, you may have to order it when you get in in the morning. In California, we still serve it chilled, even at the Dickens Fair!
Days & Hours: Friday, Nov. 26; Weekends, Nov. 27 - Dec. 19, 2010, 11am-7pm
Admission: Adult/General Admission: $25; Senior (62+) / Student / Military: $21.00 (photo ID required);Children ages 5-11: $12.00; wee ones under 5 are free! 
Buy discounted tickets online before December 5 here
Parking: parking on site, street parking around the Cow Palace; free shuttles run every 20 minutes from Glen Park BART station.
December 11 & 12: Steam Explorers/Nemo’s Feast Theme Weekend

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Autumn Trails in the Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Falls seen from the Merced River trails

Catching the tail end of the fall in the Yosemite Valley is a wild weather roll of the dice. You can enjoy California's warm indian summer and winter's rains in a couple days, just before snow storms pound the Sierras. That's what we got and exactly why I love that time of the year - it's so unpredictable! When I planned this trip back in September for my family (husband, kids 5 and 7) and my mother, I wasn't sure whether the valley would be snowed in or not. In terms of lodging, that could change a lot of things for everybody's comfort. I came up with a practical compromise: my husband and I would stay at the Upper Pines campground and my mother and my girls would stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Guess who got the best of the valley?

Morning reflection of trees in the Merced River

We left the Bay Area at 2pm and arrived at the entrance of the valley at twillight on Friday. As we drove between thick stands of alders, bigleaf maples and black oaks, darkness engulfed the road and our hopes of pitching our tent in daylight too. Pitching in the dark is not fun. You don't see the tiny rock that will poke through the sleeping mat between your shoulder blades at 3am, you don't know if you're setting up on level terrain and won't slide at night, and you want to make sure you're far enough from the neighbors but still on your site. As it turned out, our campsite was so crappy and narrow anyway that we had just enough space for the tent (#106 for the record). Fifteen minutes later, the tent was up and we dropped off the rest of the family at their "rustic" five-star cottage. We enjoyed the cozy walk-in fireplaces of the beautiful Ahwanee Hotel before returning to mother nature at the campground.

Hey, we had new neighbors! Huh, a frat party of sorts. So much for quiet hours. The next morning, we knew everything about the frat party's wild nights, their boring day jobs and dancing skills. We felt enlightened in their ways and made it a duty to enlighten them in ours. See, I'm an early bird. We opened and shut the doors of the bear box as much and as loudly as was needed to recover our morning tea and toiletries. There, no sleeping in kiddos! Small revenge but sweet nonetheless.

Morning fog on the meadows east of Yosemite Village

We drove over to the Ahwahnee and caught the tranquil reflection of the trees on the Merced River. It was as perfect as a Vermeer painting and we jumped out of the car to capture the image before a jumping trout created ripples. Nearer the Yosemite Village, a fuzzy fog fleeted above the Indian Canyon Creek meadows while a shy sun and clear skies announced a glorious morning. The stars were well aligned for a great day out.

In terms of activities, we were limited by my mother's recent hip surgery. Still recovering, she couldn't walk more a mile, maybe 1.5 mile, over flat terrain. That ruled out any upwards rocky trails or steps but opened up vast scenic possibilities. We parked at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and rented bicycles there - even for my mother but that was short-lived since she hadn't ridden in 30 years. She cursed, I insisted; she insisted, I returned her bike.

Biking in the Yosemite Valley

After a quick look at the trail map, we opted for the easiest trail  across the lodge, along the river on a paved path towards the swinging bridge. It is my favorite discovery trail as you follow a tree-lined winding path until views open up on Leidig Meadow, and keep on to the Swinging Bridge where a little sandy cove offers a perfect splash spot for kids (and ducks).

Autumn foliage on maple trees 

The fall colors were amazing. Every step was as potential photo op for non-believers in the gospel of autumn foliage in California. Seriously, why do people gloat about the East coast without checking their Sierra backyards? If you want to know where to find fall colors in California, check out a website called Fall Color in California. You will find visitor reports of fall colors with exact locations, dates and photos. I read there a report about a magnificent bigleaf maple tree by the chapel in the Yosemite Valley so this was our destination today. 

When we arrived at the meadows, we were greeted by a nice line-up of rear-ends photographing the valley with more pro equipment than I've seen since Lady Di got married. OK, barely. If anything, this confirmed that it was definitely a good weekend to be around. We admired the view and found a comfortable stump for my mother to sit on while the girls rushed to the river to build sand castles. Once I even found an arrowhead along the edge.

Yellow leaves raining on Merced River by Swinging Bridge
 Imperceptibly, outside temps had dropped and skies darkened. Vivid gusts of wind shook the trees and much to our delight, they shook the trees until tempests of yellow leaves literally rained on the river in slow motion. Light and unaware of the weather change, the leaves blew with the pre-rain puffs and blanketed the shores of the river in golden hues of yellow. It was absolutely gorgeous and we couldn't get enough of it.

Yosemite Chapel seen from Upper Yosemite Falls trail

However it was clear that rain would be upon us fairly soon so while my mother rested by the bridge, our little family hopped on bikes to go find the Yosemite chapel. With its tall frame, wooden beams and shingle roof, the oldest structure of the valley could be a distant cousin of Scandinavian stave churches. Quaint and surrounded by tall granite walls, it is the site of many wedding ceremonies. 

Yes the bigleaf maple tree was there but we had seen more impressive ones by the Yosemite Falls so we turned around and rode back to the Yosemite Lodge. By then it was about 2pm and our girls were in dire neeed of quiet time. My left them with my mother to rest in their bedroom and took off with my husband. I wanted to see the valley from above to admire the colors of the fall and the only trail I kew for that was Upper Yosemite Falls trail.

Columbia Rock, Upper Yosemite Falls trail

This iconic Yosemite Valley hiking trail is also one of the oldest (it was built from 1873 to 1877) trails and rises 2,700 feet over 3.6 miles. With our late start, we knew that we wouldn't get to the top if we wanted to make it back down before dark. However we aimed for half of the trail, figuring we'd be way above the treeline with nice views of the valley. Our expectations were not disappointed.

In Tom Stienstra's words, this hike is a demanding climb. You bet! Both on the way up and down, we passed people holding their crooked backs or panting against rocks. Granted, some were poorly outfitted with flips-flops but most had good running shoes - which still doesn't beat real hiking boots. The trail is comparable to a never-ending staircase with flat respites on loose gravel.

Top of Yosemite Falls from the trail

During the first 1.2 miles, it's switchback after switchback until you surface on a hard slab at Columbia Rock. By the railing above the vertiginous drop (you're 1,200 vertical feet above the valley), it's a good idea to take a picture just to show you were there. We obliged, followed a flat stretch  and kept on until the trail dipped to a portion with views on the face of Upper Yosemite Falls. There are no words to describe this monstrous beauty except that you feel ridiculously small and vulnerable.

Rainbow on Half Dome

From the trail, we could follow the setting sun's shadows stretching farther in the valley and dark heavy clouds progressing in our direction. We still had an hour of daylight so turned around but of course, what we thought would happen happened. It started raining. Not hard, mind you, but a healthy soak nonetheless and it felt incredibly refreshing. Clever me, I was in short-sleeves and had left all other layers in the car. Since we had almost ran up the trail, I was still warm enough that I didn't get cold at all.

My husband was giddy with excitement for a different reason. He changed the lens on his camera and kept peeking left to catch a rainbow if any should appear. At a turn of the trail, the most beautiful surprise of the day awaited us: a giant rainbow sliced Half Dome in the middle, diving straight down to the valley's trails. We could see exactly where the pot of gold was burried. Hallelujah! 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

'Tis the Season to Pick Chestnuts in the Santa Cruz Mountains

On Halloween morning, our family drove down the Santa Cruz Mountains to Skyline Chestnuts, one of our favorite fall season farms. Late October and early November are supposedly the best time to pick chestnuts, a rare treat whose short season only lasts from mid-October through late November. If you don't squeeze in a visit by Thanksgiving weekend, that's it for the year - gotta be patient til next year.

As we showed up at 10am, several families were already hard at work gleaning and filling huge bags of chestnuts. No, not bags. More like bushels and barrels. Man were they chestnut-nutties! Not to worry though. The trees were loaded and clearly, the harvest was not peaking yet. As a matter of fact, here is what Hans Johsen the owner wrote on the website's forum on November 10, 2010: "We are now in full swing and the chestnuts are still falling like rain! Large size and high quantities prevail." There, you have it. Hurry before the season's over!

We went with my mom and I brought a folding chair so she could sit it out under the trees. This being Halloween, two little girls were rummaging through fallen leaves in princess dresses, their sparkly skirts flickering in the morning sun. Other kids were swatting branches to make chestnuts come down faster.

My own girls were trolling the grounds lousily looking for shiny brown nuts, outfitted with long pants and rain boots. In case you don't know, chestnut burs are prickly - very. Once I had to get the tweezers out to help the daughter of a friend who handled the burs without gloves. I prefer to manage without gloves by using my feet without crushing the fruit. While most people twist the burs between their gloved hands to pry them open, I simply twist them with a swish of the foot and tada!

It's the fourth year in a row that we go chestnut picking at this orchard and through the years, here are a few things I learned:
  • kids can easily find chestnuts on the ground under the trees - no need to be big chestnut wizards to spot them.
  • while one bucket per family is largely sufficient for the average chestnut lover, a bucket for two is easier if your party decides to split and some of you stay on lower grounds while others climb the hills.
  • kids like to take gloves at the entrance but they won't necessarily use them. They don't like to carry buckets either but they still want one. Kids. Truth be told, the buckets are rather bulky for small kids.
  • bigger is not always better. Hans Johsen confirmed that the smaller chestnuts are sweeter than the bigger ones. Rather than focusing on size, try to get a nice selection and organize a tasting at home.
  • there are several species of chestnut trees on the property - some American, some Chinese, some European. Hence the difference in size and color of the nuts you'll find. Don't worry if some of the nuts are striped green. It doesn't mean they're unripe. If they fell off the tree, they're ripe.
It took us an hour to glean 16 pounds of chestnuts, my husband being the overachiever chestnut person and I being the easy-going chestnutter that day. Amazingly, each year we pick more than the previous year. Why is that? My theory is that we're slowly being domesticated by the chestnuts and as we progress (read, improve), we want more. We used to be newbies and thought chestnuts could only be roasted on an open fire. What a joke!

After I bought Annie Bhagwandin's The Chestnut Cookbook, I started reading it and discovered a cornucopia of recipes, cooking methods and other essential chestnut stuff. Two days ago I roasted a pound of chestnuts in a dry pan (not even a chestnut pan, just a regular one) and it worked wonders. My fingertips are still sore from the peeling part but the roasted chestnuts made a great school snack for my girls. According to the book, there's an easy way to slice them in two, pop them in boiling water and squeeze them out of the husks once cooked through. Can't wait to try that for the Thanksgiving stuffing.

The only disappointment of the day was finding out that Mr. Johsen was already out of his chestnut honey. He's set up beehives in the hills and chestnut honey is my all-star favorite honey for its strong and wonderful flavor. I thought for sure in October I was early and would score a jar this year. Not so. People start calling him in August to secure a jar of the chestnut honey. Sigh. I walked away with a jar of the eucalyptus honey, making a mental note to call in July next year!

Practical details: they're all on the website but I'm copying them below for easy reference.

Driving directions

  • From the north: Take Woodside Road (Hwy 84) west, Turn left (south) on Skyline Blvd (Hwy 35), pass Page Mill and continue for 3 miles; the farm is on the right side of the road.
  • From the south: Take Hwy 9 west, turn right on Skyline Blvd (Hwy 35), and continue north about 5 miles; the farm is on the left side of the road.
Address: 22322 Skyline Blvd, La Honda, CA 94020

Phone number: (408) 395 0337