Thursday, October 28, 2010

A perfect October day between Half Moon Bay and Pescadero

What better place to enjoy a day out in October than Half Moon Bay, the city where pumpkin patches outnumber grocery stores during a whole month? Past the Pumpkin Festival in mid-October, Half Moon Bay's pumpkin patches still attract crowds but the trafic is slightly better and the pumpkins get cheaper. The big question is, where to go? In past year's I've mostly hovered around Petaluma so I had to rediscover Half Moon Bay.

I ruled out Lemo's for their cheap commercial look and long hesitated between Arata's and Pastorino's pumpkin patches. In the end, we picked Pastorino's because I just love their great country barn. In hindsight, Arata's and Tunitas Creek Farm would have better choices - more of a country feel. Ah, you can't have it all. I'll just return to Arata's and enjoy their a-maze-ing giant maze - and gladiator games, that weird Arata's touch.

With friends, we showed at Pastorino's at 10am, right when the farm opened. There was already a birthday party going on and kids running around with colored bands for access to all rides. Indeed, you have to pay with tickets for every single station: the petting zoo, the poney rides, the "bat cave" train, the haunted house, the bouncy house and the bouncy slide (at a whopping $1 per slide!). I bought 20 tickets at $1 a pop knowing that they'd refund whatever I hadn't used. Ironically, our kids played "Three little pigs" a lot behind the cut-out houses that were super cute - one of the things you don't need tickets for. The big hits ended up being the bouncy house and the "bat cave" train, a little train pulled by a tractor that looks like a locomotive. It goes through two plant nurseries, the second one of which leads to a slightly spooky room in the dark with a few skeletons and graves. What a thrill for the kids! We couldn't test the haunted house as it's only open on weekends.

After a couple hours of jumping and running around, we left Pastorino's for our lunch destination. I wanted to go to Pescadero's country store to try out their wood-fired pizzas. On the way we stopped at a little stand on Highway 92 that sells honey and honey sticks (blackberry honey and wildflower honey) from Santa Rosa, plus a nice selection of fresh produce. I think it's Beeson's but not sure.

Pescadero's country store ended up being a great lunch spot. The mushroom pizza drizzled with truffle oil and the goat cheese pizza with peppers are so delicious that just writing about them makes me hungry! The back lawn with picnic tables offers a great space for kids to run around.

We hopped in the car again to visit Harley Farms Goat Dairy, my favorite goaty farm in the Bay Area. When I go on the weekend, I always get their lavender and honey fresh goat cheese. As soon as you walk past the barn, your nose tells you there's goats in the air. The smell is strong - and a welcome refresher that animals are not all synthetic and clean like on TV ads. This is a real farm! The kids ran to the goat enclosure and admired the animals. No goat kids were in the kid pen that day - we'll have to come back in February when the new generation is born. If you have time, adults can tour the farm and taste the cheeses to their heart's content.

Others can walk inside the white-washed barn and sample all the goat cheeses made that week. On Tuesday the choice included their famous edible flower goat cheese (with edible flowers grown in the garden), cranberry-walnut goat cheeses, herb logs, feta cheese, fresh ricotta, and spicy pumpkin spreads as well as garlic and herbs. They also have a small body/bath products line made with goat milk, most of which smell fantastic. The lavender and rose geranium soap bars, in particular, are heaven, as well as their body milks and creams. Don't forget to leave with a package of frozen goat milk raviolis if you fancy a quick dinner that night.

It was "back home" time so we drove back up Highway 1, but this being a food-oriented day, we stopped one last time at the Pillar Point Harbor to get some fresh fish. You can ask at the harbor captainry what the catch of the day is, or head to the fish market and ask what local fishes they have available that day. We opted  for a Vermillion rock cod which was filletted for us and finally got on our way. Can't wait for November 15, start of the crab season. Last year we walked up to a boat and the guy pulled a cage out of the water and extracted four live crabs for us. The girls loved seeing the "sea to table" aspect. Anyhoo, this was a great day down the coast.
The nitty gritty: Pumpkin patches in Half Moon Bay
4-C's Pumpkin Patch, 12371 San Mateo Rd., (Hwy 92), Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-9614
Andreotti Family Farm, 329 Kelly Ave., Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-9151
Arata Pumpkin Farm, 185 Verde Rd., Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-7548
Bob's Pumpkin Farm, Highway 1, 5 miles south of Half Moon Bay, Phone: (650) 726-4567
Farmer John's Pumpkins, 800 N. Cabrillo Hwy., Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-4980
G. Berta's Pumpkin Patch, 12599 San Mateo Rd. (Hwy. 92), Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-4922.
Lemos Family Farm, 12320 San Mateo Rd., Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-2342
Muzzi's Ranch Pumpkin Patch & Corn Maze, 950 La Honda Road San Gregorio, CA
Pastorino Gifts & Plants, 12391 San Mateo Rd., Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-6440
Pumpkin Depot, 2710 N. Cabrillo Hwy, Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 400-0376
Repetto's Pumpkins , 12592 San Mateo Rd., Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-6414.
Tunitas Creek Family Farm, 333 Tunitas Creek Rd., Half Moon Bay, CA, Phone: (650) 726-9710

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Berkeley's Adventure Playground: Mind your fingers!

Zip line for 6 years and older at the Adventure Playground
Get some more lumber and hold the C-clamp tight, will ya? If Mad Max was a kiddie movie, Berkeley's Adventure Playground would be the neighborhood junkyard  where kids with post-punk hairstyle pop up with hammers, clamps and nails to fix up your homemade bike and paint it red cuz red's the only available color today. Then eventually kids would bring back the tools so they can pound on the exposed strings of a gutted piano or take a wild ride on the zip line above the sand. At 5pm, they'd either nail their creation to a climbing structure or destroy it before leaving. Or not.

This is a typical day at the Adventure Playground - minus the hairstyle, your choice. If you don't believe me, swing by the Berkeley Marina any Saturday or Sunday from 11am to 5pm.

Drinking samurais at the Albany Bulb

Run by the City of Berkeley, this unique playground is a total knock-out and an absolute must for creative families. Your kids will love to design their own play equipment and you'll get to enjoy the crunchy artsy Berkeley vibe a mile down from the Albany Bulb.

Every city needs an Adventure Playground, a place where kids can have fun in an unsafe environment and learn to take calculated risks. Yes, unsafe and that's the groovy kicker. With nails lying around, recycled lumber, rubber tire swings, tons of splinter opportunities, saws handed out to the below-10-years-old crowd and metal scrap fashioned in Burning Man sculptures, the Adventure Playground is the anti-Pump it Up party place.

The climbing gym/slide at Adventure Playground
Actually, SFGate's The Poop called it a death trap and that made me laugh. What world do we live in that kids can't build forts without wearing heavy duty gloves, protective eye-wear and padded aprons? What's wrong with kids being kids?

Dang, where I grew up in New Caledonia, my brothers and I built forts all the time. We climbed in trees with or without knot ropes. We chopped mimosa branches and used knives to sharpen arrows and make bows. We jumped across the stinky creek down from our house and sometimes ended up with scrapes (or a broken arm for my oldest brother). We roamed the local mangrove barefeet in the mud to fish crabs fed on sewage waters downstream from the local hospital (mom was wise and set them aside so we wouldn't eat them for dinner).

I built a tree house with my Australian girlfriend Georgina up in a mango tree in front of her house. Just a square board squeezed between two branches, really. One day one of the branches fell and us with it. What a scare! But nothing broken, just a quick band-aid fix.

Living in the Bay Area is not like living in the tropics because the weather's quite cooler. Hence my hiking and general outdoors obsession, I guess. It allows me to get my girls out, something I couldn't live without. As for safety, I try to push my girls to do stuff that protective parents might disapprove of but which I think, prepares them to kickass in the outside world. Sort of Free Range Kids style. Hence the Adventure Playground birthday party.

I heard about it from my friend Deborah who organized her son's 8-year-old's birthday party there last year. I patiently waited a year and then organized my girl's 7-year old's birthday party here. According to the website, the playground is designed for ages 7 and above though younger kids are welcome closely watched by parents. So for her 7 autumns, my young trooper invited a mix of boy and girl friends and the party was on. Yes, girls like to tinker too!

A little parent help for the young'uns
 After the kids arrived, a staff member from the Adventure Playground gave them a little prep speech about what they could and could not do, how to use the basic tools (hammer, saw, C-clamp), and small challenges to earn their tools. After 5 minutes, we unleashed the kids. First, they were like "what do we do?" It's tough to decide on what to do when you can do anything. Some ran to the zip line. Others explored the 1-acre playground and poked around.

An hour later, every child was engaged in his or her creative project and almost all left with a completed boat, plane or car. A bird house was nailed on a fort. Parents helped, others just watched. It was really cool to see how far the imagination of kids stretched. How some insisted on using big nails for small projects while others painted their sculpture and themselves too. Nobody was hurt. The "conventional" playground next door is a great place to eat cake and keep running around after the Adventure Playground is closed.

Unleash your little free spirits!

Practical details:
Berkeley Marina (off I-80)
Open Saturday and Sunday 11am - 5pm. Closed if raining.
Closed-toe shoes and clothes that can get dirty
Free for 4 children or less accompanied by a responsible adult
Kids 7 years and older can be dropped off for $10 for up to 3 hours (don't forget to sign the waiver)
All other details are here.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Alcatraz Island's Historic Gardens: Uncover the Real Flower Power of the Rock!

Alcatraz Island with the fog rolling under the Golden Gate Bridge - Photo by C.G.
"You break the rules, you go to prison. You break the rules of the prison, you go to Alcatraz." This anonymous quote welcome you in big block letters at the ferry landing on Alcatraz Island. The maximum security penitentiary added the loss of freedom to cruelly gorgeous views on the vibrant city of San Francisco where city streets were abuzz with life. Escaping the rock became on obsession for these men. That, and for a few others, hosing down daisies. 
View out on the bay - Photo by C.G.

Alcatraz is not just a famous prison visit. If you want to see Alcatraz through a different lens, board the earliest ferry on a Friday or Sunday morning and visit the gardens of Alcatraz. They'll tell you the story of 150 years of human occupation.

When we got to Pier 33 for the ferry, we really felt like tourists. Not just because we were going to Alcatraz - something most San Franciscans never do - but because of the lines. On that odd sunny and warm September day, hundreds were swarming around the pier, browsing brochures, reading guidebooks, and checking their watches.

Succulents on the dry slopes of Alcatraz - Photo by C.G.

Finally our ferry was announced and we walked along roped lines, smiled for the compulsory "I've been there" Alcatraz picture with a sunny backdrop, and hopped on board. Everybody rushed to the upper open  deck. We found a nice table downstairs with four chairs and enjoyed the ride. Fifteen minutes later, we disembarked. It felt good to escape the crowds. 

Visiting the gardens of Alcatraz was part of the plan for my family hiking guidebook and a ranger had told me roughly where to find the group. We hurried along the ramps, got to the prisoners gardens too early, backtracked and found the docent leading 50 people and holding old photos of the gardens. I didn't realize how popular this tour was!

Docents in Civil War-era costumes in the gardens - Photo by C.G.
At the sign for the Officers Row Gardens, the docent removed the chain and we walked down steep stairs to a lovely rose garden where Dame Constance and her niece Samantha awaited us, in Civil War-era costumes under lacy umbrellas.
What a great surprise to get my girls to listen to some garden history. Their presence really brought to life the gardens.

Dame Constance explained how the dirt to plant the gardens had been carried in buckets from Angel Island because Alcatraz was only a rock. Medicinal plants were planted here because in 1863 you had to make your own medication. When going to Chinatown to shop for supplies, Dame constance went escorted with soldiers. And when families lost half of their children in infancy, the little ones were burried in the Presidio where the US Army set aside a lot for them.

Cutting garden - Photo by C.G.
At the end of their presentation, my 6-year-old couldn't resist asking "Do you still live on the island?" To which Dame Constance replied with a smile that "Why yes my dear, and I'm 181 years old." My daughter turned to me, puzzled "Mom, do you think it's true?" Ah, the age of innocence.

Moving to the next garden, we marveled at beds of flowers that are meticulously cared for by volunteer gardeners. When looking at the before and after photos, we were all impressed by the amazing work that had been done to restore the gardens. We moved out of the Officers' Row gardens and made our way to the base of the lighthouse where the ramp goes down to the western side of the island.

While the eastern side was lush with blooming flowers and looked somewhat sheltered from the wind, the western side showed a different face of the island. Exposed to the strong winds coming from the Golden Gate, this side was made for succulents and other drought-tolerant plants. Of course, there were a few fruit trees too.

At the end of the ramp, past a heavy metal gate, we entered the realm of the prisoners gardens. The tool shed used by inmate Elliott Michener stands proud above the garden beds, probably still used for the same purpose. Below the rec yard of the penitentiary, a long staircase led to the gardens and the island's "industries." Prisoners on good behavior were allowed to go work the garden or at the laundry.

If your kids haven't read "Al Capone Does my Shirts" by Gennifer Choldenko, it's the story of a 12-year old boy named Moose whose dad works on the island as a guard. Moose goes to school in San Francisco and with a girl, they set up a small business where they take the kids' shirts at school and return them laundered on Alcatraz, claiming Al Capone himself laundered them himself. Great read to prepare for this trip.

At the end of the garden tour, we still had an hour to kill before the ferry departed for Angel Island - our next stop. We toured the prison, took silly photos in the open cells, read the breakfast menu in the dining room, opened a book in the prisoners library (it's empty now, but we had a book with us) and wondered which block was the most comfortable in terms of lodging. Not that inmates had a choice, but the penitentiary includes furnished cells with clothing and every day items that definitely give you a sense of what it's like to live in a rat hole.

As we boarded the ferry for Angel Island, our stomach grumbled. There is no food or drink on Alcatraz Island - too bad really. That's how we ended partaking in the lovely junk food offered by Alcatraz Cruises onboard. Just look at this picture. Honestly. Your yearly dose of sodium in 5 minutes flat. I guess that's a small price to pay to escape from Alcatraz.

Practical details:
  • Tours of the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz are offered twice a week on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:30am, starting at the Alcatraz dock.
  • To reach the island, you can swim there or take a ferry run by Alcatraz Cruises. The ferry saves time and effort.
  • To volunteer at the Alcatraz Gardens, check out the Volunteer page of the Alcatraz Gardens non-profit.