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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Family hike from Rainbow Falls to Devils Postpile at Mammoth Lakes

Devils Postpile National Monument is a great family destination combining geological wonders, easy trails and scenic falls in the Eastern Sierras. Plus, if you hustle up, you get to pick a special cookie at Schat's Bakery or a gelato downtown after the hike. Kids, what's not to like?

First, the basics. To get there, drive over and through the Yosemite's high country (or Tahoe if Highway 120 is closed), drive south past Mono Lake and west towards Mammoth Lakes. We camped over June Lake at Oh! Ridge (no kidding) campground, a beautiful spot with breathtaking views. The June Lake/SilverLake/Mammoth Lakes area has tons of other lodging options.
We reached Devils Postpile after a long and snaky road down a valley, with the mighty Minarets towering above. The last time we were there in July 2004, our oldest daughter was 9 months old and Agnew Meadows where we camped was infested with mosquitoes. By going there in October this year, we beat the mosquitoes thanks to cold nights and were able to introduce our kids and friends to this magical place. The great thing about Devils Postpile is that the hiking is really easy - almost no elevation gain, just about 3.7 miles and the most beautiful trails.

We started at the Rainbow Falls trailhead and picknicked on a table before hitting the trail. In early October we were hoping for fall colors but the alders were just shy of turning golden and most slopes were still silver green with sagebrush. The part we crossed to get to the falls was a tree cemetery, surrealistic testimony to a 1992 forest fire dubbed the Rainbow Fire that swept through the entire area. As a result, empty tree shells and calcinated stumps dot the slopes until the river and it does feel like walking through a museum.

Around 0.7 mile, the trail merges with the trail to Devils Postpile along the middle fork of the San Joaquin river. Now we were in typical eastern sierras scenery: red firs, quaking aspens, black cottonwood, and sapphire blue waters. Whichever way you slice it, the eastern sierras are still my absolute favorite mountains.

The falls were 0.6 mile further, a raging water sight dropping a vertical 100 feet in the river. If you go there in the afternoon, watch for a rainbow spectrum created by the sun on the fine water particles floating in the air. We were amazed that the falls were so full, after the long and dry summer. We expected a trickle and got treated to a a full-on show. Pretty neat. There is a tiny trail with steps leading to the base of the falls if you really want to get wet but we decided to stay on the viewing platform where it's dry.
From there, our party of 8 separated into two groups. A first group with the two youngest kids walked back to the car to drive to the ranger station and hike the 0.4 mile to the Devils Postpile. I went with our friend Michael and the two older kids on the trail to Devils Postpile, a pleasant 2.4 mile walk.

We took a bottle of water with us and hit it. Whereas my 7-year old dragged her feet, the other boy used the trail as a paratrooper training course, jumping on trees, going off trail and running every slope. Now that's a happy hiker!

We stumbled upon a giant fallen tree and Michael, quite the daredevil, ran to inch his way to the extremity hanging over the trail. Look it, he made it! Then he told his son join him and junior paratrooper came. Then, ah then he told his son to stay put and ran down to take a photo. That's when a couple of hikers walked by us and rolled their eyes in disapproval because "only crazy parents would send their kids up a big tree for a photo op." Obviously I sent my girl too and did the same. In the end, nobody broke any legs and we carried on with our hiking business. Don't think we were careless parents though. We were wise enough to tell the kids that if they should fall, they had better shoot for the base of the tree where the ground was softer and higher so as to make the best of a bad situation.

After walking along the gorgeous San Joaquin river, we finally reached Devils Postpile and took the trail to the top of the volcanic phenomenon. Admiring it from the top truly has a different flavor from viewing it from down below (which 90% of people do, since the trail from the ranger station arrives at the base of Devils Postpile).

The top looks like a neat arrangement of hexagons, which are in fact the top of the columns polished by glacial ice. This basalt formation resulted from a volcanic eruption whee the lava cooled, contracted and cracked, forming vertical and hexagonal columns. From the base, it looks like a slanted wall with a slew of broken columns that fell with the passage of time. From the edge of the roof, it's hard to take in the exact dimension of the columns but the chaos at the base is pretty impressive.

We snapped a few more shots, walked down to the base, met the young'uns and walked back to the cars. We were ecstatic that the weather had been so nice when two days earlier the area had been slammed by a snow storm. More on that on the next Frog Mom post...