Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Close but Far from the Crowds

There's a little place, a shack, really, on the Municipal Pier in Monterey that's a world away from the throngs, the souvenir shops and greasy food at Fisherman's Wharf. It's a cute wooden building painted yellow with a bright red trim and it's got a cute name: Loulou's Griddle in the Middle. The first I time I stumbled across it, Loulou's reminded me of the Eagle Cafe, an old sailors' diner that was transported to touristy Pier 39 -- San Francisco's biggest attraction -- some years ago. Unfortunately, today the Eagle is part of a restaurant chain. But Loulou's is the real thing. It's on a working pier across the small harbor from the wharf. A few weeks ago I returned and found its lively cook and owner, Allecia Garrett, manning the stoves. There are only a few booths and a long counter. The service is a bit absent-minded but the food is good, the portions big (local Monterey bay fish, sand dabs and squid, are specialties) and the atmosphere fun. It serves up breakfast and lunch, with no set closing time, just sometime after the lunch business clears, usually between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Getting Traction in Yosemite

Everyone's heard about the wonders of Yosemite in the winter. There's the quiet, the lack of crowds, the beauty of snow-covered Half Dome and El Capitan and the lower prices. But, try as we might, it takes years for a lot of us to actually get there. It's a season that is so different from the congested madness of summer that you will never want to return between June and September. On a recent visit, the lobby of Yosemite's grand hotel, the Ahwahnee, was bustling but not crowded. The comfy sofas in front of the huge crackling fire were empty (and, since this is the only area in the hotel with WiFi, it's a cozy spot to catch up on email). I found the same pleasant atmosphere at the Yosemite Lodge, where rates fall to as low as $89 per night in winter, and there's no fighting for a weekend reservation or to get the attention of a front desk clerk.
There was a mild snowfall and gray skies for a day, perfect timing since the Ahwahnee's Chef's Holidays cooking programs were taking place. This annual January event was started years ago to draw visitors in the off season. Many well-known chefs from San Francisco and other cities, in a delightfully relaxed mood (no Gorden Ramseys here), give hour-long cooking demonstrations twice a day in the Ahwahnee's lovely Great Lounge, all complimentary to visitors. Snow fell on the meadow outside the Lounge's large windows as we sampled cheese from Cowgirl Creamery and a homey vegetable gratin from chefs at Boulette's Larder in San Francisco.
The next morning was spectacular. Skies were a clear blue, the temperature in the low 40s and several inches of powdery snow had accumulated on the ground and in the trees. At the Yosemite Sports Shop I bought "traction devices," those crampon-like doo-hickeys to strap on the bottom of hiking boots. I only recently learned about these things. They are easy to put on all kinds of shoes and seem to prevent slipping on ice. Highly recommended. I took a long walk along the valley's trails, seeing only a few people, all of whom seemed as hushed as I was by the spectacular sight: Yosemite Valley on a brilliant morning after a mid-winter snowfall.