Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Redding! Who Knew?

"It's the most expensive trailhead in the world," said Bob Warren, president of the Redding Convention and Visitors Bureau, as he showed me and a group of travel writers the city's Sundial Bridge a couple of weeks ago. Warren is all smiles today about the $23.2 million span that is the southern point of the Sacramento River Recreation Trail.

But he and others here admit there was some apprehension when the city fathers came up with the idea of asking world famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design a pedestrian span over the Sacramento River. It was a lot of money to spend on a bridge for a relatively small city (pop. 90,000). And, the design was daring, a walking surface of translucent glass with a 21-story pylon on the north bank of the river that supports the bridge. (Town lore has it that Calatrava was taken by the innocence of the Redding official who called his studio one day and happened to reach the busy architect, who was intrigued by the offer of a relatively obscure northern California town wanting him to design a bridge).

Take a walk today day or night on the Sundial Bridge and there's no doubt the success of the span, which has become not only an landmark for Redding but a hugely popular spot for locals. The bridge brings residents out in the evenings, giving them a place to go. Beyond that it's a piece of striking architecture that, some would say, shows what good design can do for a city. (It also has a function. Because of the exact north-south orientation of the span, the pylon is, in effect, the upright element of the sundial, making it the world's tallest). It's a shame that the adjacent riverside cafe closes in the at dusk because on a recent warm evening all that was needed was a light aperitif or a cup of coffee sipped on its patio and you could have mistaken Redding for a European city as you watched couples and families stroll the bridge.

It's the perfect starting point to a hike, bike or Segway ride on the Sacramento River Trail, which follows an old rail line along the river. There are about nine miles of trails today but more are being added all the time. When completed in a couple of years the trail system will reach all the way to Shasta Dam, 13 miles north. Some of the prettiest parts of the trail are from the Sundial Bridge a couple of miles to the Ribbon Bridge and returning on the other side of the river.

There's much more to recreation around Redding, however. A few miles east is Whiskeytown Lake, which is among the towering Klamath Mountains and includes snow-covered 6,199-foot Shasta-Bally. Part of the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area, the lake has forest-covered shoreline, a sandy beach, many campsites, loads of picnic places, hiking trails and water-related activities, including free (yes, something free courtesy of Uncle Sam!) ranger-led kayak trips twice daily.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Surf's Up, Or Not

The heat wave that hit the Bay Area last week spared Santa Cruz. While most of the region was blistering hot (even in San Francisco temperatures shot up to 97 degrees) Santa Cruz was comfortable, in the low 90s with a cool ocean breeze.
But Thursday, the peak of the heat wave, wasn't a great day for surfers at the legendary Steamer Lane surfing spot off of West Cliff Drive. The waters were relatively calm and there were long waits between waves.
On the cliff above Steamer Lane, I poked around the red brick Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (above), the home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. This is a tiny one-room museum -- the first surfing museum in the world when it opened in 1986 -- but it's packed with fascinating stuff. Particularly interesting are the photographs of Hawaiian royalty who introduced the sport to mainlanders at Santa Cruz and the long wooden surfboards used in the early 1900s.
The big news in Santa Cruz these days is the renovation and re-opening of the Dream Inn, the multi-story hotel on West Cliff Drive overlooking Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Cowell Cove, where thousands of surfers learned the sport. Expect a much-needed stylish boutique hotel, operated by Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the dynamic San Francisco hotel company, to emerge in June, just in time for the peak season.

I headed a couple of miles north of the Dream Inn, along cliff-hugging West Cliff Drive, to Natural Bridges State Park. The park (photo above) is always full of schoolchildren on field trips to learn about the migration of the 100,000 plus Monarch butterflies that spend the winter clustered on the eucalyptus trees here. I've never made it for butterfly season but the exhibits at the visitors center inspired me to mark my calendar for a visit sometime next November or December.
That's months away. Until then, there's lots of summer to enjoy.