Friday, April 24, 2009

Sacramento Saturdays

One Saturday evening each month the sidewalks in Sacramento's Midtown are teeming with people, New York-style, and restaurants, cafes and art galleries are abuzz with the kind of vibe you don't usually associate with the sleepy state capitol.
This is the area -- between 18th and 26th Streets a few blocks north of the capitol -- where the 2nd Saturday ArtWalk takes place on, yes, the second Saturday of each month. Businesses, including a couple of dozen art galleries, stay open until at least 9 p.m. and offer wine-and-cheese receptions while showcasing their collections of sculpture, painting and other types of art. Street musicians and bands perform outside, people mingle and wander the usually quiet neighborhood and, all in all, it's quite a happening.
The ArtWalk capped a full day in Sacramento where I traveled with a group of travel writers recently. We toured a couple of new hotels, including Le Rivage, a luxury property on the Sacramento River (and home of the local outpost of Scott's Seafood) two miles from downtown, and the snazzy The Citizen, (at right) which Joie De Vivre Hospitality opened in November. The San Francisco- based company, known for its unique and themed hotels in the Bay Area, completely remodeled a handsome 82-year old office tower downtown. The 198-room boutique hotel, with its elegant Art Deco lobby and restaurant, adds a touch of chic to Sacramento's chain-based hotel scene.
I was also able to check out a new exhibit of beautiful Indian baskets from 20 different California tribes at the California Museum (on display until March 14, 2010). It's amazing to see the intricate work such as that done by the Achumawi tribe of Shasta County whose baskets (below), made in 1900, were woven from pine roots, willow shoots, grass and other fibers.
A few blocks south in Old Sacramento I stopped in to revisit everyone's favorite railroad museum, the California State Railroad Museum. Even if you're not a rail buff, you'll understand why people get obsessive about trains when you hop on the steam locomotives, read about the engineering feat of laying track through the Sierras and see the golden "Lost Spike" up close.
Before setting out on the ArtWalk, we had a lovely dinner at Mulvaney's B&L where chef Patrick Mulvaney emphasizes local ingredients and American comfort food served under the tall ceilings of a restored 1893 firehouse. There seems to be more reason than ever to check out Sacramento.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spring in the Pinnacles

April and May are the prime months to visit Pinnacles National Monument, the craggy remains of an ancient volcano that rise out of the Gabilan Mountains in central California, south of the town of Hollister. Last weekend, with the poppies and other wildflowers blooming and the hills a lush green, it was no surprise that the park's campground was at capacity. The weather was in the high 60s, perfect for the two main activities here: hiking and rock climbing. Even with parking lots full, you could still find plenty of solitude along the trails and in quiet moments gazing at the stars in the clear night sky.
Pinnacles is renowned among rock climbers, who love its dramatic outcroppings and sheer walls. The visitor center stocks climbers' guides describing routes. But most people come here to walk the trails and explore the caves and tunnels, many carved from the rock by the Civilian Conservation Corp. during a massive public works project in the 1930s.
A group of friends and I hiked the easy 2.2-mile Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop, where the only challenge was crouching as we negotiated a few tight spots (with flashlights) in the caves. We came across a small bat taking an afternoon nap (photo at right), apparently part of a colony of Townsend's big-eared bats, which stay in the cave year round, according to park literature.

In recent years, the Pinnacles has become known for a much grander winged creature: the California condor. The park is one of only a few release sites in the U.S. and Mexico of this endangered species, which is the largest of North American land birds. A captive breeding program in the 1980s and 1990s has been successful and it's now common to see condors flying and swooping over the high peaks. Their wingspans can reach 10 feet. Two telescopes are available outside the visitor center to help with close up viewing and rangers are often close by to help with identification (they can easily be mistaken for vultures and ravens).
If you go, however, bring your own binoculars to carry along the trails. And, get to the Pinnacles before mid June when the wildflowers fade and the weather really heats up.