Wednesday, October 26, 2011

India's Maharaja at San Francisco's Asian Museum

Jewel-encrusted belt
The throne room
Royal carriage
The Asian Art Museum has emerged from some troubled times with a snazzy new logo and energized strategy for attracting visitors to the world-renowned collection of art treasures at San Francisco Civic Center. The newest exhibit is the spectacular "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," which runs through April 8.
I got a glimpse of it during a recent press preview and am making plans to go back: the galleries are filled with beautiful objects and descriptions of the fascinating history of Indian kingdoms and their rulers from the 1700s to the mid-20 century when British rule ended and it's worth spending more than just an hour.
The exhibit was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it ran from late 2009 to early 2010 and attracted 160,000 visitors, one of the museum's most popular Asian exhibits ever, according to one of the curators.
The 200 objects include elaborate jewelry, costumes and weaponry of the royal families and the royal courts in diverse Indian kingdoms. The first gallery is devoted to descriptions of the maharaja rulers and their ideal qualities and strict set of behaviors: not only were they diplomats and administrators but they were expected to be patrons of the arts. They were apparently real bon vivants: wine flasks and hookahs are inlaid with jade, rubies, emeralds, turquoise and gold. Their thrones were surrounded by exquisite textiles.
The history of the kingdoms and their evolution over the tumultuous 300-year period covered in the exhibition is well described. The British East India Company, which was drawn to India for its riches in spices and textiles, took over and the maharajas fell under British control by the 1840s. But the maharajas managed to maintain some authority and retain their riches and culture as princes as the British empire for several more generations.
The Asian Art Museum has a full calendar of performances, films, evening events and lectures scheduled to accompany the exhibit. Among them is a Nov. 13 screening of the documentary "Merchant Ivory's India" with a talk by Mills College professor Nalini Gwynne after the 2:30 p.m. screening (free with museum admission). Daily docent-led tours are scheduled from 10:15 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Washed Ashore in Marin County

If you haven't been to the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands in a while, it's time to go. The facility was enlarged and enhanced two years ago and it's totally a different place than before when it operated out of trailer-like containers, the sea lions and elephant seal pups enclosed in a few pens. Today, it's a state-of-the-art educational and solar-powered center with terrific displays and an observation deck for watching the marine mammals play in pools.
And, if you go before Oct. 15 you'll find a colorful art exhibit designed to emphasize the dangers pollution and toxic objects are posing to the oceans. Washed Ashore: Plastics, Sea Life and Art was created by Oregon artist Angela Hazeltine Pozzi who used plastics found on the beaches of Oregon. All shapes of bottles and other objects -- some from as far away as China (some have the Beijing Olympics logo) - were picked up and turned into 15 marine life sculptures.
The Marine Mammal Center is the largest such facility in the world. It covers 600 miles of coastline of northern California, and is staffed by a team of scientists who care for marine life in trouble, such as elephant seal pups separated from moms or sea lions who have been shot with rifles. Hundreds of volunteers lend a hand, including helping rescue marine mammals on remote beaches. The center is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can explore on your own or take a docent-led tour for $7 per person.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Peek at San Francisco's New Exploratorium

The San Francisco waterfront is destined to play an even bigger role in the life of the city in the coming years. The tear-down of the Embarcadero freeway and the renovation of the Ferry Building were just the start of the renaissance. New restaurants, cafes, revamped piers and promenades seem to open each year and, with America's Cup sailing races expected to bring hundreds of thousands of people to the area in 2012 and 2013, more developments and improvements are in the works.
One of the most anticipated is the new Exploratorium, San Francisco's museum of "science, art and human perception," which broke ground last fall on Piers 15 and 17, at Embarcadero and Green Streets, about halfway between the Ferry Building and Pier 39. There's a large crane towering over the piers these days and you can even watch as the new building is constructed.
The first phase of the new Exploratorium is a $220 million project on Pier 15 (Pier 17 is on tap for future expansion) set to open in 2013 in a greatly expanded and more modern space than the museum's current home at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Museum staff said they expect visitor numbers to jump with the new, more accessible location, which is only a 10-minute walk from the Embarcadero BART station and along  major transportation lines (as opposed to the current location which is a cross-town journey for many visitors, particularly from the South and East bays.)
The historic pier where the new Exploratorium is being built spans the length of almost three football fields. Engineers drove 160 foot piles underneath the bay to replace, repair and seismically upgrade hundreds of dilapidated pilings and the substructure, which date to the early 20th century. The interior of Pier 15 will be preserved, including its truss structure, which stretches 820 feet — the equivalent of a New York City block.
The Observatory Building, the only new construction, will stand at the eastern end of Pier 15. The sleek, mostly glass structure will house a new gallery, outdoor terrace and a restaurant with panoramic bay views.
You can get a sense of what's coming at nearby Hyatt Regency San Francisco, which is showcasing the Exploratorium during the month of May as part of its "Culture Club" program. Each month, the hotel features a local cultural institution in its huge atrium lobby, North America's largest. (In June, the San Francisco Symphony will be featured; in July, Monterey Bay Aquarium).
Take a wander inside the atrium and check out several interactive exhibits from the Exploratorium that may bring back memories of field trips or afternoons at the Palace of Fine Arts. There's the pendulum snake, circle of waves, spinning eraser and the giant chair, among many others, that are a reminder of why the Exploratorium has been called "a scientific funhouse, art studio and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Spring Northern California Deals

Some tempting San Francisco and northern California packages and deals have appeared recently as hotels and destinations amp up their promotions for the spring and summer. Here are a few of the most interesting:

*In honor of Earth Day April 22 several California wineries are having special events through April.  A sample includes Concannon Vineyards in the Livermore Valley, offering free daily tours of the vineyards and $5 tasting flight of special wines, sourced from its vineyards which were placed in a trust to protect them from urban development. Grgich Hills Estate in the Napa Valley is conducting two-for-one biodynamic estate tours and tastings. Kunde Family Estate in the Sonoma Valley arranged a special “Hike and Taste” tour of its “sustainably certified” vineyards. And, four wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains Organic Wine Trail are pouring their organic wines. For a complete list of events and deals see 

*The Sonoma Creek Inn, which is near the Sonoma Mission Inn outside the town of Sonoma, is discounting stays by 40% for the month of April. Room rates begin at $71.40 Sunday through Thursday nights and $107.40 on weekends.  Those rates include tasting passes to local wineries and a complimentary upgrade at check-in if available. Over in Napa Valley, The Mount View Hotel and Spa in Calistoga put together an eco-friendly weekend getaway package called “Relax, Renew and Cycle” starting at $399 per couple, Sunday through Thursday.
*Two San Francisco hotels near the bayfront also have come up with new packages. The Hyatt Regency San Francisco, within walking distance to the AT&T Park (home of the World Champ Giants for those who slept through last fall), continues to celebrate the 2010 Giants victory. Its “20 Paces to the Bases” package includes accommodations, a $20 food and beverage credit at the hotel and a $25 gift card to the Giants’ Dugout team store. The price starts at $209 per room. At 15-minute walk north along the waterfront, the Fisherman’s Wharf Hyatt created a package called “Awaken” with rates starting at $219 and including a full breakfast for two people in the hotel’s Knuckles restaurant. And the hotel also has a "Home Run" plan, celebrating the Giants, with two all-day MUNI passes to take the F-Line to the park, appetizers at Knuckles and rates starting at $164 (this package is bookable only through April 30).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

San Francisco's (Snow-Covered?) Hills

Strange as it may seem (particularly to those who live in cold weather climates), everyone seems to be talking excitedly about the possibility of snow this week in San Francisco.
It was even mentioned on the NBC Today show this morning: Snow may fall in the city -- for the first time in 30 years -- Friday night or Saturday, particularly in spots 500 feet above sea level.
San Francisco's elevation is generally listed at around 63 feet, but its many hills actually range in elevation from 100 to 928 feet, according to the San Francisco Visitors' Planning Guide, which I picked up today the San Francisco Travel Association.
(The association, the city's tourism promotion agency, was known for decades as the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. It changed its name a few weeks ago, dropping "bureau," which sounded, well, bureaucratic, executives there said).
One fascinating page in the guide is devoted to "San Francisco's Steepest Streets." Here are a few tidbits to keep in mind as we look upward in the coming days for signs of flurries:
*The actual number of hills in the city is highly contested, but counts range from 42 to 74, depending on who is doing the counting.
*San Francisco was originally built on seven hills, just like Rome. They are Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson.
*Some of the city's hills are so steep that roads can't be built on them. More than 300 stairways provide access for residents.
*San Francisco's steepest streets are Filbert between Leavenworth and Hyde and 22nd Street between Church and Vicksburg. Both have a 31.5% grade.
Let it snow!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

News from Three Northern California Getaways

Every year, new attractions and places to explore seem to open up in northern California, and this year is no different. I met with a few destination marketers this week at a California tourism promotion event in San Francisco and picked up some newsy tidbits for northern California weekend getaways.

***In Calaveras County, two new tour companies are taking visitors into the area's many vineyards in different ways: by bike and horseback. A company called Horse and Barrel saddles up in the cute-as-a-button Gold Country town of Murphys -- home of 16 tasting rooms on Main Street -- and leads riders through local vineyards. Wine tasting comes after the horses are back in the barn. A similar concept is behind Get On Your Mark, a Calaveras County outfit founded by a USA certified cycling coach. These "wine" bike adventures feature bike rides through the rural Calaveras countryside and vineyards, lunch and, after the ride, wine tasting to cap it off.

***Up in El Dorado County, home of Coloma, the gold discovery site, tourism promoters are cheering the recent acquisition by the American River Conservancy of the 272-acre Gold Hill Ranch. This is a little-known historic site, just a mile south of Coloma and the Marshall Gold State Historic Park (about 40 miles north of Sacramento).

The ranch was first settled by Japanese from Aizu Wakamatsu, a region of Japan, in 1869. It is the birthplace of the first naturalized Japanese-American and the only community established by samurai outside of Japan. The Japanese who lived here started silk worm farming and cultivated tea, rice, citrus, peaches and other stone fruit. The National Park Service recently placed the site -- called Wakamatsu Colony -- on the National Register of Historic Places at a level of "national significance." Plans are in the works to open 19th century farmhouses and acres of beautiful hilly and oak-dotted land to the public.

***In Santa Cruz, two landmarks are celebrating milestones in 2011. The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse opened 25 years ago to commemorate a young surfer who lost his life to the sport. The small red-brick building, perched on the cliffs overlooking the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, is home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Several of the original long-board surfboards (some made from redwood planks) from the early days of surfing hang from the walls. Other exhibits include surfing industry legend and pioneer Jack O'Neill's prototype wetsuits.

A few minutes' walk away at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the beautiful old carousel turns 100 this year.  One of the few remaining carousels in the U.S. with an actual brass ring, riders of one of 72 hand-carved horses and colorful chariots can try to reach it as they pass. The other boardwalk historic landmark -- the thundering Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster -- has a few years to go before its centennial. It opened in 1924.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

SF Eats: It Sure Did and Still Does

Anyone who has lived in San Francisco -- or eaten in San Francisco -- for a decade or more may feel pangs of nostalgia at the San Francisco Public Library's main branch at Civic Center these days. The exhibition, San Francisco Eats, on display through March 20, traces the history of the city through its food-obsessed culture.
Long before the term "foodie" was coined, people were crazy about eating in San Francisco and this exhibit shows why.
Who couldn't resist Fisherman's Wharf when it was lined with crab shacks and fishermen eating elbow to elbow with the locals? Or more elegant places to dine, such as the Fior d'Italia, Trader Vic's and the Cliff House?

The displays of old menus, historic photos and cookbooks are nicely shown in two areas, the Skylight gallery on the library's top floor and the Jewett gallery on the bottom floor.
The Jewett exhibit focuses on ethnic neighborhoods -- the Mission, North Beach and Chinatown -- and the impact of immigration on San Francisco dining.
The top floor gallery has a large collection of old restaurant menus, which are charming for their delightful graphics and interesting for their content. It looks as if calf brains (a nickel for a plate) and frog legs were standard menu items back in the late 1800s and that it was common for a fish restaurant to have a section on "casseroles" -- which seemed to consist of fish baked in a cheesy au gratin style.
An old Fish Grotto menu lists dishes such as Baked Barracuda and the meager cheese selection (only five choices, two of them are Swiss and Monterey cheese) made me pause and appreciate living in the 21st century.
There's a lot of attention paid to San Francisco restaurants that have passed the 100-year mark (the Fior, Tadich, Sam's, among them). The earliest menu is from a restaurant called The Ward House from 1849 and one of the non-menu items on display is a roasted peanut wagon that the Houtalas', the Greek immigrant family that first managed the Cliff House, operated along Ocean Beach in 1906.
The library has scheduled San Francisco Bites, food-oriented movie screenings and panel discussions in conjunction with the exhibit. The next presentation is on Tuesday, Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. when a panel of local food bloggers will talk about the city's neighborhoods, the foraging phenomenon and today's changing food culture, followed by a Q&A session. The main library is at 100 Larkin Street at the corner of Grove. The phone is 415-557-4277.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Updated San Francisco Travel Apps Released

In time for San Francisco Chinatown's annual big event -- New Year's -- my Chinatown travel guide app for iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches has been updated and released by Sutro Media with more photos and information on places to see, where to eat and shop in this most historic of the city's neighborhoods.

This year's festivities -- celebrating the Year of the Rabbit -- kick off on Saturday, Jan. 29 at 10:30 a.m. with a procession of lion dancers, bands and local dignitaries starting at St. Mary's Square and following the original parade route -- down Grant Avenue -- first established in the 1860s.

Of course, the big deal comes a few weeks later -- this year on the evening of Feb. 19 -- when the Chinese New Year's parade, sponsored by Southwest Airlines, makes its way from downtown to Chinatown, a brightly-colored 250-foot-long Golden Dragon capping it all.  It's the largest celebration of Asian culture outside of Asia, and hundreds of thousands watch the spectacle (even in chilly, rainy weather).

My second San Francisco travel guide app, North Beach and Fisherman's Wharf  was also just updated and rereleased with more entries and photos, including the newish bar and restaurant, Comstock Saloon, which combines a taste of the city's old Barbary Coast (it's named after Henry Comstock and the famous Comstock Lode) and today's trendy "mixologist"  cocktail culture in one swell place (my favorite spots are the booths along the wood-paneled bar's walls). Check out the apps by clicking on the links above or searching on iTunes (under Travel and San Francisco). Enjoy them on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.