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A Belt Across California: Marin-Napa-Tahoe-Berkeley-San Francisco

Muir Woods/Muir Beach/Green Gulch Farm

Every time I'm in San Francisco, I'm amazed again by the powerfully exotic nature and scenery within a short drive. For example: the trio of attractions at Muir Woods, http://www.nps.gov/muwo/, almost within sight of the city in Mill Valley, in scenic Marin County.

There is something deeply calming about a forest of really tall trees. The last time I felt it was in the giant Douglas fir forests that populate the massiveness of Olympic National Park, in Washington State. In its hundreds of square miles, very lightly visited, it's easy to get lost in the stillness and beauty, and rarely or perhaps never see another human being.

But Muir Woods, less than half an hour from San Francisco or Berkeley and packed into a much smaller area than Olympic, is teeming with tourists, many of them local—even on a Thursday afternoon. The parking lot is full, the trails are crowded. And yet, among these beautiful redwoods, again that deep peace. Somehow, when you're gazing up at cluster after cluster of 200-foot-tall conifers, your cares slip away, even as you're hearing groups of people talking and laughing and posing for photos in a dozen different languages.

The trails, for the most part, are easy and much smoother than trails in the east, and many of them are flat, making this a good destination for people with walking disabilities. However, if that's not your category, it's nice to get up on one of the higher trails, so that you can see the treetops rising from across the creek. The shade is deep, and yet sun does filter through the canopy, creating striking red highlights among the infinite varieties of brown at the bottom, green at the top. Many other species coexist with the redwoods (laurel, cypress, various oaks, to name a few)—but it's those amazingly tall, straight trunks that draw your attention and touch you with their magic. Some of them have been growing here for a thousand years. (No exaggeration; a slice of a fallen giant shows it was 1029 in 1930 when it died.)

We walked for three hours, not beginning to exhaust the park, and not even entering adjacent Mt. Tamalpais State Park (http://www.mttam.net/, known locally as Mount Tam), which, at 2571 feet, dominates the skyline of Berkeley, across the bay. Clearly, one could spend days in this compact but elegant wilderness.

Exiting the park, we turned right at the Pelican Inn (the sign for the beach faces the other direction, so the inn makes a good landmark). Muir Beach brings you into contact with an entirely different force of nature: the Pacific Ocean. The semicircular beach is modest sized, but it has some cool rock formations, where you can watch the surf spray high in the air as it hits the rocks. Not many people actually in the frigid but deeply refreshing water, but quite a few lying on the beach.

A number of hiking trails lead off the beach, some going up the steep desert hill that rises right from the shore (and offers very nice views). One flat trail from the parking lot (turn left at the first junction and pass through the gate) goes to Green Gulch Farm, a/k/a Green Dragon Zen Center, an organic farm and retreat center whose vast plantings of greens and brassicas—and lovely flower gardens—are open to the public at no charge. (It's also possible to arrange a stay there, or attend conferences and workshops: http://www.sfzc.org/ggf/) The trial is lined with blackberries, wild fennel, and other goodies, and herons, hawks, ravens, and pelicans make merry above.

Muir Woods: Admission $5 per adult, or with a National Parks pass

Muir Beach: Free admission

Winding Through Wineries

Another very popular quick-getaway destination from either the Bay Area or Sacramento is the winery district around Napa and Sonoma. Over 400 wineries, from household names to obscure boutique brands, cluster along these valleys, and many of them have public tastings.

Neither Dina nor I know very much about wine, but we were visiting friends near Sacramento who are very knowledgeable—self-described wine snobs, in fact.

We started at Domain Chandon, http://www.chandon.com/web/visit-us/tastings.cfm, a faux 18th-century French chateau built in the 1980s, with a beautiful hilltop view of the surrounding vineyards and a big chunk of the valley. This vineyard was set up much more like a restaurant, with outdoor seating on the terrace, and full waiter service with prices on the menu. Letting our friends pick for us, we all shared two white sparkling wines and two Pinot Noirs—a modest and expensive in each category—plus a fruit and cheese plate. Oddly enough, both we and our far more wine-worldly friends preferred the cheaper ones in both red and white.

The other two we stopped at were much more the traditional tasting station/store. Three brands with common ownership share a store: Napa Cellars, http://napacellars.com/winery.php; Folie à Deux, and Ménage à Trois, both online at http://www.folieadeux.com/home.html. They were pouring a very nice 2005 Sirah, as we sneaked in at the very end of their day.

Our final stop, Elizabeth Spencer, http://www.elizabethspencerwines.com/, is a tiny boutique winery with a shop that looks like a brick Victorian carriage house, with an outdoor sipping area in back. We tried another Sirah, which our friends praised mightily, but I liked the Napa Cellars version better. Then a lovely backroads drive through mountains and two lakes, along California 128 into Davis.

Tahoe/Truckee

The drive along U.S. 50 (Sacramento, CA to Ocean City, MD) into Lake Tahoe is really lovely: vista after vista of pine-covered mountains, and even though you're climbing fast (from 4000 to almost 7000 feet in about 20 minutes), it feels very gradual, and the road is much more straight than curved. The last few miles, though, are a steep and winding descent, dropping a good chunk of what you've just gained.

South Lake Tahoe, although quite developed, is more pleasant than I'd expected. As a long-established resort, the development is for the most part an older, rustic style, with a lot of cabins for rent, lakeside views, a nice beach, and a wide array of inexpensive restaurants—yet lacking the tawdry neon glare that envelops so many resort towns—until east of the beach, the last few blocks before the Nevada line, which have been densely developed in the last couple of years, with a ski resort, a Marriott resort, several large hotels, and a retail strip emphasizing corporate chains. We chose takeout from Sprouts, a vegetarian-Mexican place with excellent food and ample portions, on the east side of the old town just west of the big beach (corner of Alameda), and then walked a couple of hundred feet to picnic on the beach.

Continuing east, we went through Stateline, which is quite tawdry and, starting the very spot of the Nevada state line, dominated by big casinos. But it's only a few blocks long, and then the east side of the lake is surprisingly undeveloped—and particularly lovely gazing west as the setting sun is reflected in the lake. Other than Incline Village, the northern border with California at Crystal Bay, and one or two other spots, most of the east shore is woods and shoreline, with a few houses scattered here and there and almost no commercial development. As the lakeshore turns along the north edge, it's back into California, and there is a built-up area a few miles on both sides of the border. Still, it's mercifully brief.

And the roads are some of the easiest mountain driving I've ever experienced, with good pavement, a high degree of engineering, few sharp turns and no switchbacks.

Route 267 cuts northwest 13 miles into Truckee, which is our base. We're staying at the Truckee Hotel, a mid-19th-century establishment in the center of town. The public spaces have been nicely restored, and the second-floor balcony is a nice place to hang out, with a view of the mountains (one of them showing a few snow patches, even in July). The rooms are simple: a bed, a dresser, a fan (no air conditioning), a couple of electrical outlets, and a small sink. The hotel does have free wi-fi and includes breakfast.

One problem any hotel in downtown Truckee will have: four times between 11:40 p.m. and about 3 a.m. a train swooped through the center of town, horn blaring loudly as it passed the intersection immediately next to the hotel. Tim, the manager, told me some nights there are no trains at all, and some nights there are as many as four. He's actually going after the train-watcher market.

The town includes quite a number of historic buildings. Walking downtown, the storefronts themselves are just as interesting as their merchandise. A lot of high ceilings, wood panels, and such, and many of the stores cater to the nostalgia trend, with neo-Victorian fashions, 60s-era kids' lunchboxes, and so forth. An outdoor/sporting goods store is done in a historic gas station with 20s-era pumps out front, still keeping the vintage Flying A illuminated signage.

For us, the highlight of the town was breakfast at JAX at the Tracks, an immaculately restored diner, glittering in aluminum, chrome, and glass brick, serving not only traditional diner "comfort food" but also modern fusion fare; the owner describes this just-opened venture as "a diner with an edge." I ordered the cappuccino brioche French toast, and voted it the best French toast I've ever had in a restaurant.

With a gorgeous day for our time on the west shore, we built our day around hiking. The first several miles, from Kings Beach on the Nevada border through Tahoe City, are pretty built up and not very exciting. But shortly after the turnoff to 89 north (the alternate route to Truckee), it becomes much more scenic.

Just before Tahoe Pines, a dramatic bluff juts above the road. Noticing some hikers at the top, we parked in the small lot by the trailhead, just south of the cliff itself. Sure enough, trails on both the north (slightly easier) and south sides of the bluff follow a powerline most of the way to the top, and from there, a labyrinth of trails reach the summit. It's only about 15 minutes each way, and the views above the lake are spectacular, making this one of the highest reward-to-work ratios of any hike I've ever done.

The most beautiful scenery around the lake is in the southwest corner, in D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay State Parks, and that's where we took our longer hike. Our walk in these two interconnected parks included the lovely Eagle Falls, the Swedish replica mansion Vikingsholm, and the bay itself, which we found to be the prettiest part of this very pretty lake. The climb to Vikingsholm descends one mile along a wide and well-maintained trail from the road to the lakeshore and castle, with swimming at the bottom for those hearty enough. We put our feet in the water, but it was much too cold for our swimming standards. Side trails at both the top and bottom lead to the falls, though as far as we could tell, they didn't connect and we returned on the same trail we'd arrived on. The trail was labeled as steep, with warnings not to use it if you had medical conditions, etc. However, we hike much steeper trails at home, although not at 6000 feet up! By the time we climbed back up, the heat of the day had passed and it felt quite easy.

The whole area is full of hiking trails, including the Tahoe Rim/Pacific Coast Trail, which circles the entire lake from the nearby mountaintops, and which would take several days of long hiking to complete. But we were happy with our choices.

Berkeley and San Francisco

Berkeley in mid-July is amazingly floral. Almost every yard has flowers planted, and the Berkeley style is not the tightly manicured look favored elsewhere. Berkeley plantings tend toward the wild and free, a carefully landscaped simulacrum of an untended garden. Both dry- and wet-climate plants seem to flourish here. Aloes, succulents, and even cacti cohabit with citrus, palm, crepe myrtle, and bamboo. Among the natural cedar shingles of the Arts & Crafts-era houses, the look is unique.

The sprawling and elegantly landscaped University of California campus dominates the town's central core, while several shopping and dining streets radiate out. Ethnic eatery concentrations are particularly strong along Shattuck around University and in the Elmwood strip centered on College and Russell, where retail shops of all descriptions tout their Green virtues.

We got to explore a few different neighborhoods in San Francisco: the Castro, still as gay as ever; Fort Mason, with its lovely waterfront walks and parks including vides of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin, and Alcatraz; the Marina, where San Franciscans go for ethnic eats; hip, bohemian North Beach, with its Italian caffés and the world-famous City Lights poetry bookstore; elegant Russian Hill, with twisty Lombard Street now featuring massive plantings of blooming hydrangea; Chnatown, dense with grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants and teeming with Asian shoppers carrying their purchases in little plastic bags; Union Square and adjacent South of Market, both mixing art galleries, museums, upscale name-brand department stores, and fancy hotels.

San Francisco/Berkeley Discoveries

Books Inc, 2275 Market St, SF 415.864.6777, http://www.booksinc.net, bills itself as the West's oldest independent bookstore, tracing its routes back to 1851. We sampled one of the eleven locations, in the heart of San Francisco's Castro District, and I found that in every stack or display, there were books I wanted to read.

Trattoria La Siciliana, 2993 College Avenue, Berkeley, 510-704-1474, TrattoriaLaSiciliana.com. Wonderful Sicilian food and an Old World atmosphere, run by the D'Alo family. Angelo, our maitre d' (who is usually one of the head chefs), flirted with all the women, kissed them on the cheek and firmly shook hands with the men, offered a wine-tasting while we were waiting for our table, and a bit of limoncello liqueur on our way out. Do not come here in a rush; you will make an evening of it. Everything is made to order, and they're even willing to use vegetarian broth in the superb risotto. Everything we tasted was delicious. The place is packed and reservations are strongly suggested. Even with a reservation, it was a long wait, but Angelo entertained us in the meantime.

Yerba Buena Farmers Market, inside the Metreon shopping mall at 4th and Mission, SF. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, this includes produce stands, specialty foods such as mustards and marinated mushrooms, and a wide range of ethnic food booths offering very reasonable prices for lunch in this expensive shopping district. We enjoyed very well-made Israeli-style falafels in whole wheat pita, crammed with items from the self-service salad bar: cabbage, cucumber, assorted pickles, tahini, hot sauce, even sauerkraut. $7 and it was totally filling and quite delicious. Other choices in the market included stuffed Afghani breads, Mexican, Asian, and African cuisine. Many of the merchants offer samples (we liked the Afghani bread and the fresh peaches, especially).

Caffé Roma, 526 Columbus Avenue, SF, www.cafferoma.com. On-premises coffee roasting, great sandwiches (the baguettes are spectacular), and a friendly atmosphere. Less crowded than many of its North Beach competitors, at least during our visit.

XOX Truffles, Inc., 754 Columbus Avenue, SF, www.xoxtruffles.com. French-owned and operated artisan chocolatier making exquisite truffles, by hand. Worth the splurge.


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