Do you love camping? Or maybe NOT! My personal experience of contending with the rigors of the natural elements: Earth, wind, fire and water has been severely limited by my obsession for running water and electricity close at hand. Oh, and yes indeed, I‘ve heard this convenience, too, has entered the camping world. Well, perhaps I will need to amend my opinion that “My idea of camping is a reservation at the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park, of course."
Yosemite is a wonderment of natural design in the High Sierra Mountains and majesty to experience, and there is plenty of camping to be had. However, the camping concept needed an alternative arrangement for me. With minimal preparation and virtually no hassle, my adventurous husband and I (to a lesser degree, intrepid) made the three-hour sojourn to spend a week in the ambiance of awe-inspiring beauty just outside Yosemite: Groveland.
We decided to stay at the Thousand Trails RV Campground, which has small hardsided cabins (left) in addition to full-hookup campsites, tent sites and yurts. Ten rental cabins with all the user-friendly amenities are located at Yosemite Lakes on the Tuolumne River, just five miles from the West Gate of the park. This South Fork of the gentle river traversing along the perimeter of the 400-acre campground is ideal for swimming, fishing and panning for gold.
Our experience was really over the top with spectacular weather, awesome adventures, hiking and sightseeing, and did I mention the unbelievably cozy cabin? With kitchen, bedroom, living room and, oh yes, bathroom with hot water shower, it is fully appointed with heat, AC, satellite TV, an enclosed front porch and outdoor picnic table. The cabin sleeps 4, and comes equipped with all cooking and eating utensils, even bed and bath linens for a small additional price. We found the knotty pine -lined interior with dual paned windows to be a no-frills option to other outdoor camping choices that offers all the practical conveniences for a stress-free stay.
We packed a couple folding chairs and our trusty little, dusty little, ever-portable Smoky Joe barbeque and a grub box filled with staples for cookouts, and away we went. There is a country store on premises, but by no means would it be confused with your full service hometown supermarket. The best shopping for any and everything is in the quaint hamlet of Groveland, population 1,500, just a few minutes down the road on Hwy 120.
Wild flowers border the scenic route into town and follow the bumpy road to Back Street, where an ancient-looking book shop resides; nearby is the tiny Post Office. Trailing wild blackberry vines, loaded with fruit for the picking can be found near small businesses on the side roads.
We took in the pleasures of strolling along the several blocks of this historic community that was once a boom town of gold-rushers, bars and bordellos in the years between 1848 and 1870. Supplanted by cattle ranches and a trickle of tourists with their sights set on reaching the treasured National landmark of Yosemite, one noteable iconic landmark remains even yet: The famous Iron Door Saloon, (below right) which is noted as the oldest continuously operating saloon in California.
Built around 1852, its original doors were shipped around the Horn from England and continue to swing open for an unusual treat, where children are welcome with a menu of their own, live music and dancing afford entertainment in the evenings and within its hollowed walls resides a museum unto itself.
Another well-known attraction is the Hotel Charlotte, an ornate 10-room bed and breakfast on the National Register of Historic Places. It is reasonably priced and includes breakfast for two and also has a gourmet menu for lunch and dinner and a full barl.
The lure of the fresh fragrance of Firefall Coffee Roasting Company drew us in for lattes and fresh baked cinnamon rolls on our way to Serendipity Antiques, ensconced in a turn of the century home, impossible to resist. The Pizza Factory and Baskin Robbins Ice Cream parlor was a clear destination on one day and the Cocina Michoacana Authentic Mexican Restaurant on another. Clearly, our palates were satisfied.
Groveland hosts an annual 49er Festival (not the football kind) on the third Saturday of September, (this year: Sept. 17) sponsored by the Yosemite Chamber of Commerce, replete with kid’s activities, an antique airplane flyover and parade with live music. The Ranger District office of the Stanislaus National Forest and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection are centered in Groveland. There is, unquestionably, a small town look and feel in Groveland, 26 persons per square mile, where local ranchers still run herds down the main street in town. While beyond, Groveland is home to Pine Mountain Lake community, once a retirement center, where its Marina is their most popular beach
For more thrills and water sports, Lake Don Pedro, just 35 miles west, offers boating and water-skiing opportunities. Within the region, Moaning Caverns is a must to see. Its California’s largest tourist cavern of long-standing notoriety for the howling sounds emitted as the wind travels through deep hollow spaces.
Columbia State Park is within less than an hour’s drive and the Hetch Hetchy Dam Project, of 1914, diverting upper watershed from the Tuolumne River for the city of San Francisco are local points of interest.
On the property of Yosemite Lakes campground, we visited the lodge and family center, where the WI-FI connection provided service for computers and I-pads; cell phone service is patchy at best in the area. A pool table, lounge area and TV room serve for more relaxing activities. On site are horseshoe pits, basketball court, ping-pong, volleyball court, mini golf, laundry facilities and a fish-cleaning station.
Although a membership RV resort, Thousand Trails, in the Mother Lode of the Sierra Foothills, offers public check-ins for use of their facility, including group use. For more information, call 1-209-962-0108. Groveland Chamber of Commerce is at www.groveland.org --- KRB
Karen Balch is a retired nurse, freelance writer, avid traveler and San Ramon resident. You can reach her at
Last Updated (Friday, 16 September 2011 01:48)
San Diego is said to be the most desirable vacation location in all of California, and it’s easy to see why. The perfect weather, sandy beaches, rollicking fun for the kids and headliner entertainment is the perfect mix for vacation success. For your fun-filled vacation any time of the year, temperatures are mild, rainfall is minimal and the dress code is clean, casual and comfortable.
Transportation by auto, airlines or Amtrak train will make connections to the local transit systems: The Breeze, an extensive bus system, The Coaster, a commuter train that connects to San Diego Airport and along the coast to Carlsbad or the Metrolink, high speed light rail commuter from Oceanside to Los Angeles.
While in the San Diego area, you might consider a visit to the neighboring village of Carlsbad. It’s a few minutes drive on Highway 5, and offers great shopping, restaurants, and entertainment. Here are 15 things to see and do while you are in San Diego and Carlsbad:
To get started, check in at www.sandiego.org for coupons, a list of special events and visitor information.
1. Then you might want to check out the best ever sightseeing transportation on Old Town Trolley Tours, (www.trolleytours.com), which will provide an impressive overview of the variety of places to go and sights to see. Hop on and off all day and get a narrated tour through San Diego and across to Coronado. There’s no better way to see the big picture.
2. Ocean-view lodging accommodations offer the perfect setting for walks or picnics on the beach or a sail-away with Guided Nature Cruise to Coronado Islands by San Diego Harbor Excursion (www,flagshipsd.com). Rates: Adults $50 and $40 for kids 4 to 12.
3. Combine sightseeing with a Hornblower cruise (www.hornblower.com) brunch or dinner event, which often include live music or fireworks.
4. In the San Diego Harbor Embarcadero, many points of interest can be viewed in a 15 minute walk: Maritime Museum of historic ship collections, Aircraft Carrier USS Midway, Seaport Village, and Coronado Ferry Landing, waterfront park and a fishing pier.
5. The US Naval Air Station is housed on Coronado North Island. More details at www.thebigbay.com.
6. If exploring is your passion, or you delight in historical haunts, there are 43 venues to satisfy your curiosity listed on www.sandiegomuseumcouncil.org From oceanic hidden treasures to the reaches of outer space, art, science and gardening exhibits are provided by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, committed to increasing awareness of the region’s cultural diversity. Admission rates vary, but many are free. For example: Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is free as well as Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum at Miramar.
7. Balboa Park, just minutes from downtown, is home to the San Diego Zoo, lush gardens, performing arts, cultural exhibitions and the vintage Automotive Museum. Every Sunday at 2 p.m., a free concert at Spreckles Organ Pavilion showcases one of the world’s largest outdoor musical instruments, a 50-ton organ with 4,518 pipes. Parking is provided in the spacious Inspiration Point lot with a free tram service to the heart of the park, the visitors center and other stops throughout the park. Audio devices are available for walking tours and there are ten food venues in the park.
8. A trip over to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on the eastern outskirts of San Diego is where you will see the most exotic Asian and African animals. You can ride the African Tram Carousel, Caravan Safari, a Rolling (Segway) Safari or Flightline (Soaring) Safari. Reach out and feed the animals, and be sure to look for discounts on day passes at kiosks displaying attraction brochures or on line at www.sandiegozoo.org.
9. In Old Town San Diego, within the plaza of unique shops, open air vendors and eateries, is Casa de Reyes, where incredible giant margaritas and homemade tortillas are served by staff dressed in authentic Mexican attire and accompanied by strolling Mariachis. You can choose from outdoor patio dining amid bubbling fountains and flourishing native plants, or cozy indoor seating for lunch or dinner.
10. The Gaslamp Quarter, a 16-block area in the downtown sector, was founded by Alonzo Horton in 1867, for whom the plaza is named. Comprised mostly of shops and restaurants, an account of its colorful legends comes to life with a docent narration during a $10 walking tour guided by the Gaslamp Historical Foundation. Informative and spiced with ribald candor of the past in the days of Wyatt Earp and the sequestered brothel in the ornate Louis Bank of Commerce. Go to: www.gaslampquarter.org/tours.
11. An adventure to Coronado Island (actually a peninsula and tethered to San Diego via a 2.2 mile free bridge) is a “Walker’s Paradise.” Flat and a little more than a mile across, you can view the island’s most charming features up close. A reasonable alternative is rental of bikes, an electric cart, beach cruiser or 4-passenger surrey to traverse the Naval Air Station island, replete with character from the early days of founding the heritage architectural marvel, the Del Coronado Hotel.
12. A visit toThe Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, the non-profit, world- renowned repository of gem information, display of precious gems, leading education and research center, offers guided tours and a look into student classrooms. This world class multilevel showcase of “A girl’s best friend” in every color of the rainbow is a one of a kind fascination. See more at www.gia.edu.
13. The Museum of Making Music, in picturesque coastal Carlsbad, is a fun, educational and interactive musical venture for the entire family. Not only are there detailed exhibits of 450 different vintage musical instruments, and their uses, along with samples of the most memorable tunes shaping our collective musical experience. In a room dedicated to hands-on use, you will find many favorite instruments to try out. Admission: $3 to $5 Details at: www.museumofmakingmusic.org.
14. Next door in Carlsbad, Legoland Waterpark and Sealife Aquarium offers more than 60 rides, shows and attractions for the entire family, including the intriguing specialties such as the lost tombs in Land of Adventure, Pirate Shores and Castle Hill. Information at: www.LegoLand.com
15. Nostalgia of the Old West can be relived on a visit to the Leo Carillo Ranch Historic Park in Carlsbad. Once part of a 2,500-acre working Rancho and home of the 1950’s TV actor of Cisco Kid fame, Carillo played the starring role of sidekick, Poncho, with his horse, Conquistador. Now a 27- acre park with meticulously preserved and restored Hacienda, Cantina, pool, barn, stable, gardens and more, visitors have an opportunity to reminisce into the historic western past on a free, self-guided tour or a 90-minute guided tour on weekends. Visit: www.leocarilloranch.org.
Karen Balch is a retired nurse, avid traveler and freelance writer. She lives in San Ramon and writes regularly for allnewsnoblues.com.
Last Updated (Tuesday, 17 April 2012 03:26)
Due to popular demand, we are revisiting this story in time for a visit to the desert during the season. This year, due to excessive rain, the desert flowers are at their peak in March and April. Enjoy!
Whether you are into shopping, the outdoors, entertainment or just lounging by the pool, Palm Springs is your weekend destination. A little more than an hour by plane (Alaska Airlines has three daily non-stops from SFO) or about seven hours by car, this desert community has something for everyone.
More than 100 years ago, Palm Springs was a sleepy village situated in what were once hallowed Indian canyons. By the turn of the 20th Century, it was thought to be a place with restorative powers, due to the natural hot springs. By the 1920’s, it was discovered by movie makers and the Hollywood elite. Considered just far enough from Los Angeles to be out of the reach of tyrannical studio heads, movie stars flocked to the area to let down their hair and party like early rock stars.
As the era of Old Hollywood faded, the “Rat Pack,” headed by Frank Sinatra made it their own, building luxurious homes and backing the building of high end resorts and golf courses. But by the 80s, Palm Springs had become a faded beauty, known for tacky tee-shirt shops and retirees.
Enter Sonny Bono. The entertainer, restaurant entrepreneur and social activist ran for mayor and to everyone’s surprise, won the seat. Bono worked hard to bring the charisma back to the area, starting the Palm Springs International Film Festival, helping to restore the city core and bringing media attention back to the desert community. Sadly, he was killed in a tragic ski accident in 1998 .
But his work and dreams live on. Today, Palm Springs is a happening place, full of fascinating things to do, places to visit and of course that unbeatable weather.
Here’s how you can experience your own Palm Springs Weekend:
3:00 p.m.: Take the mid-afternoon flight from SFO to PSP. Check into the Ace Hotel, the newest and hippest hotel in the city. You may see in its stark white walls and orange doors a faint resemblance to a 60’s Motel 6, which it once was. The room rate varies by season, so check the website to make reservations.
6:00 p.m.: Head to Tropicale in downtown PS for cocktails and dinner. The outside patio is a great place to meet new friends while you enjoy the warm evening air. The restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating. Serving a Hawaiian Fusion menu, entrees run from about $15 to $25.
10:00 p.m.: Don’t miss a show of the Palm Springs Follies. You may have to order tickets ahead of time as this is the most popular show in the city. 60 and 70 year old showgirls sing and dance their way through the music of the 1930s to 1950s. Las Vegas has nothing on this extravaganza.
9:00 a.m.: After breakfast at the Kings Highway at the Ace, rent scooters right out front and motor around the fascinating mid-century neighborhoods nearby. Stop at the top of Palm Canyon Drive, and look south for a dead on view of Bob Hopes house, designed by famed architect John Lautner.
Noon: Park your scooter in front of LOOK, for lunch. The lime green and black and white décor makes for a perfect place to experience the ultimate PS vibe. The food and service are the best with a covered patio to keep you out of the sun. My favorite, a wrap called Nuts and Clucks runs just under $10.
2:00 p.m.: Continue your scooter tour through the downtown neighborhoods of Las Palmas, The Movie Colony and Old Tuscany. Get a map of the celebrity homes just about anywhere downtown so you don’t miss the pad where Elvis spent his honeymoon with Priscilla or the Peter Lawford house, where it’s said Marilyn Monroe secretly met with Bobby Kennedy.
6:00 p.m.: Cool your tired body with a margarita and dinner at El Mirasol. This come as you are Mexican restaurant attracts all types, from blue haired grandmas to families to in- the-know gay men. Get there early, as it gets crowded. Once you have your table, don’t hurry the meal. The people-watching is as good as the food. Their signature margarita is about $8, but the food itself is very inexpensive.
9:00 p.m.: Stroll along the retro shops of north Palm Canyon. Window shop, take in an art gallery opening or grab a gelato.
10:00 a.m.: Right across from the Ace is Koffi, where you can sit by the fountain and enjoy the view of Mt. Jacinto. Also be sure to check out Koffi downtown, where Sunday morning is an event with the grassy yard filled with morning people and their dogs. Right next door is Just Fabulous, where you can buy gifts, cards and books on the history and homes of Palm Springs.
1:00 p.m.: Palm Springs is famous for its consignment stores. Two of the best are The Estate Sale and J & J Consignments. Peruse everything from furniture to art to jewelry here. If you see something you like, buy it. By tomorrow, it may be gone.
4:00 p.m.: As your afternoon draws to a close, take time to lounge by the pool. The Ace pool area is usually rocking with a lively crowd on late Sunday afternoons.
7:00 p.m.: Palm Springs is loaded with entertainment options. From the McCallum Theatre to the Annenberg Theater to the many casinos in the area, there is always a great artist in town. Recent concerts ran the gamut from Reba McIntyre to Earth, Wind and Fire to Adam Lambert.
Sadly, you’ll have to catch that Monday flight home. But this is one weekend you won’t forget while you make notes of all the things still to do on your next visit.--SEW
140 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs
760 323 0721
The Estate Sale
Palm Springs Follies
Last Updated (Sunday, 06 March 2011 01:32)
Our whole household was awake unusually early on this sunny and cold Saturday morning. Weekends are usually reserved for sleeping in and errands, but today was planned. Our 11-year-old daughter was checking her brand new snow boots and jacket. Our 8- year-old son had his goggles on, moving from side to side, pretending to be on a snowboard. We were all going to ski and snowboard for the first time. I could see it now, both kids talking about who went to the higher slope.
We arrived at Dodge Ridge in Pinecrest a little after 10 a.m.. The parking lot was already full and the resort was buzzing, boarders and skiers of all levels lined up for tickets. We decided to take lessons: the girls in skiing and the boys in snowboarding. After dropping off the kids for an all day lesson (lunch included), my husband and I headed to the adult section for our shoes, skis and boards.
I took the shoes and found a seat. I grasped the right shoe and put it on. My foot went in smoothly. Then came the part where I had to tighten the clasps and lock them. I will be forever grateful to the ski resort associate who helped me put them on. Little did I know that once you put the ski boots on, your ankles sort of magically disappear. So I walked with my knees to get my skis. More of a march, really.
To my amazement, my husband was already outside, board, helmet and goggles at the ready, observing. I could see the excitement in his eyes watching the expert boarders, moving gracefully and confidently. I, on the other hand, started to feel dread as I walked towards the bunny slope. I was feeling like a fish out of water. My movements were not coordinated, there were too many things going on and my lesson had not even started yet. I stood right next to the instructor to make sure I captured everything he said.
The first lesson was how to put the skis on and take them off. OK, I can do this, I thought, starting to gain composure. Then we were taught how to stand properly, how to brake, and turn. There were ten students and all of us clumsily plowed through the snow, desperately turning with one foot while making sure we did not fall over. Fifteen minutes later, most students got the rhythm, but I still struggled. And this was just the bunny slope.
A demonstration of how to get up the slope was given and we all successfully reached the top. Then the instructor asked us to go down in turns. At this point I was quite sure I had not mastered braking yet and I uttered a grunt of apprehension. There were four others ahead of me and they were waiting at the bottom. I did not want to look like a loser in front of the other students, so I sighed and started to head down the slope. As my speed picked up I only grew more apprehensive and panicked. How was I to brake, again?
Before I could think of the answer my fall was broken as I broad sided one of the women in the group. I tried to use the poles to brake but it was too late. I was the center of attention for the next three minutes. What was I doing? It was cold, but I was sweating. My cheeks were red, not from the wind but from embarrassment. How could I have failed so miserably? First, my ankles were non-functioning and because of the skis, it felt like my foot was elongated three times in front and in back. I tried to remember all the instructions but trying to recall all of them at once just made me frantic. Where was my husband, I wondered and how is he doing compared to me?
No sooner than I had these thoughts when I saw him approach me. He was on his board and had seen my collision. While I was struggling to learn to ski, he was doing magnificently with his board. He took to it like a fish in the water. I reassured him I’d be OK and that he should go back to the slopes.
We returned our boots, skis and board and headed to the children’s area to see how our kids were doing. Our daughter was second in line to go down the highest level allowed for her age. When it was her turn, she adjusted her goggles a little bit and whizzed by. On the other side, our son was dragging his board with one foot, his cheeks were flushed but he was beaming at us. Clearly, their day had gone very well. We all piled into the car to head home. Everyone talked about what they plan to do next time. When it was my turn, I sheepishly replied “Maybe I should snowboard since I surf…How hard can it be?” For more information on Dodge Ridge, go to http://www.dodgeridge.com/site/contact.php--CB
Celia Baula is a life science management consultant who loves to travel. She believes in living life to the fullest everyday, responsibly.
Last Updated (Wednesday, 02 February 2011 00:33)
The rolling hills in the Livermore Valley glimmered under the sun on a warm Saturday morning, the hills unfolded before us as my husband and I turned right onto Tesla Road. Green and purple grapes hung from the vines, waiting to be picked. The air was filled with the smell of grapes fermenting, the smell of vinegar and sugar mixed together.
Tesla, a two-lane road in the Livermore Valley lined with wineries, was abuzz with visitors. Cars were either going into a winery or going to the next one. I could barely conceal my delight as we approached one of my favorite wineries, Concannon.
The Livermore Wine Country is young but holds a lot of potential, some wines are already comparable with, if not better than, the wines of Napa. It is less crowded, a visitor gets better service, and the wine prices are more attractive to people like me who believe that price alone does not mean that the wine is superior.
The Livermore terroir is different than in the Napa Valley, meaning the factors that ultimately define the wine, such as soil, weather, wind, orientation of the grapes with respect to the sun are unique.It is hotter, making it a good region to grow, in my opinion, varietals such as Grenache, Malbec and some Cabernet. Having said that, I have tasted good Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah and Merlot as well.
Wine tasting is always a treat but I also forward to barrel tastings. Usually done in March, tickets can be purchased for $25 if you buy early and $30 on the day of. Hop on a chartered bus and be swept away by the view. Some wineries offer information sessions such as the types of barrels used, the varietals grown in the vineyards, and food and wine pairings. Others offer complimentary appetizers, discounted wines and merchandise, and live music.
I once purchased an outstanding case of Syrah for $60 (or $5 per bottle) and asked the winery to directly ship a case of wine to my friends in the mid-West. Several days later, wonderful thank you notes arrived with a request that I continue to send wines their way, which they are happy to pay for.
In the fall, when most grapes are ready (also called veraison) for picking, the Harvest Festival is in full swing. Around this time of the year, the grapes that will be transformed into wines have already been picked unless they are the ones that mature late into the season. For oenophiles, the small window of opportunity to participate in the wine making process is open. Some wineries will allow visitors to help remove the stems from the grapes and crush them. Crushing the grapes with the feet is still the best way to make wine although the wineries, for pragmatic and probably hygiene reasons, use stemmer-crusher equipments. Still, I think the experience of treading on freshly picked grapes and the exhilaration one gets from being part of a wine making tradition is well worth the grape juice stains.
My husband turned left onto the driveway of our favorite winery and found a parking spot. Our picnic basket was in the backseat, replete with two wine glasses, cheese, crackers, olives, and dark chocolate. I take one more look at the hills, breathed in deeply and smiled at my husband.
Some of the best memories in life are created in the wine country: weddings, picnics, birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries, to name a few. And sometimes, the best memories come from the unplanned and spontaneous moments, a visit to a new winery on a whim, the spontaneous drive along the wineries, the chance encounter with strangers who turn into lifelong friends, the last minute picnic.--- CB
Celia Baula is a life science management consultant who loves to travel. She believes in living life to the fullest everyday, responsibly. She writes regularly for allnewsnoblues.com. Reach her at
Last Updated (Monday, 29 November 2010 22:05)