Sunday, September 23, 2012

Calaveras Big Trees

Welcoming Squirrel

Calaveras Big Trees is a beautiful Park. The park is beautiful with 2 sequoia groves, the North and South. It is truly a majestic walk.
Empire State Tree
Giant Sequoias (also known as sierra redwoods) are the largest living things to ever exist on planet earth. The fossil record of redwoods date back 180 million years to the age of the dinosaurs and individual trees can live to over 3,000 years. Once widespread, there are only in 75 groves left on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
Calaveras became a State Park in 1931 to preserve the North Grove of giant sequoias. This grove includes the "Discovery Tree", also known as the "Big Stump", the first Sierra redwood noted by Augustus T. Dowd in 1852. This area has been a major tourist attraction ever since, and is considered the longest continuously operated tourist facility in California.
Known as the Empire State, this majestic old tree is now probably the largest sequoia in the North Grove, its base is 30 feet in diameter and at 48 feet above the ground it is still 16 feet in diameter. 
Granite State Tree
The Hercules Tree
The Hercules Tree was one of the largest in the grove. It was blown down in a violent windstorm in December 1861. It has been lying here for over a century
The Father of the Forest
The Father of the Forest fell long before Euro-Americans discovered this grove of sequoia. Decomposition is so slow because of the tannin in their heartwood. This tree has been lying here between 500-1,000 years. Notice the size of the people down the walk. It is a huge tree!
Bradley Grove Trail

Beaver Creek

This place is unbelievable and highly recommended.
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Friday, September 21, 2012

Space Shuttle Endeavor

NASA gave Space Shuttle Endeavour a “victory lap” of sorts as the space shuttle era ends with a low-flying flyover in the Bay Area on Friday morning September 21, 2012 on its way to being displayed at a museum in Los Angeles. Great experience. Fort Baker in Sausalito was jammed with people as was the Marina Green and Chrissy Field in San Francisco along with  Moffett Field in Sunnyvale and places all over the SF Bay Area..
Turns out that once the Endeavour lands in Los Angeles, the trip to the new museum there will be quite interesting. The shuttle is so big that transporting it will cause the removal of 400 trees and countless street light poles. The people of Los Angeles neighborhoods were very upset about the loss of trees but NASA said that for every tree they remove, they will replace it with 4 new ones, replace the light poles and upgrade the sidewalks. So it’s a win-win. It will get a little greener and nicer in that part of LA.
Farewell Endeavour, welcome to your new home.

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Miwok Home reproduction- u’macha’

It was fantastic to see the ancient Chaw’se, the Indian Grinding Rock village site that’s 2- 3,000+ years old. Chaw’se is the Miwok word for grinding rock – a slab of stone on which the Miwok people ground acorns and other seeds into meal, slowly forming the cup shaped depressions in the stone that can still be seen today. Along with the mortar holes, the main grinding rock within the park also features a number of decorative carvings: circles, spoked wheels, animal and human tracks, wavy lines, etc. Some of these carvings are thought to as much as two to three thousand years old and are now becoming difficult to see. This association of rock art and bedrock mortar pits is unique in California. Except for one other small site, Chaw’se has the only known occurrence of mortars intentionally decorated with petroglyphs.There are 1,185 mortar holes -- the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America.

Grinding Rock
The Miwok women would gather at the Chaw’se to grind acorns from the surrounding Valley Oaks, which were prized for their high nutritional value. However, the nuts are bitter tasting due to their tannin content. The Miwok overcame this problem by cracking the acorns and pounding the nuts in a mortar with a stone pestle. Once the meal was fine enough, water was poured through it, rinsing away the tannin. The acorn meal could then be cooked in watertight baskets over open fires.

hun’ge Roundhouse
The hun’ge is a Native American Roundhouse that has been reconstructed by the modern Miwok Indians themselves for ceremonial purposes.
Roundhouse Interior
The hun’ge, was the setting for a variety of social gatherings and ceremonial events in the old days. Ceremonies were held, for example, to pray, to mourn the dead or to observe special occasions through music and dance. In a typical village, this semi-subterranean community center was the largest building in the village and tended to be twenty to fifty feet in diameter. The Chaw’se hun’ge is sixty feet across and is one of the largest in California. Four large beams and center poles support the roof. A large hole in the center of the roof allows smoke from the fire pit to escape and also permits observation of the stars. It is used today for Native American Ceremonies.
Miwok homes ranged from eight to fifteen feet in diameter and were built of cedar poles interwoven with grapevines or willow and covered with cedar bark. A hole was left at the top for smoke from cooking or heating fires. Bark houses- u’macha’ can be seen near the grinding rock and also at the reconstructed village west of the roundhouse. This is a great historic place to see.
Highly recommended!

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Black Chasm

Black Chasm Entrance

In 1976, the national Park Service designated Black Chasm Cavern as a Historic National Landmark. The Black Chasm Cavern was the inspiration behind the Zion cave in the second and third installment of the Matrix movies.

The trip down into the Black Chasm Cavern is fantastic. An unbelievably beautiful small set of under ground rooms filled with fantastic natural shapes. We went on a small tour with only four other people.

The formations are exceptionally beautiful and we were told that only 4% of caves (in the world) have this type helictite formations which were everywhere in the cavern. It's a vertical cave, not a horizontal one, so there are no bats that live there. Bats don't like caves like this one, because it goes pretty much straight down after you enter. When they fly in, their echolocation tells them it's very small, with not much roosting space so they just leave. There’s also a magnificent turquoise blue pool at the bottom of one of the caves that is spectacular.

It has some marvelous formations helictites that look like horizontal spaghetti or birds' nest remnants growing straight out of the rock. They are quite beautiful and very unusual. There are a lot of steep steps, with handrails, but you do have to be careful. It is very tempting to touch the rocks as you go under some low overhangs, but you are warned at the beginning not to do so, because they pick up oil from your hands.

The tour takes about 45 minutes and the guides are well informed as well as entertaining. All in all, The Black Cavern is a uniquely beautiful thing to see if you’re ever in the California Sierra foothills.

Helictite close up

Highly recommended!

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Opus One

Opus One is an important winery in Oakville, CA. It’s a very special place and tasting there is by appointment only. In 1980 The Opus One Winery was founded by the Baron Philippe De Rothschild, Legendary Proprietor of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and renowned Napa Valley Vintner Robert Mondavi. The wine they created is among the best Bordeaux style blends in the world. Opus One is most often a blend of five grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

It's easy to pass the Opus One Winery and never see it. The main building is set a bit off the beaten path and has a grass covered hillside sloping up like a pyramid with a rooftop covered in grass. On top of the building is a view that offers spectacular views of the valley.
Opus One Driveway
One can either take a very informative tour of the wine making facility or simply taste Opus One in the lovely the surroundings. The tours cost from $50 (90 min) to $75 (120 min) per person depending on the tour and includes a tasting. Since we had taken the basic tour before, we moved directly to the tasting room.

After checking in with reception we were directed to the exclusive Partners Room where we were served two vintages of the rare Opus One Wines. It certainly wasn’t inexpensive as the 2008 vintage cost $35 for a 4 ounce pour and the 2003 cost $40. Bottles cost $200 or more. 

Upstairs View Balcony
We took our glasses up the stairs to the beautiful balcony and tasted our wine while enjoying views of the surrounding countryside and vineyards. The 2003 was quite a bit smoother. But both wines were good. Opus One ages well, collectible and is best between 8-15 years in age.

We enjoyed ourselves and Opus One was a very interesting destination with great wine and scenery. 

Highly recommended!

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cafe des Amis - Dixie Restaurant

Had a great time at Cafe des Amis Brasserie on Union Street in the Marina/Cow Hollow section of San Francisco. We enjoyed some drinks and light snacks with a couple of friends before heading over to the new Dixie Restaurant in the Presidio. Both restaurants are quite enjoyable for different reasons.

Oysters by the Dozen
Moscow Mule
At the Brasserie we started out with a dozen of fresh plump oysters which were quite delicious. Added to that we had strong, and I mean strong vodka gimlets up with cheese stuffed olives. We also had a couple of Moscow Mules. Kinda sweet but strong.

Brasserie tables
We started by sitting at the bar and since the day was a rare beautiful sunny day in SF, we then moved to a sidewalk table and watched the parade of pretty people move down Union Street. Beautiful cars too, we counted just about as many Ferraris as we had seen parading in London near Harrod's. It was a happening afternoon in Cow Hollow.

Dixie Entrance
After tearing ourselves away from our sidewalk table we headed over to the new Dixie Restaurant in the old Letterman Hospital building. The Dixie is on the ground floor with beautiful views of the old presidio grounds and the Palace of Fine arts in the Marina. They’re really doing a fine, high quality job with the Presidio rehab.

Pork Belly
The Dixie has the trappings of a Southern plantation and its menu is a complete success, marrying meat-and-starch with fresh produce and a light, artistic touch... Mmm. 
Quail and Waffles

Roast Duck
We loved the duck course and especially liked the deep fried pork belly. Also liked the fried quail and roasted garlic waffles. Crispy roast duck too.
Choclate Olive Oil Cake
For dessert the Chocolate Olive Oil Cake w/Chocolate Mousse and Lemon Ice Cream was unbelievable. Very tasty.

Both the Cafe des Amis in Cow Hollow and Dixie in the Presidio are quite good, San Francisco style.

 We shall Return, highly recommended!

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Burma (Myanmar)

Got a chance to stop in Tachileik, Burma (Myanmar) for the day. Here’s some of what we saw…

We went into town across the Thai-Burma friendship bridge. We were somewhat surprised when entering Burma they didn’t just stamp our passports, they took them and threw ‘em in a pile. They told us not to worry; just use the paper ID tags they gave us and we’ll get our passports back when we leave Burma. Sounded dangerous but hopefully they’ll be there when we leave.

Burma is part of the Golden Triangle, or Sop Ruak.
According to the CIA Factbook, It’s the “world’s second largest producer of opium”  behind only  Afghanistan. 

Stopped by the Wat Phra Yok for a little serenity. The monks had a Burmese style white jade buddha which was quite serene in its own right.

We hiked up the tallest hill in the village to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, a golden pagoda that was built to replicate the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, The Rangoon Shwedagon Pagoda is considered the most sacred in Burma. Good views of the village from the hill top.

Back in town, there were people from the hill tribes everywhere, each one distinctive in their tribal clothing; we went on to the village of Tai Yai, home of the Shan hill people who plied us with cobra whiskey. Cobra whiskey seems extra strong, with that cobra just sitting there on the bottom of the bottle staring at you after each sip.

The day ended, and when we stopped for our passports, sure enough, there they were in the same pile as we left them. We picked them up and headed for Chiang Rai. Good time in Burma. I mean Myanmar.

Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires

If you want to experience the oldest café in Buenos Aires, the Gran Café Tortoni is it. With high ceilings, art nouveau design, it’s a classic Porteño café dating from 1858. High profile visitors have included Albert Einstein, the King of Spain and Hillary Clinton among others. Don’t miss their specialty, Chocolate con Churros- thick, creamy chocolate with fresh donuts.

The Café is a historic tango scene and every evening they present a different show and you must have reservations. And for that small fee and the cost of a drink, you can sit in their historical basement salon and enjoy lively tango music and dancing.

Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

While we were in Buenos aires we decided to take a ferry across the Rio de la Plata and visit Uruguay, and it’s preserved historic river town, Colonia del Sacramento. An easy one day trip.
Colonia is served by three ferryboat lines from Buenos Aires: Buquebus, Seacat Colonia and Colonia Express. We took the fastest Buquebus Catamaran and it took about an hour; the slow boats take 3. Great trip across the river to Uruguay. The high speed ferry left about 9:00 and got back around 5:00 and was comfortable and smooth.
Colonia del Sacramento (Nova Colonia do Santissimo Sacramento) was founded in 1680 by the Portuguese (Manuel Lobo). Its strategic position and use as a smuggling port meant that its sovereignty was hotly contested and the city changed hands several times between Spain and Portugal.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is renowned for it’s original Barrio Histórico, which retains its irregular street plan contrasting with the wider streets in the newer Spanish area.

The Barrio Histórico has many nice outdoor restaurants to people watch and spend some time at. 
We walked all over Colonia. The Barrio Historico is only about 10 blocks square and the town is very walkable and charming. A lot of the  the streets are lined with beautiful sycamore trees. The old Barrio still has cobblestone streets and i was like stepping back in time, The town is very peaceful and unhurried with very few cars driving on the streets. There are quite a few classic old Cars parked around town however, which adds to the fun.
It is a charming and interesting little town to explore along the River. It would have been very easy to bring an overnight bag on the Buquebus and stay the weekend. A few hours time isn’t really enough to fully enjoy this beautiful place. We plan to return in the future and explore Colonia a little longer and maybe go to Montevideo. Highly recommended!

Buenos Aires, Argentina

We were lucky enough to visit Buenos Aires recently and really enjoyed the complex, energetic port city that stretches along the Rio de la Plata. It has been the gateway to Argentina for centuries and porteños, as the people of Buenos Aires are known, possess a rich cultural life and identity. They value their European heritage highly--Italian and German names outnumber Spanish. It’s a fantastic city.
The city's neighborhoods are small, each with its own characteristic colors and forms. In the San Telmo district, the city's multinational heritage is embodied in a varied and cosmopolitan architecture - Spanish Colonial design with Italian detailing and graceful French Classics. La Boca's pressed tin houses are painted a many colors, and muralists have turned the district's side streets into avenues of color.
The spirit of Argentina as a country is present everywhere in Buenos Aires. The Tango, The national dance, is the best expression of that spirit--performed in dance halls, parks, open plazas, and ballrooms; it’s a dance of intimate separation and rhythm, combining both an elegant reserve and passion.

Four Seasons Pool
We stayed in the Recoleta area at the Four Seasons and it was quite nice with excellent service and a very convenient location. Close to downtown but not extremely far from areas like Palermo. The food, both at the restaurants and for room service is really good. If you go for business reasons, stay on the Executive Floor. They have a nice living room with a very handy Nespresso machine; tea and cold beverages are also available. The bed was very comfortable and the wifi worked well. All in all, the Four Seasons was a great choice.

We also had a chance to have dinner and see a Tango show at The Faena + Universe hotel in the Puerto Madera area on the La Plata River. Philippe Stark designed the hotel in old historic mills that add a unique porteño ambiance to the place. Have heard both good and bad about staying in the hotel itself, but the dinner and tango show were great.

We had an excellent time in Buenos Aires and had a lot to see and do. Wonderful experience. Highly recommended!