Posts Tagged 'san francisco bay area'



Elephant Seals, Artichoke Bread and a Lighthouse: Cheap Kicks on the California Coast

The wind had something to say. Howling, moaning, rattling through the fog-swelled rafters, it talked to us all night. The next morning, it fingered our hair, pinkened our noses, and carried the cries of birth and battles, sea gulls and elephant seals…

I think I’ll start the article something like that, depending on how highfalutin I wanna get. It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds; the drama of the California coast during a winter storm evokes that kind of mulling, moody language. The main character, if you will, of my mini-trip down the San Francisco peninsula was the wind, urgent and unrelenting. But the supporting cast was pretty rad too.

I’m trying not to get too claustrophobic in my own life, and trying to keep the travel writing material a’coming. So despite a heavy-duty week-long storm, my friend Liz and I hopped into my beat-up little car and headed out for a little Northern California overnighting action in Pescadero.

Aside from being super accessible from the inner Bay Area, a trip down to Pescadero is also one of cheapest getaways around. We hiked around redwoods, espied an elephant seal colony, ate “world famous” artichoke bread and local goat milk cheese, and lazed in a cliffside hot tub—all for under $90 each.

Pescadero is an old-school fishing town down the peninsula between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Aside from some seriously killer breads from Arcangeli Grocery, its main claims to fame are its surroundings: the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, and Ano Nuevo State Park. Pigeon Point is a pretty basic hostel—except for its dramatic perch literally on the edge of the continent, its historic lighthouse, and its cliffside hot tub (yes, really). Ano Nuevo is a sandy stretch of shoreline best known as the winter home of migrating elephant seals, where they birth and wean and fuss and fight.

"Look, nature!"

The drive from Oakland was about an hour long, Highway 92 delving us down the spine of the peninsula into Half Moon Bay, a quintessentially quirky Northern California beach town. Then we headed down the 1, California’s most famously beautiful highway. It winds you past pastoral fields, green hills, a sprinkling of cove beaches and family farms, and a crashing, crumbling coastline. Everything was grey and heavy and wet. It was perfect Lucero-listening weather.

Huddled on a cliff next to an run-down, chained-off old lighthouse, Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel smells like salt, and the ocean winds rattle the humble buildings endlessly. The hostel is divided into three houses, each with its own kitchen and common room. There was only one other couple in the house, fellow overnighters from the East Bay. It was $25 for a dorm bunk; we had a whole room to ourselves.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The main draw of the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel isn’t the ocean views or its precipitous perch; it’s the hot tub. I don’t know how a youth hostel came to have a feature like a hot tub, but it’s about the raddest thing you can imagine. A trip to the hot tub cost $7 per person; you sign up for a half-hour slot when you check-in.

We stumbled in the dark to the hot tub, shuffling in our sneakers and shivering in our towels. We kicked it in the hot tub, listening to the sound of wind and waves. It was a dark, cloudy night; there were no stars, just the white froth of water on rocks, and the lonesome beam of the lighthouse.

The next morning, we drove 10 minutes down to Ano Nuevo. Celebrities may have Miami; elephant seals winter in Ano Nuevo. They arrive from Alaska in mid-December; moms birth pups, wean them, and they hang around confused and blubberous until about late March. Mid-January is the best time to check out the seals; on our tour, we saw a birth, a fight, plenty of sulking and lots of squealing.

Hella seals

The seal tour is pretty popular, especially as a field trip for Bay Area schools. You have to take a guided tour, and it’s best to book ahead, but here’s the good news: the tour is an hour and a half long, and only $7. (Parking in the lot, though, costs a $10; there’s not any other viable parking around.)

Our naturalist docent guide was a cool old dude that solidified my opinion that being a park volunteer after you retire is about the most bad-ass thing you can do with your time. Our group of 13 people, mostly all Californians on day trips, headed out into the sand dunes, a mile traipse from the parking lot.

First we passed “Losers’ Alley,” where male seals that have lost the fight for prestige pout and sulk in solitude for the remainder of the season. We got pretty close to one; he arched his back up, his nose/trunk hanging like an absurd, uncircumcised phallus. A guttural, grunting nose erupted, bursting out of his mouth in a gust of white breath; it sounded like a stopped-up toilet. It was his get-the-hell-back cry, and we obliged.

We climbed up a dune that overlooked the colony, and spent about an hour watching them flop around in the sand, squealing and moaning and rumbling their enormous selves around. The pups were adorable, too fat to do much of anything but wiggle their fins around and cry for milk. The moms flipped sand over their backs, rolled over to let pups nurse, and grumbled. The men did what men do: fight.

Bashing chests...

We caught a pretty good fight, full of plenty of screaming, biting and butting. It broke out amid the crowd, dominoed its way through the colony, pups wiggling to get out of the way; it rumbled all the way down to the shore, where the loser got 86ed. “It’s just like a bar fight,” Liz surmised.

Going mad for the placenta

We also got to see a birth. Well, not really. It was too far away to see, but we were alerted by the swooping, squawking riot of sea gulls. Sea gulls, apparently, love to eat placenta, so you can always tell when a birth is going down when the gulls start going crazy, a frenzy of white wings and diving beaks.

Muddy and wind-tossed, we tramped back to the car, cranked up the heat, and headed home. It was invigorating to get out of town, even if it was just for a night. Aside from gathering info for an article (not yet sold, if there’s any takers out there), I needed to clear my mind. It’s so easy to get tunnel-vision, to get caught up in the everydayness of my own life. It’s a good life, but there should be more to it than errands and work and my computer. I really am happiest when I’m traveling, and my mini-trip confirmed that. And reminded me how much killer stuff there is within an hour of where I live. And that it doesn’t need to cost any more than a new pair of pants.

We Wish You a Merry Solstice, and a Non-Denominational New Year: A Muir Woods Solstice

Into the darkness...

Nature lover, pagan, hippie, cheapskate—call me what you will, but the Muir Woods Solstice Event ruled. And not just in a Wicker Man kind of way.

The free, annual event honoring the longest night of the year is uber North-Bay: wholesome, granola-y, non-denominational family fun, set amid old-growth redwoods and adorned with weedy handmade garlands. Luminaria-lit paths fill with white-breathed revelers, whose flashlights make the falling rain look like snow, or that scene from Edward Scissorheads. Puppet shows, antler-clashing Germanic dances and de-Christianized caroling ensue in an event that makes even a cynical 20-something (me) smile.

The promise of free entry and free hot cider lured me out on a moody Monday afternoon, to brave the bridges and highways of a Bay Area rush hour. On a slow Saturday, I’d gotten to chatting with some regulars at work, who gushed to me about the event. Traipsing around the damp dark of one of the Bay Area’s most impressive natural attractions had sounded like a damn good way to spend the longest night of the year. I grabbed a crappy flashlight and a hooded puff coat, roped a friend into riding shotgun and playing DJ, and we set out, sliding along the green curves of Marin, through afternoon sun that shone through the clouds like light into a church.

A ranger with plastic encasing her hat ushered us past the forever-full parking lot; we joined the assembly of cars lined up along the soft shoulder. We walked a muddy, pleasant 15 minutes to the park entrance. Slicker-clod kids tromped puddles as their parents juggled umbrellas and thermoses.

We arrived just as the crowd was thickening. A bearded ranger that looked like a nervous cross between a bluegrass singer and a surfer handed us a booklet of Solsticized/Muirized Christmas carols, complete with lines and titles such as “Deck the woods with luminaria,” “I’m Dreaming of a Green Solstice,” “O Redwood Tree,” and “Come All Ye People.” My personal favorite was “On the first day of Solstice / A Ranger showed to me / A spotted owl in a redwood tree.” The adapted songs captured the progressive eco-politics and non-religious spirituality of Marin better than an Anne Lamott novel. You know that stir a couple years back when right-wing Christians got their knickers in a twist over “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas”? Well, these were the folks they were pissed at.

It was, as you might guess, a mellow crowd of nature-y families and local weirdos (a simplification that I suppose puts me into the latter category). We grabbed some cups of cider and strolled around in the intermittent rain, soggy sneakers and cold noses. The creek was full from the recent storm, the stumps mossy; everything felt wet and alive.

We joined the huddle of firepits and hunched shoulders encircling a small, makeshift stage. It was time for some wholesome, non-offensive entertainment. The crowd sang a couple carols, and was then held rapt by a story-telling performance featuring exuberantly portrayed animal characters that I’m sure have inspired several voice-over school rejections. We agreed that the confused shadow puppet show was most definitely the improved result of a flash of marijuana-fueled brilliance. We took it as our cue to stroll the now-dark trails.

Candles in white paper bags lined the trails, making it feel almost like we were walking through an altar. Raindrops held heavy on the tree branches as little kids ran past in a bobble of flashlight beams. Other than that, it was all sound. It reminded me of an interview I’d read with a travel writer (Don George?) who’d wanted to write about something other than the cathedral-ish quality of light in Muir Woods. He’d blindfolded himself and walked around, experiencing the famous woods with mostly just his sense of sound, and written the article from that perspective. It was true that it was a totally different Muir Woods without the light and the sight of redwoods—all rambling water and the solid, rooted presence of those trees, the way you feel a stranger in a dark room.

We got back to the caroling crowd just in time to catch the most bad-ass and spooky performance of the night, a Germanic Solstice dance by the Christmas Rebels (which sounds kind of punk rock). Composed of members of the German fraternal society California Rebels, the group did a slow, hypnotic folk dance that included antler-clashing and creepy flute playing. A bearded dude with a crazy eye hushedly explained the pre-Christian roots of the dance, which got back to the potent mix of fear and worship that fuels most religions, not just Paganism. Under the illuminated, snow-like mist, the clanks of the antlers and the wet clomp of the determined feet felt like a ritual not from long ago, but rather some deranged allegorical movie. Which is to say it was rad.

Toes numb and bellies hungry, we trekked back to the car under the dim halo of my flashlight. A half-grin of moon cut through the heavy clouds, and the earth rustled, sighed, pulled a blanket of darkness up to its chin and settled in for the longest sleep of the year. And Marin celebrated, the way Marin knows how: amid the trees.

Top Three Travel Secrets: A Chain Letter for Travel Bloggers

It reads as ominously as a middle school chain letter. Except, in the end, failure to perpetuate the chain isn’t sworn to result in untimely death or spinsterhood (which are more or less the same thing when you’re 12). Rather, in this chain, compliance results in access to a treasure trove of travelers’ secrets. And probably some new friends.

I was hit by two writers in the TripBase Blog Tag, spreading through the travel blogosphere like hot gossip around a lunch table. Or a dirty note during Math class, light-up sneakers in a mean game of duck-duck-goose. (The analogies could go on forever.) The idea is you write a post about your top three travel secrets: out-of-the-way towns, little-known restaurants, unheard-of hotels—“hidden gems” that lay glittering in the dimness of obscurity. Until now, that is.

Aside from amassing an ass-kicking list of previously unknown spots around the world, the other objective of the TripBase Blog Tag is to be build community and get folks involved. I can get down with that. In addition to the awesome ladies that tagged me—Stephanie from Twenty-Something Travel and Abbie from Miles of Abbie—I’ve already discovered some new writers on the TripBase list of bloggers tagged so far. (Best blog names? Dirtbag Writer and Snarky Tofu. Fuck yeah.) My hunch: the final list won’t just expose travel secrets, but also some bad-ass writers I hadn’t encountered yet.

They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. Here’s to travel health:

End of the hike: waterfall into the Pacific

#1 Palomarin Hike, Marin County, California

My work friend had been telling me about “the secret hike” for months. Huddled over our staff meals in the cramped bus station, she made rope-swinging into the clear lake, and the coastal waterfall at the trail’s end, sound like a dream. Or at least a damn good fantasy.

We finally coordinated a day off together in August and headed up to Marin to the Palomarin Hike. We grabbed sandwiches and drove up past Stinson Beach to tackle the 11-mile hike. And I gotta say, it was just as killer as she’d described.

The hike starts through rather typical dusty California coastal terrain, taking you past sweeping Pacific vistas us locals have grown accustomed to. After about 45 minutes, the foliage and trees thicken, and you eventually get to Bass Lake, a frigid-water lake that’s biggest draw is an old-school rope swing. You could while away hours here, but, seeing as though it was August in the Bay Area and foggy as hell, we were too cold to partake. We continued on, and ended up at the trail’s end, where a waterfall tumbles into an isolated coastal cove.

The good news: the hike, although long, is gentle and not too strenuous. Which means just about anyone could do it—including my smoke-a-pack-a-day friend and me, who was then recovering from swine flu (yes, really).

The bad news: the Palomarin Hike is a total word-of-mouth Bay Area secret. As is the way with Marinites, locals don’t want outsiders to know about their secrets or have access to them (see also: why BART doesn’t run to Marin). Locals take down street signs and signposts, meaning that you’ve pretty much gotta go with someone who’s been there. So if you’re headed to the Bay soon, just hit me up; I’ll take you.

Ahhh...

#2 Legzira Plage, Atlantic Coast, Morocco

Okay, if you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you’ve already heard me gush about the most deserted and beautiful beach I’ve ever been to: Legzira Plage, Morocco.

Talk about tucked-away: from Tiznit, take an hour bus ride, hop off at the faded roadside sign, and hike down 20 minutes. It’ll really just be you, a couple stray tourists, some fisherman and their donkeys—and the sandstone arches that dive red earth into blue water.

Among the handful of pink building that cascade down the cliff into the main beach, there’s two hotels that offer relatively cheap rooms. I went high-class and got one with my own shower, squat toilet (doin’ big things), and a window that opened onto the ocean view—for under $20.

Another bonus is the Moroccan street harassment factor, and the fact that Legzira Plage doesn’t have one. After a couple weeks of solo backpacking, sweating in long sleeves and fending off the barrage of “bonjour”s, it felt pretty damn sweet to strip down to my bikini and wave-hop in peace.

Kids on their way to school

#3 El Congo, Venezuela

The story goes that, when Europeans first arrived in what is now Venezuela, they came to the Lake Maracaibo villages, perched on stilts amid the marshes and water. Watching the village folks traverse the “streets” in handmade rafts reminded the Europeans of Venice—and they dubbed the place Venezuela.

El Congo, Venezuela is the most other-worldly places I’ve ever been. It’s only reachable by boat, a 30-minute ride through the hazy flat expanse of water, and you’ve gotta book a tour to get there. But surprisingly, the town isn’t the main draw of the tour. The Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon is what draws most people—mysterious, thunderless lightning that occurs almost nightly in the skies over Lake Maracaibo.

The road to Los Llanos was flooded when I was in Merida, so I opted to take the Catatumbo tour in its place. I hadn’t heard of El Congo, but it ended up being the highlight of the tour (the lightning didn’t really happen that night). The town had everything—a school, a fire station, a convenience store, even a Plaza Bolivar—all erected on stilts. Rumor had it there were a couple old folks still living in the town who’d only ever stepped foot for dry land to bury relatives.

It wasn’t an untouched Eden: El Congo was extremely isolated, making inbreeding a huge problem, and the town was quite poor. Sanitation was a major issue, with most refuse and human waste going directly into the water. Owning an actual boat was a sign of privilege. The less well-to-do had to construct their own floatation devices—this girl tied a piece of wood to some leftover styrofoam, dug a stick down into the mushy lakebed, and propelled herself along that way.

The thing that really bummed me out were the poor yapping dogs chained to the “front porch” of some of the houses. So much for getting a walk, little buddy. But hands down, El Congo was the most unusual place I’ve ever traveled to—and so far off the beaten path, there wasn’t a path at all.

So that’s my top three, scrawled not-so-jaggedly into the margins of a wrinkled note. Now to fold it up and shove it into another sweaty, unsuspecting palm. This could get good…

Dos Dias de los Muertos: Oakland Vs. SF Celebrations

DSCN3892It’s not Mexican Halloween. Or Northern Californian Halloween. It’s Dia de los Muertos, and it’s everyone’s holiday now.

You can’t escape Dia de los Muertos in the Bay Area. That’s a good thing. It’s a pretty bad-ass holiday, based in the Aztec belief of death not as a definitive end, but merely a continuation in a parallel form. Aided by elaborate graveside altars, souls of the departed return for one night (traditionally two) to kick it with the living. The celebratory approach towards death comes complete with a comically macabre aesthetic derived largely from a good ole’ revolutionary, Jose Guadalupe Posada (see: my first tattoo).

What makes the holiday fascinating to me is its endurance and evolution. Dia de los Muertos is the little holiday that could: millennia-old, it’s survived colonialism, Catholicism, and more recently, the United States. But while all these outside elements have altered the holiday, the fundamental spirit has managed to survive. Observances vary wildly, both within and outside Mexico, and serve to say a lot about their respective communities (see: my latest Matador article). Case in point? Oakland versus San Francisco celebrations.

The Bay Area’s enormous Hispanic population has two established homebases: East Oakland’s increasingly cleaned-up Fruitvale district, and San Francisco’s contentiously gentrified Mission District (claimed to be birthplace of the burrito). Both host huge Dia de los Muertos celebrations that shut down city blocks and draw thousands with marigold-adorned, incense-laced festivities. Neither celebration is traditional, in the Patzcuaro sense of the term, but neither are the same. They contrast as starkly as an SF hipster’s ironic mullet and an Oakland hyphy  kid’s synthetic dreads.

DSCN3846

International Blvd during the Dia de los Muertos

Oakland celebrates with a family-oriented daytime street fair on the Sunday preceding the holiday, this year November 1. While drawing a healthy cross-section of the city’s ever-diverse population, the event is mostly representative of contemporary Mexican and Latin culture in the Bay Area. Powerhouse Spanish radio stations, La Raza and La Preciosa, set up stages on opposite ends of the festival and vie for on-lookers. Local taquerias set up stands that pump out carne asada smoke, while DIY vendors push helado carts and set up raspado stands. Women hawkers cry, “Churros, Churros, Churros!” while others wrap still-steaming elotes in foil. Local businesses abut booths with corporate superpowers like Safeway, while non-profits erect altars next to those of neighborhood school kids. Dancers decked out in Aztec garb (the feather- and skull-adorned headdresses are bad-ass) break into spontaneous drum-infused performances, and there’s more men in cowboy hats and little girls in mini-skirts than you can count.

DSC_0381On November 2, San Francisco holds an evening procession that a jaded friend of mine has dubbed “Gringos Gone Wild.” True, the participants are largely not of Hispanic decent and, boy, do they get down. People dress up in calavera face paint and elaborate Tim-Burton-esque costumes that I suspect derive from Victorian Catrina dolls. A modest group of Aztec dancers leads the procession, which then follows with revelers of the purely San Franciscan variety: costumed people with politicized signs, curious interpretive dancers, bicycle-powered floats, and a whole lotta candle-clutching white folks. The procession ends at a public park filled with some seriously artistic altars—this year, an anatomical heart suspended by red nerves, a papier-mache carniceria, a parlor scene that looked like the inside of Edward Gorey’s head.

I can see how people get down on San Francisco’s Dia de Los Muertos celebration for not being authentico; I understand why others deem Oakland’s as boring and not creative enough. But isn’t that just an extension of the Oakland-SF rivalry, the cities’ differences demonstrated through the observance of another culture’s holiday?

I’m an Oakland girl, so I’m partial to an event where I run into about a dozen people I know. And if nothing else, the Fruitvale festival is thrilling for the mere fact that Oakland manages to hold a peaceful public festival (I remember seeing stray post-Festival-At-The-Lake rioters pass by the bottom of my block as a kid—that was the end of that neighborhood event). Events like the Dia de los Muertos celebration remind me why I love my hometown—though I never really forget.

DSCN3907At the same time, the Mission procession captures so much of San Francisco’s cultural landscape. Just when you get disheartened, want to write the whole place off as over-priced and gentrified, the city comes through with something insanely creative or beautiful. Despite the changing demographics, beneath the paling population and depressing socioeconomics, San Francisco’s still a city with soul.

And at the center of both of these celebrations is the fact that they don’t derive from, well, here. They aren’t American, have been brought over by immigrants and subsequently Americanized. Some shout cultural appropriation, and, sure, these festivities are a far cry from the all-night graveside vigils I attended last year in Tzintzuntzan. But, at the core of these modern interpretations, both stay true to the fundamentally celebratory Aztec approach of the holiday. And if that’s not survival, I don’t know what is.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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