Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Sunday In California : From The Mountains To The Sea

I've loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.~Galileo Galilei
     John has always been a lover of astronomy so, Wherever we travel part of my research includes exploring the possibility of incorporating any astronomical sight, event or activity into our itinerary. We have been able to visit the Palomar telescope, attend the night sky convocation at Bryce canyon and explore planetariums in New York, New Mexico and LA. During our time in Los Angeles we have been living very close to the Mount Wilson observatory and John has been looking forward touring it. I think I know how Mrs.Galilei felt when her husband spoke of the heavens. I love to hear the excitement in John’s voice when he speaks about the galaxies, constellations and the nebulas. To witness the joy and enthusiasm he feels each time he sets up his telescope makes me very happy. I’m sure John and Galileo would have had lots to talk about.
     The road to Mount Wilson took us along the scenic, recently reopened Angeles Crest highway. The road was closed after the station fires of 2009 which destroyed approximately 250 square miles of land surrounding the observatory. We climbed through the mountains of the Angeles National Forest on our way to the observatory rising to an elevation of almost 6000 feet. We stopped often to photograph immense roadside granite outcroppings, century plants and vistas of the city below.
     The observatory is named for Benito Wilson who originally came to the area from Tennessee en route to China. He fell in love and married the daughter of a wealthy landowner. He built a life in California acquiring a great deal of land encompassing Pasadena Alhambra and Large portions of the San Gabriel Valley. He and his second wife had a daughter that married George Patton Sr. and their son was the famous world war II general George Patton.Wilson became the first white man to explore the area when  he led a party to the summit of what is now Mount Wilson to look for lumber to use in his other businesses.
     The observatory was founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale. one of the most important astronomers of his day. I would say that Hale and his Mount Wilson Observatory have played a significant part in the evolution of astronomy as we know it today. We must also thank Andrew Carnegie for his generosity in funding the observatory. This particular location was chosen due to the excellent atmospheric conditions and still air which makes celestial observation, (referred to as seeing) optimal. A highlight of the afternoon was climbing to the viewing level of the 100 inch Hooker telescope where Hubble himself had once stood as he explored the universe. 
         After viewing the 60 inch telescope and the Chara telescopes (which provide some of the best high resolution images of the universe ) we were able to meet the operator of one of the two solar telescopes on the property..The one we observed is run by UCLA and monitors sunspots with the machine pictured below called a magnetogram The other solar telescope monitors seismic activity on the sun and is run by USC.
     We both enjoyed our visit to Mt Wilson but, it was time to head back down to the ocean to have our picnic and enjoy a sunset stroll. We decided to have dinner on Carbon Beach in Malibu and we headed across the Las Virgenes pass toward the ocean.
   Malibu is known for some of the most pricy real estate in California and Carbon Beach is one of the most expensive sections of Malibu. There are just a few access points open to the public like the one pictured below. 
          I'm sure the residents would prefer to have the beach to themselves but, California law requires the beach be public. I can understand the concerns of the homeowners as their property is in most cases literally right on the beach but, I'm awfully glad we were allowed to visit.
   It was a perfect night for our picnic and sunset walk along the shore.The setting sun turned everything around us a warm golden color and made the water appear to twinkle like diamonds. As the hazy marine layer began to roll in we waded in the surf trying not to get soaked and watched the birds fly by as they looked for a place to roost for the night. There is something so peaceful about time spent by the ocean.
     When  people speak about California they invariably mention that a person can spend the morning in the mountains and the afternoon by the ocean. The idea has always intrigued me and I'm glad John and I were able to have the experience.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Huntington Library

"There is always music amongst the trees in the garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it." ~Minnie Aumonier
     Stepping through the entrance arch to the Huntington Library grounds we felt transported back in time to the Beaux arts age of stately homes, grand gardens and old money.
     The estate was owned by Henry Huntington a nephew of the railroad magnate Collis Huntington. After Collis first wife died he married her nurse, Arabella who was thirty years his junior. When Collis died Henry who inherited fifteen million dollars married Arabella who inherited thirty million dollars. The couple then began to devote themselves to the acquisition of art, collecting books for their library and developing the gardens on their San Marino California property. We knew that this first visit would be the beginning of a long relationship with the Huntington Library.
     Henry Huntington is credited with a massive expansion of rail lines throughout southern California. He purchased much of the land surrounding the rail, knowing that this property would service his customers and therefore be a wise investment. Eventually he would link all of southern California making it possible to develop communities that would grow and thrive.

     We were happy discover that we had arrived in time for the next walking tour. Our docent introduced himself as big Ed and gave us an extraordinary introduction to the Huntington. He has been volunteering there for years and has a real passion for its beauty history and value to the community. When we travel we always look for the docent led tours. These people have a real dedication and generally provide great insight and background which always enhances the experience.
     The Huntington is a favorite location for Hollywood productions. We learned that parts of Monster in Law, The Wedding Planner and the Little Fockers were filmed on property. The white house entry for the television series West Wing, Memoirs of a Geisha and scenes from the new film Captain America were also filmed there. 
     As our garden tour passed the house, the air became infused with the soft scent of roses. Suddenly we were directed toward enormous beds of some of the most beautiful and exotic roses I had ever seen. There were so many colors and varieties to examine that time would not allow me to see then all. One of the most unusual roses was the green Sheila MacQueen rose, pictured below. I had never before seen a green rose
     The Huntington library houses some of the rarest books in history. We could have spent an entire day marveling at manuscripts written by Charles Darwin, John James Audubon and Pliny the elder. We stood in awe seeing one of three existing vellum copies of the Gutenberg bible, a first edition of Paradise Lost and an Ellesmere Canterbury Tales. I never imagined I would see one of the first examples of Shakespeare’s collected works dating back to the 1600’s. What a wonderful surprise
     Big Ed would again be our docent on the gallery tour of the main house. It turned out to be a private tour as we were the only two attending. The highlight of the afternoon was finally getting to view Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. We had no idea that Gainsborough’s blue boy was housed at the Huntington. Master Jonathan Buttall was his name and at the time of the portrait he was about twelve years old. His father and Thomas Gainsborough had been childhood friends. After Jonathan’s father died Gainsborough took on the young man as a subject. Portraits of this era generally took about fourteen day to produce however it took three months to craft this masterpiece. Gainsborough, out of love for his friend used this time to talk with the boy and help him through the grieving process. They became lifelong friends and Buttall was the only non family member allowed to attend Gainsborough’s funeral. I always admired Gainsborough’s work and now I admire his character as well.

    The Lawrence painting below called called Pinky is another treasure of the museum. It was commissioned by the grandmother of Sarah Barrett Moulton’s known as Pinky. Sadly,  Sarah died shortly after the painting was completed. It was believed she may have contracted whooping cough from her brother who survived his bout with the dreaded disease. This painting eventually hung in the home of her brother and his daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth Barrett. Elizabeth would later marry Robert Browning and produce some of the finest poetry ever written.
I’m grateful that we had an opportunity to visit the Huntington Library and I know with absolutely certainty we will be back to see more. Los Angeles for all of its traffic, celebrity glitz and fast paced excitement also has places of quiet reflection and peace to be discovered and enjoyed. If you ever find yourself in San Marino California stop in and meet the Huntingtons.  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Magical visit to Cassis

“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.” ~ Carson McCullers

     Funny isn’t it, that a place I’d never heard of became one of the highlights of last years European adventure. A friendly hotel clerk in Aix en Provence shared with us a place she holds dear, a town on the French Rivera called Cassis. 

     Dating to ancient times and rebuilt in the 16th century, Cassis is famous for the Calanques, deep fijordlike inlets at the base of beautiful white limestone cliffs. 


      Since many of our most cherished adventures turn out to be the result of recommendations offered by locals, we happily set our course for the cote de azure. Arriving after dark we worried that all the hotels would be full. The first two places we stopped to inquire about lodging were indeed full but the desk clerk at the latter happily directed us to a little place up the road that might have a room.  

  The third place was indeed the charm and they did in fact have a small beautifully appointed room just for us. We quickly settled in feeling lucky to have arrived in time to take advantage the double bonus of pre season pricing and availability. 

     As the sun rose I stirred and slowly woke up cozy as a kitten in a beam of sunlight. Seeing the sun streaming in through the blinds I knew it would be a beautiful day. I opened the window and to my delight the Mediterranean Sea appeared like an unexpected gift before me and caused me to gasp out loud. I woke John up eager to share this experience with him. As we gazed out of our window arm in arm captivated by our first views of the water I felt the muscles on my face tighten and I realized it was due to my Cheshire cat-like grin.

     We dressed quickly and made our way on foot to the port. The ten-minute walk stretched to thirty as we stopped to photograph scenic views along the way. We snapped photos as if to somehow devour all we saw and preserve that delicious feeling of contentment, pure joy of discovery and the perfection of this new day. As we descended the stairs to the port we felt as if we were stepping in to a postcard.


     The shops and cafes were preparing for their day, placing chairs and tables in neat rows facing the water. small boats bobbed against the dock as the fishermen returned to sell their catch, their fish still wet and flopping on the fish tables.

  As we began to explore the town we immediately discovered a store dedicated to local cookies. I stood in the middle of the cobblestone street torn by the gravitational pull of the cookie store on one side of the street and the bakery on the other side of the street.

     After a visit to both we wandered into the Cassis open-air market, several blocks lined with stalls, their  tables laden with all manner of delicious treats. I spun around like a character in some dream sequence and landed in front of a stand covered with bowls full of olives, sun dried tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.
       To my right I noticed bolts of cloth that reflected the reds yellows and blues that are so popular in the Provence region. Table after table revealed cheeses, charcuterie, breads, vegetables and all manner of kitchen toys and even clothing. I reacted much like a pinball that released from its spring darted joyfully stall to stall unable to take it in fast enough. 

   John followed me smiling at my enthusiasm, patiently waiting for something to eat . Still buzzing and chirping about the market we headed to an outdoor café for breakfast and people watching .Enjoying breakfast at the port of Cassis we had the feeling that our daydreams had somehow become real. We sat at the café taking in the city perched vertically on the cliffs, listening to the sounds of the marina, savoring strong coffee and flaky croissant, being in love and feeling lucky for all of it.


     I will forever be grateful to that hotel clerk in Aix en Provence who gave us a memory we treasure. We sometimes receive amazing gifts from total strangers if we are willing to open our hearts and our minds and extend a hand of friendship.



Monday, July 18, 2011

Arroyo Grande: Friendship Food & Wine Along California's Central Coast

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”~ Bill Bryson

     There is a special place in our hearts for road trips that take us up the coastal highway along the Pacific Ocean. We fill the car with cameras snacks and a suitcase or two, turn the ipod on to shuffle mode and get comfortable. One of our favorite stretches of Pacific Coast Highway lies between Los Angeles and San Francisco, an area referred to as the Central coast. This weekend we visited friends who live along the central coast in a little village called Arroyo Grande.

     We arrived Friday night welcomed by the full thunder moon which rose over the mountains as we neared Arroyo Grande. Our friends greeted us with hugs, wine and a homemade rustic ollalieberry tart. We stayed up late into the evening planning our weekend and chatting until the four of us could no longer keep our eyes open. On Saturday morning our hosts prepared a breakfast feast of freshly baked biscuits topped with home canned ollalieberry jam and lemon marmalade, artichoke frittata, bacon and locally roasted coffee. Over breakfast we decided to start the day at the local farmer’s market. It was the perfect way to begin the day.

      The sky was a brilliant blue with temperatures in the 70’s as we headed to the historic Main St area of town where market stalls line the park along the Arroyo Creek. When I envision an idyllic small town this is what I see. Food, flowers, music and an art show turned this market in to a festival. We tasted Armenian cucumber and purslane for the first time as we wandered along the street listening to a folk guitarist who played in the nearby gazebo.  As we added red onions to the sweet corn and chandler strawberries in our tote bag I was already dreaming up recipes for the week ahead.

     An unexpected highlight of our market visit was crossing the swinging bridge. It is the only one of its kind in California, spanning 171 feet across Arroyo Grande Creek. It was originally built in the late 1800’s by Newton Short who owned the property on both sides of the creek. The main thoroughfare, Branch Street seemed to have many historic buildings and an interesting history. This year marks the towns centennial celebration and I feel we were able  in some small way to be part of the festivities.

     After the market, it was off to explore  Edna Valley. Nestled between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the San Luis range, the unique topography, temperature and soil in this valley make it a splendid grape growing region. It was given AVA status in the early eighties and we planned to spend an afternoon wine tasting and sightseeing.

     One of our favorite wineries of the day was Wolff Vineyards. We sat in their garden patio tasting wine and enjoying the view pictured above. The riesling, the syrah and the petite sirah were the standouts of the tasting. We stopped briefly at the Baileyana Winery housed in an updated, cheery one room school house. I loved the fun atmosphere and I know that I must return someday to sit on their property with a picnic, sip wine and play a game of bocce. We ended the day at Tolosa winery sitting outside nibbling on cheese and crackers, sampling wine enjoying good conversation and the cool breeze.

    All four of us love to cook and we each contributed to the dinner preparation that evening. As we all milled about the kitchen we would occasionally stop to observe a family of quail who had taken up residence in the wildlife sanctuary adjacent to their backyard. I fell in love with the new born babies and divided my time between snapping photos and kneading my pasta dough.  
     The beautiful weather allowed us to eat on the balcony which offered us a 180 degree panoramic view from Pismo beach to the Edna Valley. We enjoyed  the biggest grilled shrimp I have ever seen and a delicious roasted corn, mango and black bean salad.There could not have been a better end to the day than relaxing with good friends, sharing good food, as the sun disappeared behind the mountains turning the sky countless shades pink.  

     I was the last one up Sunday morning and as I made my way to the kitchen the smell of John’s just baked sourdough bread filled the air. What a delicious way to wake up. Lingering over a breakfast of freshly made waffles, Vermont maple syrup, mixed berries and blood orange juice we discussed our plans for the day. There was to be a mandolin concert in the meadow of a local apple farm and we decided to attend and bring a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine. After choosing the picnic fare we loaded the trunk and began our day. Our first stop was Avila Farm. This huge farm stand features grilled corn, fresh cider homemade pies and rooms full of veggies and foodie treats. It reminded me of our New England Fall farm stands. The only thing missing was the cider doughnuts. John and I decided we needed to bring home some apricot preserves and some fresh cherries to enjoy during the week. I left knowing that this would be a place I would visit again.

We had just enough time before the concert to stop at Kelsey vineyards in See Canyon. This whole area is home to some of the tastiest apples you will find anywhere and the Kelsey family has incorporated a few varieties in some of their crisp cool summer wines. We tasted quite a few of their offerings and enjoyed meeting the woman who owns the winery and her flock of peacocks who wander freely through the vineyards. It was interesting hearing about what brought her family to the area and learning how they began the winery.

     It was time to head to the See Canyon Fruit Ranch to attend the modern mandolin quartet concert, part of the Festival Mozaic series held each year in the area. We parked amid the apple trees and wandered to the meadow finding our table and laying out our snacks. As we sipped our wine and listened to mandolin music we settled into the serenity of the afternoon. Dappled sunlight streamed through the sycamore branches seeming to dance to the rhythm of the sweet strings.

     All too quickly the concert and the weekend were at a close. As we headed home we were relaxed happy and filled with gratitude for the friendship and hospitality offered to us by our friends.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Valley of Fire State Park

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.                     
~Kahlil Gibran
     It was time to head back to Los Angeles and we were determined to make the most of the final leg of our trip. We decided to spend some time at Valley of fire State Park, about an hour north of Las Vegas in Nevada. 
This State park is the oldest in Nevada. Established in the 1930’s, it is named for the red sandstone rock formations that appear fiery in the desert sunlight.   
We stopped for a short hike at an area called Mouse’s tank. Mouse, a renegade Paiute Indian hid out here in the late 1800’s after a rash of drunken violent rampages. He discovered a rare and well hidden water source in a shady crevice where two sides of the canyon meet. He remained safely hidden here till he emerged and was captured. 
     The red earth hiking path illustrated just how these rocks erode leaving an almost beach-like sand that penetrated our shoes and socks leaving our feet a faint orange color.
     The park has wonderful examples of several two million year old Petrified logs. These logs are in essence fossilized. The organic matter has been replaced by stone and retains the appearance of the original tree. At one time a primitive Araucarian pine grew here. A current example of this family of trees called the monkey puzzle tree.
The Anasazi Indians living in the adjacent Moapa Valley used this area for religious ceremonies and as a hunting area. The harsh environment and lack of water would have made it impossible for them to live here full time.

     We climbed up this staircase to view some examples of Anasazi petroglyphs
The petroglyphs found throughout the park depict life as it existed 3000 years ago in the Anasazi culture.  

    It was getting late in the afternoon as we continued our drive down the 15 toward Las Vegas. We don’t gamble but there is great food to be had at some of the strip casinos. It seems all of the top rated chefs have eateries in town. We met our friend Eileen for dinner at Mandalay Bay, one of the nicer Casinos choosing to eat at Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milken’s Border Grill. It was great to take a moment to relax and chat over ripe guacamole, fresh ceviche, and chicken salad. As lovely as it was to linger over dinner we knew we must return to the road and get back to LA before it got too late. We made good time despite a brief period of monsoonal rain as we drove through the Cajon Pass and an accident ahead of us that stopped traffic shortly after we passed Ontario.

     Tired but happy, John and I arrived back home around nine thirty PM, We headed up to our rooftop just in time to enjoy a panorama of countless fireworks shows that dotted the horizon as far as our eyes could see. What a splendid welcome home from our Utah adventure.