Friday, December 19, 2008

'Macdown' practice | Onions are no fun at all

My onion-soiled disaster.

I'm posting this only to prove that I can cook, despite a post in which I questioned my own sanity partially because of what I eat.

Yes, I'm weird. But that doesn't mean I can't use an oven. Crackers are a staple of my diet, but I enjoy other things, too. Like cereal.

A sort of "Macdown" in which co-workers bring in their take on the American favorite, macaroni and cheese, has taken place over the past month at FLORIDA TODAY. All of the dishes were great. And I did take a liking to one in particular, but I can't publicly side with any one co-worker; it would surely add awkwardness to the workplace. Copy desks are awkward by nature, and they don't need mac and cheese to exacerbate the situation. Commas and hyphens do that job well.

My first oven-cooked (and over-cooked) attempt at mac and cheese - not counting those times in a dorm room nuking Easy Mac - followed a recipe by my favorite Food Network personality, Alton Brown. The formula called for a cup of diced onions. And that's where it all went wrong.

Not the preparation of them, that is.

I sliced and diced the onion until I thought I had enough for a half cup. I put the bits into the measuring container, and - BINGO - I nailed it. Exactly a half cup. I can measure!

I could get good at this real-people-food thing, I thought.

I burned the sauce, which I thought would foreshadow my undoing. The paprika-colored milk bubbled over the pot: The lava spewed from the volcano and cooled into a black mess on my stove top. I live in Florida, but my kitchen was Hawaii. The unburned portion seemed edible, though. So I went with it.

And that reminds me: The scum-bottomed pot is still in the sink, uncleaned.


The result was a pile of hot pasta topped with panko bread crumbs and one-quarter of the 12 ounces of cheddar cheese (that's 5 ounces, right?). I sprinkled on some oregano leaves to dress it up for a photo. It was the most beautiful - and only - thing I had ever made.

The taste? A bit off. What was it? The stupid, yellow onions. That perfect measurement was all for nothing. And bad breath.

It wasn't Macdown material.

So, now I seek an onion-less mac and cheese recipe to show my co-workers what's what and who's who. Or at least, to prove that I'm not crazy.

Anyone got a mint? On a cracker?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shootin' | The closest we've been to the moon in 15 years

Taken with my 200mm lens.

Unfortunately, I didn't hear about this occasion until it was too late, but the follow-up was quite spectacular nonetheless.

vert_house_moon_0120Friday's full moon, the last of the year 2008, was the closest the satellite has been to Earth in 15 years. And it won't get closer until 2016.

I noticed something was out of the ordinary when I peaked outside my window Friday night. I heard something, and light was bursting through the seems around the curtain. A spaceship was landing, I dreamed. It was probably the brightest I had ever seen it during night.

Of course, I didn't know what was causing the daylight night until I looked into it more.

Saturday's moon wasn't full, as you can see in these photos. But the fast-moving cloud cover made the moon a giant disco ball and the earth a giant dance floor.

Photographing the moon was challenging because it was practically directly above, an impossible angle for my tripod. So, many of these are taken sans stabilization.

This exposure was made while zooming the lens.

The clouds created interesting hues of red and blue.

A wider shot of the moon shining through the dense cover.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shuttle-747 landing | Good thing I'm not lazy

Shuttle Endeavour and its NASA transport, a 747, turns toward Cape Canaveral as it reaches the open ocean.

I knew it was supposed to happen, but my laziness was getting the better of me.

I woke up today, and The Flame Trench, FLORIDA TODAY's space team blog, said shuttle Endeavour was due back at Kennedy Space Center around 2:15 p.m. Weather forced the orbiter to land Nov. 30 in California on its return trip from the International Space Station. It had been riding on a 747 for the last few days en route to KSC.

The Flame Trench said low-level clouds could hinder the view as the piggybacking shuttle came in for a landing. I didn't want to take the chance of driving to the coast and coming up empty.

So, rather seeing a tremendous site, I wanted to drink my coffee. It was 2 p.m. when I got a text message from the space reporters saying that the shuttle would take a route along the beach, giving spectators the best view possible. And the clouds had cleared. But still, I didn't want to give up my coffee.


Then I thought, TRAVEL MUG!

It was perfect. I dumped the coffee into its new container, grabbed my camera and sped for the beach near Patrick Air Force Base.

I arrived, and cars were everywhere. I had not foreseen the popularity of the occasion. Most of the people who made it were old; everyone else was working (except the losers, like me, who work nights).

Some old people saw a plane and said, "Look, there it is." False alarm.

Some younger people saw a plane and said, "Look, there it is." False alarm.

Some other people saw a plane and said, "Look, there it is." Third time's a charm.

The 747 and Endeavour crossed perpendicular to the beach. I couldn't have picked a more perfect spot. It then turned and paralleled the shoreline the rest of the way to the three-mile landing strip at the space center.

Paralleling the beach.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The sun of the South, in a can

Sun Drop must be enjoyed with Southern style.

Six years of journalism school can prepare you for covering a fatal accident. It can prepare you for covering a dull news conference. It can prepare you for designing the front page, shooting a video and editing lots of horribly written stories.

It cannot prepare you for layoffs. And, unfortunately, it's a big part of the newspaper industry.

On Tuesday, I saw a co-worker, Beth, who had been on vacation for a week. She gave me a can of Sun Drop, a soft drink that, by looking at it, would remind you of Mountain Dew or Mello Yello. She did this after I - on Jan. 29, the day of primary elections in Florida - brought in Maine's official soft drink, Moxie. It was greeted with wrinkled noses.

Sun Drop is the Moxie of the South. It was developed in Missouri, and I know for sure you can't find it up in the Northeast, just as you can't find Moxie down here in Florida. The Sun Drop Web site says it's popular in the Southeast and that it's known as a "community drink." Pockets of popularity are scattered throughout the region.

The can was somewhat warm, and Beth warned that it had been shaken as it rode with her on her bike. Yes, she commutes with two wheels. I put it into the refrigerator.

"Sun Drop is best when chilled," Beth said in a Facebook message later.

By now, you're wondering what a sweet drink has to do with bitter newspaper layoffs. Beth was laid off a matter of minutes after she gave me the can, and I never had a chance to taste the soda before she left.

The least I owe her is a critique.

Sun Drop is packed with caffeine, but it doesn't taste like caffeine, as Mountain Dew does. Instead, it has a natural citrus flavor from the orange juice concentrate listed in its ingredients. Other components include high fructose corn syrup, which gets an undeserved bad rap, and glycerol of ester wood rosin, which pulls all the citrus flavors together. Mmm mmm.

It's incredibly sweet - unlike the bitter Moxie - but the impressive orange flavor comes through boisterously. In the exclusive Facebook message, Beth said, "It also complements any Southern cuisine."

In the end, though, Sun Drop is deficient because it cannot dull the sting of losing a co-worker and a friend, as well as a boss. Employees throughout Gannett have the same sense of loss this week after thousands were laid off. It's consuming. It's hard to shake.

So, I will keep this can. It will remind me of good times with co-workers before the Great Layoff.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Endeavour launch | Between bites, some lights

Endeavour, as seen from a Longwood parking lot.

While enjoying a meal of veal and authentic north Italian lasagna, I stepped outside to watch shuttle Endeavour's liftoff at 7:55 p.m. Friday. I hadn't missed a launch since moving to Florida, and I wouldn't let a wedding rehearsal dinner put a cork in that.

I stood by the curb. I looked around. I needed to face east, but I didn't know which way was east. I had left the restaurant two minutes before launch time. I knew that if I didn't see the shuttle, there was something wrong or there were too many clouds.

A waitress at Mona Lisa Ristorante in Longwood used a smoke break as excuse to watch one of the greatest shows on Earth. Between drags, she yelled to me as I looked up, down, side to side.

"You out here for the shuttle launch?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said. "But I don't know where to look."

"Oh. ... Oh, oh. Look behind you," she said.

I turned around and saw the glow. Someone had just lit a big candle above Kennedy Space Center. It was the sun in the night sky.

I was 60 miles from KSC, but NASA's performance again did not disappoint. Endeavour was a backward shooting star as it made its way toward space. It arched over the moon and separated from its twin solid rocket boosters. Then it was a twinkling star still moving into the distance.

Like a good joke, the launch was something you would only understand if you were there. I wasn't close - say, in Titusville or Cape Canaveral - so it didn't translate well through photography. I had to snap a shot, though, just to add to my collection.

Two minutes later, I again was eating lasagna made with crepes instead of pasta.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I just might be crazy

My ceiling fan was an epiphany this morning: I'm messed up.

I wake up and look up. There's a giant five-legged asterisk above me. It's ready to pounce. Bright House Networks' commercials make me fear such things. Beware of the fine print of phone-company advertising, they say. As if my ceiling fan presents a danger.

In low light, I see something coiled on the floor. It's a snake! I like snakes at the zoo. I don't like them on my floor. But it's just my belt.

I think I'm crazy.

I'm obsessed with punctuation. I used to be strict with its use. Comma can't go here, exclamation mark isn't necessary, don't use a question mark with a statement. Now, punctuation is as interpretive as the words it's used with?

Fonts irritate me. I decided not to buy a greeting card because of its font. The inscription was good. But the font hurt my eyes. Too much serif, curve, glitter. I was repulsed.

I eat things other people wouldn't. It's genetics, from Dad. Parmesan cheese goes well with grainy cereals, particularly bran flakes, sometimes with raisins. It's a reliable substitute during a milk shortage. They're both dairy.

Maple syrup and yogurt go with cereal, too. Yogurt's a go-to breakfast food. I scramble eggs with yogurt and sugar, sometimes raisins. Yogurt is good in pancake and French toast batter.

Black tea and hot chocolate is my autumn drink. I mix them.

Sometimes, I drink hot chocolaty tea from a cup but forget to finish off the last few ounces. I never used to do that. My mind is going. Deteriorating. Rotting. Possibly early-stage Alzheimer's.

I microwaved a mug once. I forgot to put water in it.

I bought canned sardines. People with taste buy sardines. They're gross, so only sophisticates consume them, as with caviar, foie gras and Dr. Pepper. I tell myself these things. I think sardines on matzos would be classier than sardines on saltines. Ritz are the middle class. But I've never eaten sardines; they're still in my pantry.

I bought shrimp, pork chops and flour. They're still in my kitchen.

Peanut butter is good. I think my co-workers feel sorry for me when I eat crackers and peanut butter, carrots and peanut butter, apple slices and peanut butter, or just peanut butter. But it's healthier than Reese's peanut butter cups left over from trick-or-treating.

PB&J pancakes are good.

I was addicted to "Guitar Hero" for a week after I bought a used PlayStation 2. I haven't touched it since.

I was addicted to Starbucks for a week. Not the coffee; it's overroasted. I craved hits of the atmosphere: classical music, whirl of the blender, young people like me.

I'm forever addicted to coffee. I go through stages when I pledge caffeine sobriety, and my teeth get whiter. Then I don't sleep one night, and I relapse in the morning. I'm like an alcoholic: once a coffee drinker, always a coffee drinker. Do they have Coffee Anonymous meetings?

My addiction to work won't go away either. But at least I'm not alone. Staff meetings are like group therapy. And doughnut day is medicine day.

I like fine wine. I've developed a collection because I don't have the social life that would justify me opening a bottle. Doing it alone would lead to real alcoholism and real AA meetings.

Sometimes I buy ginger ale and pour it into a glass flute. It looks like real Champagne: a tinge of amber, a squiggly line of bubbles streaming to the surface.

Cranberry ginger ale looks like rose brut.

My neighbor is a sex offender. I haven't slept well since I discovered this, which explains my perpetual coffee drinking. Where's my coupon for Dunkin' Donuts? Where's my handgun? But a Web site says my neighbor likes girls. And that puts me at ease because I'm not a girl.

I write too much, but not frequently enough. So, this felt good. I needed to share. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

My latest addiction is reading. Five books - all memoirs - in five days. Six trips to the library. Good thing gas is cheap, $2.17 a gallon. Cheaper than milk. And Parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What's the best thing about being a journalist on Election Day?


Pizza. Specifically, free pizza. And doughnuts.

As for the election itself, no comment.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

San Fran Day 5 | After high-flying vacation, photos to match

The only good thing about leaving San Francisco was the same good thing about touring San Francisco: the views. As my United Airlines plane lifted over the city, I did the rebel thing and turned on my point-and-shoot Canon, despite the call to "turn all electronics to the off position during takeoff." This first view was over the Twin Peaks looking toward the downtown.

The one-hour trip from Napa Valley to the airport took two hours because of the congestion on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, seen here with a great view of downtown San Francisco.

And one last look at the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay before heading back east.


The plan flew over the rust-red terrain and snaking rivers of the West. I'm not sure where this is because the pilot wasn't very helpful in letting his passengers know.


A pronounced ridge of mountains with a glimpse of the moon above the wing.


Getting into the more consistently mountainous region.

Getting some snow already here.

Lots of white stuff covering the mountains.

And the sun sets on my vacation in San Francisco and Napa Valley.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Napa Valley Day 4 | Lots of wine, but no complaining

The late-day sun shines through the trees and hits the grape leaves of showcase vines at Beringer, the last vineyard on our whirlwind tour of Napa Valley.

The fog filled Napa Valley like soapsuds in a bathtub. It happened each morning of our two-morning stay in America's wine country. And the air was cold. I could see my breath - not a frequent sight in Florida.

It was worrisome because my New York friend and I had a tee time at Napa Golf Course, the local municipal club where greens fees are a reasonable $30 for 18 holes. Rain seemed probable.

But the fog lifted, and the sun was warm. In another sign of good fortune, the pro at the course gave us each a club rental for free. He had quoted a $20 fee when I called ahead, but he said, "They're so crappy, it wouldn't be right to charge you."

I hadn't played golf in more than a year, so my game was rusty. As we sped around the course in a golf cart, we had good holes and bad holes. My friend parred one, which, as a newbie to the game, was an achievement.

I do believe I hit a ball - or two - into that pond.

The golf course provided expansive views of the hills buttressing the valley. Many of them were covered in golden brown grass. It had rained on the night of my arrival in San Francisco, and the local news station said it was the first time the valley had seen precipitation since January. We saw firetrucks on the roadside and heard of occasional forest fires on the news. As a Florida resident, I can't imagine not seeing, hearing, feeling the rain for 10 months. The dry season can be boring.

Aside from the extended climate, I began to see a certain likeness between northern California and a place I once lived. The evergreen trees, the rolling hills, the cool mornings: It felt like I was in Maine again. Of course, it doesn't get as cold in California as it does in Maine. But if the year-round weather was similar to what I experienced during my vacation, I could definitely get used to it.

Midway through the back nine, we realized that our time to get the full Napa Valley experience was running short. It was almost 2 p.m., and we wanted to squeeze in a few more vineyards on top of our visit to Domaine Chandon the previous evening. It was our first and final full day to get it done.

So, I did yet another of many firsts during this vacation: I cut my round of golf short. The horror.

The only scheduled event on our Napa Valley itinerary was our golfing. We left the quality of our wine experience to serendipity. But really, you can't go wrong in a place so saturated with wineries. Choose one, and the experience will be different from the other and will be genuinely good in its own right.

Rows of grapevines at a vineyard in Napa Valley. The golden hills are in the background.

We had read in some hotel literature that Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford was an intimate, family run place that was started by a man from Croatia. Actually, it was Grgich Hills that made Napa Valley known among the world's top wine-producing regions.

In 1976, in an event called the Judgment of Paris, Mike Grgich's chardonnay was chosen as the victor in a blind test. His snobby European competitors, thinking something was wrong with the results, ordered another tasting. Grgich won again.

Or so said the young, good-looking lady who administered our tasting in the winery's small tasting room (my friend made sure to check her ring finger, which was predictably adorned with a golden wedding band). The tasting room is adjacent a larger room with giant metal canisters. The building itself smelled of fermentation - the good kind, of course.

On the topic of fermentation, Grgich Hills says it's the best at it. Instead of adding yeast, the winemakers use a trademarked process called Biodynamic farming. Its grapes have living yeast on their skins that allows for a natural fermentation. Grgich Hills fits in with this organic fad.

But enough science, which I can't adequately explain anyway. What do my taste buds say?

We were given - count 'em - five wines to taste from a selection of "current releases." I felt like I was at a movie screening, not a wine tasting. We got the 2006 chardonnay, 2007 fume blanc, 2005 zinfandel, 2004 merlot and the 2004 cabernet sauvignon. All are meant for the colder months of the year.

If you've seen "Sideways," you'd know that Paul Giamatti's character, Miles, isn't a fan of merlot. "If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving," he says.

I'm not as much of a detractor, but I have to say that Grgich Hills' strongest wines are not their reds. The chardonnay was the best I've had. Our guide during this tour of tastes said the Grgich chardonnay turned her on to white wine. I could understand why.

But the best was the fume blanc. It has the classic sauvignon blanc flavor of grapefruit, but it's tangy and more pronounced in Grgich Hills' take. It's not sweet, but the flavor is intense. I decided to buy a bottle and check my luggage for the first time in my life in order to take it back to Florida. You can get this stuff only in California; you can't find it in the wine section of Walmart. I had to seize to opportunity.

Apparently, the feeling of affection between us and our wine administrator was mutual because she bagged up two glasses with my purchased bottle, instead of the one that was supposed to come with the tasting fee of $10. "This way, you can come back and get even more free refills," she said jokingly. I wish.

The Grgich Hills visit was enough to leave Napa Valley a happy man. It was enough to die a happy man. But we still had two more hours before the last winery closed.

Beringer, up north a ways in St. Helena, sounded familiar, like a wine you might find in Walmart. Because our first two were unfamiliar, I figured we should visit a vineyard that rang a bell. It's a conversation piece: You're in the supermarket, you see a bottle, and you say to friend, "Yeah, I've been there." And Beringer and I share a German heritage: even more reason to pay a visit.

Our tour guide tells us about the cabernet sauvignon vines, which were used only for show in this case, as he drinks a glass of chardonnay.

The grapes of cabernet sauvignon.

For $20, we were led on a tour of the vineyard and, along the way, were given four wines to taste. The first was a chardonnay, oddly juxtaposed with a visit to a showcase vine of cabernet sauvignon grapes. The wine was good, but tasting the grapes was divine. Cabernet is not a sweet wine, but the grapes are so packed with sugars that they tasted like globs of honey. The ones that had turned into raisins were even more intense. If the grapes didn't have seeds, the Sun-Maid girl would be in trouble.

One of Beringer's signature brands, Leaning Oak, gets its name from a - dontcha know? - leaning oak. The tree, however, leaned too much and fell over. It's now a large stump that's cut off about 15 feet down its trunk. It serves only as a degenerate monument.

Rows of expensive oak barrels fill the man-made caves at Beringer.

The Beringer mansion, which was closed for renovations.

We then went into the man-made caves filled with oak barrels in which the fermentation takes place. The ideal temperature of the caves is 58 degrees. The barrels were imported from Europe and cost more than $1,000 each. They can be used only for three to four rounds of fermentation, then they're thrown out. That makes a bottle of $10 Beringer seem quite amazing.

Our tour guide said we were walking on ground once used as a scene in a movie, "A Walk in the Clouds," starring Keanu Reeves. A small storage room for bottles of wine was used as a place for a conversation between Reeves and another major character in the romantic film. Don't ask for details. I've never seen it.

My last taste of wine in Napa Valley suckered me into buying a bottle of it. Our tour guide gave us a taste of Beringer's vintage port and a bit of dark chocolate, too. Port is a sweet, extremely tangy dessert wine, so they were excellent complements. "Vintage," by the way, means 2002. And it was aged in those oak barrels for 21 months.

Drinking wine and eating chocolate on a vineyard in Napa Valley - we were living high. For the things we did and the expensive area of the country in which we did them, we were fortunate not to go broke on this trip. But actually, the vacation was very affordable. We bought our plane tickets early and didn't stay in fancy hotels.

We would've liked to have stayed another few days, visited another 10 vineyards, played another round of golf. But we're journalists - he, a business reporter during a financial crisis in New York; me, a copy editor responsible for an election publication in the swing state of Florida.

Day 5 of my vacation consisted of nothing more than travel. But even as my airplane lifted over California, there was one more touristy thing left to do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

San Fran Day 3 | Leaving town for the (wine) country

The Victorian houses of Alamo Square in San Francisco.

Two locals walk their dogs in the hilly oceanside community of Muir Beach, Calif.

When I visited New Orleans last year, I went about my adventure as an enthusiast in an attempt to blend in and get a sense of what it's like to live there. I got to know the local people, which eventually led to my introduction to Brad Pitt, who was in town to do some reconstruction work.

I left the Big Easy with a great sense of achievement, almost as though I had made some friends, even if it was for only a few days or a couple of minutes. But I also felt that I had missed something. There was much to be experienced in New Orleans that I skipped because I was too busy "blending in." I didn't tour the bayou. I didn't get any sort of Mardi Gras experience. I didn't eat any gator.

houses_flowers_0017Until my San Francisco trip, I thought my New Orleans strategy was the only way to go about tourism. It's probably because it's cheaper. And people who know me know that I'm cheap.

But my friend, whom I've known since freshman year in college, opened my eyes to a different approach: making sure you do the things you've never done and see the things you've never seen, before leaving a place you may never return to.

I saw the Golden Gate Bridge. I learned how to use a Segway. I threw myself into an Alcatraz cell.

Several times during the stay, I said, "I feel like a tourist," and then my friend responded, "That's because you are a tourist." I think I finally came to grips with that on Day 3. So on that last day in the city, we had to ask: What was the final thing we need to do or see before leaving? It was most definitely to visit Alamo Square, where the view of the Victorian "Painted Ladies" has been featured on countless postcards and movies and seen in TV shows such as "Full House."

We found a parking spot beside one of the houses and climbed the small hill. Being in the heart of the city for a few days, then stepping back and taking an overall look at where I had been treading is an amazing experience. Only from this perspective was I able to grasp the rugged beauty and uniqueness of this city.

couple_0027Luckily, my friend is a patient person. He waited as I pointed my camera this way and that way to get the right frame with the seven Victorians in the foreground and the skyscrapers behind them. A British family, left, walked in front of me and spoke in a pronounced, almost scripted tone. That's when I realized they were being filmed, probably for some travel show in England.

"Thank you, San Francisco," the man said as he walked away.


We left the city via the famous U.S. 101 and the even more widely known Golden Gate Bridge. I hadn't seen the open Pacific Ocean yet, so we headed for Muir Beach, just north of the city.

Having once lived in the surfing capital of the East Coast, Cocoa Beach, I can say that the surfers in Florida would be jealous of the large waves in California. But, on other hand, they'd be less impressed with the temperature of the water.

My friend waded into the rough Pacific as I waited far away from the frigidness. But I had that feeling again as though I was missing out. If I didn't partake, I couldn't walk away from the beach and honestly say I've felt the cool water of the Pacific Ocean on my legs. So I took off my shoes and waded out. The water was soon above my knees, soaking my jeans.

We then made our way to Mare Island in Vallejo, where my friend's grandfather, a Navy captain, had been a commander for five years in the 1980s of a now-defunct shipyard. The barracks were covered with graffiti. Windows were broken. Grass was taking over the roads.

The city of Vallejo is trying to develop the grounds, attracting businesses to locate warehouses and large-scale operations on the site. Some parts have been reserved for preservation, including the museum dedicated mostly to the former civilian employees of the shipyard.

Joyce, our tour guide at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, leads us to the second floor of the commander's quarters.

My friend looks at a list of commanders, including his grandfather.

A volunteer at the museum, Joyce, greeted us when we arrived. She showed us the commander's quarters, where my friend's grandfather had stayed. Because we were "special" visitors, she said, she showed us the third floor and the basement of an old building once profiled on the History Channel and used for a scene in a movie, the name of which I can't quite remember. Anything exclusive is worth doing, so I'm glad my friend has connections.

We arrived at our Napa base, The Chateau Hotel, late in the afternoon. The first thing we noticed was how vacant the building was. Its location was perfect: in the north part of the city, close to the wineries along State Route 29, the main road through Napa Valley. The accommodations were adequate, certainly more so than at the Civic Center Inn in the Tenderloin of San Francisco. And there was even a continental breakfast. How can you argue with bagels, danishes and corn flakes?

It was harvest time for the vineyards, making it peak tourist season. So we can't really explain why the hotel and wineries we visited during our stay were quiet. Maybe it's always like that. Maybe we just picked the right weekend. Or maybe it's the recession.

We quickly checked into the hotel, then headed to Domaine Chandon, a winery not five minutes away that's famous for sparkling wines. I had never tasted a sparkling wine I liked until tasting three of them at Chandon. Maybe it was the atmosphere. A French singer with an accordion filled the outdoor patio with a sophisticated air. Nearby, a man shucked oysters. My friend and I ate "artisan" cheeses as we tasted wine. I had the $16 "prestige tasting," which included the etoile brut, the reserve pinot noir brut and the etoile rose, which was aged five years and featured flavors of plum, raspberry, nutmeg, candied ginger, truffle and cocoa.

My friend and I laughed with the people at the table next to us when we saw a largely pregnant lady drinking a glass of red liquid. Maybe it was grape juice?

And to think, I probably would have never had this experience if I didn't have a friend alongside me.

A daisy in the flower garden of the commander's quarters at Mare Island.

Another flower.

Unripe lemons hang from a tree at the commander's house.

My first taste of Domaine Chandon's etoile brut. The wine was described as "a bouquet of almond and honey [that] leads to flavors of citrus and ginger with a soft, creamy structure."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

San Fran Day 2 | Here, they have the best of the best

The typical view of Alcatraz Island.

My adventure in tourism continued with an early visit to Alcatraz Island in the heart of San Francisco Bay and with a bit of skepticism that San Francisco may be overstating the importance of its attractions, preying on gullible tourists.

Alcatraz is billed as the most infamous prison in U.S. history. Tourists spend $26 for a quick ferry ride to the island, where the admission is "free." I'm guessing that if you find your own way to the island - say, by swimming - it would really be free.

You know you're doing a touristy thing when the workers at an attraction take your photo in front of a giant photo of the attraction, just in hopes that you'll be so thrilled that you'll buy that photo of a photo when your visit is through. Why not just snap a shot with your own digital camera with the real said attraction - Alcatraz - in the background?

alcatraz_water_tower_0064When we arrived on The Rock, my friend described it as a "creepy" place. I wasn't picking up that vibe; I just thought it was cold and windy. But in some cases such as with the water tower to the left, the island had a stark beauty.

Included in the free $26 admission is an audio tour of the main prison house, which includes your very own experience of confinement in the same dank cells that housed such greats as Chicagoan Al Capone.

The views of San Francisco from Alcatraz are breathtaking. I wondered why they used such a prime piece of real estate for a prison. (I suppose it's because it was previously a strategically placed fort). If the island were developed in modern-day Florida, there would be condos, a few retention ponds, a golf course for the adults and a theme park with a giant rodent to entertain the kids.

The view was the greatest aspect of the prison visit. The audio tour was educational. I learned that the food there wasn't that bad. And I heard about the escape from the prison made by career criminal Frank Morris and the bank-robbing brothers John and Clarence Anglin. But that was 45 years ago, and seeing where they had crawled to the ceiling and gazing at the mock-ups of the dummies they used to trick the prison guards were causes to yawn. I wanted off The Rock.

trans_american _0123So after the 10-minute ride back to the mainland, we were touring the town again.

We saw the Business District and the Transamerica Building, left, a pyramidal skyscraper that sticks out as one of the most noticeable of San Francisco manmarks.

We saw San Francisco's famous Chinatown, one of the largest in the nation, and we were quite unsatisfied. But I had my first dim sum experience, which I'll tell you about later.

One of our final tourism events on Day 2 was a visit to the "crookedest street in the world." My friend and I remarked how San Francisco bragged about having the first, the only, the best, the biggest of all sorts of things.

Alcatraz was the most infamous prison.

A restaurant in the North Beach neighborhood was supposedly the oldest Italian joint in America. I would think New York would call San Fran out on that one.

Another eatery, Forbes Island, claimed it was the only floating island restaurant in the world. Truth is, it's a man-made nautical achievement and isn't really an island at all. And I seem to remember eating at Dimillo's Floating Restaurant in downtown Portland, Maine, and being tossed gently up and down as the waves of the Atlantic came ashore.

After realizing that the claim to fame of Lombard Street's extremely steep portion was probably just a lie, we began to debate the grammatical accuracy of the "crookedest street in the world."

"Shouldn't it be 'most crooked street in the word?'" my friend, who's a reporter for The Associated Press in New York, said. As a copy editor, I made the ruling that it's technically correct.

San Franciscans may get a bit too giddy about the gravity of their attractions, but at least they know their superlatives.


The main corridor through three stories of cells at the Alcatraz prison is called Broadway. Original.

We visited the island on a Saturday, so there were plenty of rich people - of which there are many in San Francisco - sailing their yachts throughout the bay.

The island is a surprisingly barren place, but it has pockets of beauty, such as this wild rosebush.


Cars lined for blocks to enter this part of Lombard Street, know as the "crookedest street in the world." Our Segway tour guide on Day 1 said the decline of this street is so great (27 percent) that engineers had to create such crookedness to make it safer. I say city planners just thought it would be a good way to get more tourists to visit San Francisco. I just pity the people who live on this block, forever relegated to being part of a yearlong tourist attraction.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

San Fran Day 1 | Being a true tourist, seedy motel and all

Why did I go to San Francisco? I guess this was one of the reasons: climbing a hill that's higher than any point in the state of Florida.

Ideally, I enjoy experiencing new-to-me cities as an enthusiast, not as a tourist. I immerse myself in the culture, eat the local food, talk with the local people. That's what I did in New Orleans, and it was one of the best vacations I've had.

But when you're traveling with someone who doesn't share your approach, compromises must be made. My recent trip to San Francisco and Napa Valley was one big compromise.

But my New York friend and I did stay in a sketchy motel on the intersection of Polk and Ellis streets, which made me happy. Some of the most enjoyable aspects of a big city can be found its doldrums. You meet real people in these areas.

After getting off the subway train, I walked through the area around City Hall. It's as pristine and presentable as any city's government district. But as I approached the motel, which was only a matter of blocks from City Hall, there was a visible transition into the seedy part. The sidewalks no longer were clean. There were bums and boozers. And it was loud.

"I wouldn't want to live here," a cab driver told us. He said there was a lot of drugs - cocaine, mostly - in that neighborhood of San Francisco, known as Tenderloin.

I didn't have a problem with drugs, but I was kept up most of the night by noisy fellow motel patrons yelling at each other, undoubtedly drunken, high or otherwise liberal.

No harm, though. I got enough sleep to enjoy my first experience as a true tourist. In an idea I would've never gotten myself, my friend signed us up for a Segway tour of the city - beginner's version, of course.

As we waited for the next available spots on the tour, we walked along the banks of San Francisco Bay, gawking at the main thing there is to gawk at: the Golden Gate Bridge. That's why most of the photos from Day 1 consist of that big red transportation facilitator.

As a hill-deprived converted Floridian, I couldn't believe the drastic inclines citywide. There were several points throughout the 4-mile trek that were higher than the highest point in the Sunshine State, 345 feet above sea level.

segway_vert_0282When the Segway tour started, my feet were soar and in no shape to do more walking, so I began to think my friend was onto something with this motorized tourism concept. But first, we had to sit through a training video on how to use a Segway, then go through actual training - weaving between cones, backing up, stopping, getting off - all in the parking lot of the place that charges $70 for a "tour" of the city. I didn't want a class; I wanted to see things.

But using a Segway isn't as simple as it looks. It requires balance. Even the slightest movement adjusts your course.

After a few minutes, I had a handle on it, and we struck out for the city. It would figure that the first chunk of the tour took us on the route of our walk along the bay. But the last portion went through North Beach, a section that was actually a beach long ago but is now miles from the water. Seeing the old neighborhoods was a treat, but another aspect of the Segway tour was truly a first for me: I was the tourist attraction.

There's something about seeing a group of 15 people driving Segways and clad in bright-yellow vests that makes tourists feel the need to take a photo, wave and stare. It was especially bad because we were speeding through the tourist-laden areas - places such as Pier 39, where the restaurants and shops catered to people like us. What's so great about this, anyway? Is this the real San Francisco? Where's the Rice-A-Roni? The cable cars? Nancy Pelosi?

But it didn't matter. Driving a Segway was just fun. And I guess that's the main reason I came to San Francisco.

Apparently, young San Franciscans are big on firefighting.

Yep, Day 1 was consumed mostly with a bridge.

San Francisco Bay is definitely a place for the dogs.

Wouldn't want to be in a house with those animals after this.


This is the closest we got to the bridge until we drove across it later in our stay. The photo was taken at a popular viewing area, where a boatload of tourists - literally; they were on a cruise - was also snapping photos. It got to a point where my friend and I were getting asked to take photos of the touring couples so frequently that we just wanted to leave. So we did.

We caught a free ride on a cable car to the waterfront. I guess this is another reason why tourists visit San Francisco.