Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Way Down Upon the Ahwahnee

For many years I have dreamed of staying at the Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite.  When MCA was my client and it owned Yosemite Park and Curry Company, the former concessionaire of the Ahwahnee,  I was frequently told that it was difficult, nay impossible, to get a reservation at the Hotel unless you had pull and money.  I had little of either at the time so I tucked the dream away for another day.

Last year, when we came to Yosemite in June 2010 after my chemotherapy ended, we wound up eating at the Ahwahnee Hotel for lunch a few times.  At that point we hatched our plot to bring our entire family to Yosemite the following June for a wilderness vacation.  I got onto the current concessionaire's, DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, website, to discover that my husband and I could stay at the Ahwahnee for an exorbitant price that we could afford (sort of) if I got a bonus this year and I did not want to plan to have any money in the future!

One year later I am sitting here as I type this entry on the Ahwahnee grounds in a cottage completed in 1927. From the cottage and the hotel we enjoy fabulous views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, the Merced River and Glacier Point.  Everything is wonderful -- except for the people.  Yosemite Valley has record water flow this year which has yielded record crowds.  Today, after raining last night and this morning,  hordes of campers from Curry Village and other campsites have poured in the Ahwahnee for shelter and food.  And the Merced flooded in Housekeeping Camp so people are displaced from their lodging.  Where are they going?  Apparently also to the Ahwahnee.  The valet parking was 50 cars deep at lunchtime as we waited for friends to meet us at the Ahwahnee Bar.

It is crowded all over Yosemite Valley with traffic jams reminiscent of the 405 at home.  The hybrid buses that you are encouraged to take to cut down on pollution in the park are crammed with people, some of whom have not showered for a while.  It makes the buses of cities at rush hour seem desirable.

At breakfast the other day, the person at the next table loudly exhorted people at his table, whom he apparently had just met, to have a wonderful time in Yosemite, which is a "piece of heaven on earth".  The man to whom he made this comment got angry and offended, replying that it was sacrilege to compare anything on earth to heaven.  My thought was to wonder whether there would be as many crowds in heaven.

"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." John Muir
Today, John Muir, it would be tens of thousands, all piled in the small area of the Yosemite Valley.  But even with the crowds, this place is magical and eye opening, both for its natural beauty and its history.

You can read about the history of the Ahwahnee here and here.  The hotel opened in 1927 as a place of decorum for a certain type of traveler.  One of the people working here told us this morning, as we sat in the Mural Room off the Grand Lounge, that the original application to work for the Curry Company at the Ahwahnee told people if they could not smile for ten hours straight, no need to apply.  Another story I like about the Ahwahnee is the following report (whether it's true I do not know given that other parts of this source blog were challenged in the blog's comments):
Prior to the availability of condenser units, at the beginning of each winter, the hotel staff would go out to Mirror Lake (about 1.5 miles away) and cut 500 pound (225 kg) blocks of ice from the frozen lake. These blocks would be hauled back to the hotel and stored under straw and sawdust. When the refrigerators needed "refilling", the blocks were lifted by a winch and slid into these doorways situated above each chamber. Each of these doorways led to compartments big enough for ten 500-pound blocks of ice.
Ahwahnee Hotel in the past

Ahwahnee Hotel today

Grand Lobby is behind pillars

Another view of Ahwahnee

Cottage at Ahwahnee

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One More For the Road About Santa Fe

In pulling together the photos for yesterday's post, I came across a few more gems about Santa Fe that I want to share.  As I mentioned in the first post of this series about Santa Fe we loved our stay at Hacienda Nicholas.  Part of the Hacienda Nicholas family of properties is the spa Absolute Nirvana.  I had two very wonderful massages there in a cottage room on the Madeleine Inn property.  We had originally scheduled the two massages (one for each of us) for the night of our arrival but our travel was delayed so we missed the appointments.  Given that there were basketball games on TV the other evenings and we wanted to go sightseeing during the day, my husband donated his massage to me so that I could have them two nights in a row.  Both massages were expert and enjoyable, not really fully Thai massage but  somewhat different from the Swedish massage I typically get. Here is a picture of the room where I had both massages--tastefully Thai, I believe.
Absolute Nirvana

On Monday, rain was forecast so I scheduled two massages at 10,000 Waves, in the hills just outside of Santa Fe proper.  We had gone to 10,000 Waves our last visit to Santa Fe and decided it was worth a return visit to the Japanese style spa, which their website says "feels like a Japanese onsen" . I did not do a bath this time but was taken to a private room among the trees on the side of the hill where it felt as if I were having the massage outside.  My masseuse was a bit chatty and very knowledgeable about alternative health therapies  but the massage was not the best one I have had recently.  My husband, on the other hand, raved that his massage was one of the best, if not the best one he had ever had.
10000 Waves

It did not rain, of course, on Monday so before we headed out to 10,000 Waves in the afternoon, we did an extensive shopping stop at Jackalope.  Jackalope is a bit like Cost Plus/World Market  meets outdoor bazaar.  There is one in Los Angeles but I have only been to the one in Santa Fe which has all these wonderful Mexican and New Mexican items.  I bought a few pieces of talavera style items, two of which broke on the trip home. (Fortunately, other talavera items bought there and elsewhere survived the trip.  Memo to self, do not give badly wrapped breakable items to husband to carry).  Every time I go to Jackalope, I wish I had a car or truck so that I could take home bigger items that I find there, like benches for the yard and furniture.  I suppose I should go to the one in LA but I am afraid it will spoil the Santa Fe experience of this funky store.

Jackalope- the proprietor
Where's my truck? At Jackalope

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Way of Taos

We have gone to Taos on every single trip we have made to Santa Fe.  Who doesn't love the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains  (even if the name leaves something to be desired.  For my money, mountains should  named after sweet things and not the blood of Christ)?  This time, however, after a brief shopping excursion to the John Dunn Shops off the main square where there is a lovely independent bookstore and a good leather bag shop, we decided to head out to the Taos Pueblo which we had never visited.
View of Sangre de Cristo from Taos

First however we needed sustenance so we set off in search of lunch.  Our first effort took us to a place recommended by the girl in the bookstore--Orlando's New Mexican Cafe.  Unfortunately Orlando's was closed for a private graduation party so I pulled out the smartphone and clicked on Yelp.  We found a nearby breakfast/lunch place called Gutiz  which is described as Latin-French fusion and had an average 5 rating on Yelp.  It was definitely a good find.  I had the vegetarian tartine that was delicious and virtuous, although probably not low cal.  The decor was sweet and we were seated by a blond young girl about 10 years old who I hope was a relative of the owner.

Interior of Gutiz

Taos Pueblo was a short drive from the restaurant and a long way from the "scene" of  Taos.  The tribal management charged a camera fee of $6 for each of us as well as $10 admission fee.  As my husband said, it contributes to the upkeep of the Pueblo tribal community, which lives with tourists gaping and clicking at the homestead on a daily basis.

The Taos Pueblo is a World Heritage Site as the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, with evidence that the ancestors of the current inhabitants lived there 1000 years ago.  The base of the pueblo buildings were built between 550-1000 years ago and the current multistory structures look much like they did 500 years ago.  The Pueblo also contains a beautiful church (Roman Catholic but with the Native American twist- unfortunately no photos allowed of the inside) with  a great view of the mountains from the church courtyard through the entry gate. Most of the buildings contained shops run by members of the tribe (called variously the Taos Pueblo people, the Tiwa or Tewa people, or the Red Willow people perhaps the latter name is related to the Red Willow creek which runs through the Pueblo. We bought a few of the crafts--in particular a clay sculpted  storyteller,  which was a grandmother telling children stories of the past.  We also watched drummers and a wonderful dog swimming in the creek.
Artisan shop in Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo north

Red Willow Creek

Red Willow Creek with view of San Geronimo Church

Drummers of Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo south
San Geronimo Church

View from San Geronimo courtyard

Our last stop of the day in Taos was the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which we had visited previously but one of us had forgotten the last trip.  I found the walk across the bridge to be as terrifying as the last time but the scenery is quite fascinating.  The sky also filled up with white clouds that are perfect as a cloud template for photoshop, if you are into that sort of thing.  I just like looking at the clouds in contrast to the deep blue sky over the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Rio Grande Gorge
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Clouds over Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Santa Fe Revisited

After a two year hiatus, we returned to Santa Fe in May for a four day weekend trip.   This time we stayed in a B&B, Hacienda Nicholas, which an old friend recommended.  The proprietress, Carolyn Lee, actually owns three/four properties--Hacienda Nicholas (+ casita), Madeleine Inn and Alexander's Inn, which are named after her three children.  We stayed in the casita, which is a few blocks away from the Madeleine and the Hacienda, themselves across a cul de sac from each other on a small street off Palace Avenue near Paseo de Peralta.  The casita was spacious, tastefully decorated in Southwesternalia and had the ever desirable king size bed. However, for us it was a bit awkward having to get from the bedroom upstairs in the middle of the night to the bathroom via metal spiral staircase.  I recommend the casita only for those with younger bladders.

Breakfast at Hacienda Nicholas was out of this world.  For example, they made a bluecorn pinon waffle that melted in your mouth.  The other breakfasts were chili based but not too spicy for me, who generally does not like spicy. Although I must say that I find I am more tolerant of chilis and other New Mexican spices in Santa fe than I am when I try to recreate the food at home.   Perhaps being in the high desert makes it taste better?

We did venture out of the B&B from time to time (even though the massages at Absolute Nirvana, located at the Madeleine, were lovely).  In our room, there was helpful binder with itineraries to explore the Santa Fe area.  Thanks to that, we took off for Bandelier Monument, about an hour from Santa Fe.  On the way to Bandelier, we stopped first at Los Alamos to visit the site of the development of the atomic bombs.

After visiting Hiroshima in December, it seemed fitting to come full circle to the place where work was done on the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The Manhattan Project was largely run out of Los Alamos although a significant amount of work on the gun-style fission bomb, Little Boy,  which was dropped on Hiroshima, was done in Tennessee.  The supply of uranium isotope (Uranium 235)  used in the first bomb was limited and so research at Los Alamos focussed on building a bomb based on fission of plutonium.  Robert J. Oppenheimer assembled a staff of preeminent scientists, including a friend's father, who traveled by train to Santa Fe and then were whisked away to this secret location near the mountains.

We wandered around the former site of the Los Alamos Ranch School, which provided offices and living space for many of the scientists, in addition to the now demolished quonset huts that filled the park across from the school site.  Fuller Lodge, with its main auditorium where Manhattan Project scientists met to discuss weighty issues, is now used for events.  A pianist was practicing for an event while we were there.  We opted not to visit the memorial for the place where Big Man (dropped on Nagasaki) was assembled, having steeped ourselves enough in WW2 history for one day.
Baker House

Fuller Lodge

Auditorium in Fuller Lodge

Instead we headed to Bandelier in search of a much older history, that of the ancient pueblo people and their dwellings. We walked on the main loop trail, visiting the big Kiva, Tyuonyi and a few cliff dwellings and cave rooms (aka cavetes).  Unfortunately, the altitude and dry air made it too hard for me to keep climbing to make it to the Long House.  Perhaps on my next trip.

Big Kiva

Tyuonyi pueblo remmants-  closeup

Bandelier cliff dwellings

Tyuonyi pueblo remmants- overview

Cave rooms
Next up-- our day trip to Taos, including the Taos Pueblo and the Rio Grande Gorge

Saturday, June 11, 2011

So Long Santa Cruz

Last weekend the young'un graduated with an AA from Cabrillo College (with high honors, ahem).  As I have said elsewhere here, she is moving on to UC Berkeley to continue her studies toward a BA, most likely in legal studies.  We went to Santa Cruz last weekend to enjoy the celebration of this accomplishment and to say goodbye to the lovely and quirky northern California beach city.

We returned to our favorite B&B in Capitola, the Inn at Depot Hill, which I also wrote about previously.  This time we were finally able to get into our first choice room, Costa del Sol, which is located in the back of the main inn building.  The room has a king size bed, which B&Bers know is not easy to come by.  And the room has a lovely balcony with a fountain underneath so you get the sound of running water when you sit at the table on the balcony.  Unfortunately for us, it rained a lot of the time we were there so we did not get to use the balcony to its full extent.
Costa del Sol room - Inn at Depot Hill © Paul Hoffman 2011
Balcony in the background ©Paul Hoffman 2011
Bathroom in background ©Paul Hoffman 2011
We made our way downtown several times as usual and ran the gauntlet of the street performers and homeless people while visiting favorite restaurants and the Bookshop Santa Cruz, a wonderful independent bookstore.  Our young'un luckily never lived in the downtown area, thanks to momma bear's insistence.  However, the area is lively even though a little seedy.

On Sunday we got a small break in the rain so we ventured out to a state park on the ocean called Natural Bridges.  Unfortunately, due to budget cuts for the state parks in California, the facilities at the park were very run down but nature was still splendid.  Natural Bridge is an arch in the ocean that takes one's breath away. (There is only one bridge so I am not sure why the name of the park has "bridges" as plural). Definitely a place to stop if you are driving up Highway 1 to San Francisco above Santa Cruz.
Natural Bridge     ©Paul Hoffman 2011
Near Natural Bridge- in flight      ©Paul Hoffman 2011

We also made it to the Santa Cruz Harbor for the first time.  There is a wonderful restaurant, Crow's Nest, with views of the ocean and the lighthouse.  The food was excellent too.  The Harbor was the scene of impact of the Japanese tsunami in March 2011,  Some boats were damaged but generally it was a fairly mild swell of water.
Santa Cruz Harbor and Lighthouse
Santa Cruz Harbor (scene of March 2011 tsunami damage)

It is hard to believe that two years ago I went to Santa Cruz several times during the summer of 2009 to find housing for the young'un and her beau, a task that was not easy but ultimately was accomplished.  Now the graduates are off looking for housing in Berkeley. I will miss Santa Cruz but look forward to the new adventures in visiting Cal (da Bears!) and its environs.