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Seas Less Sailed

Gilroy is and always was a farming town: cherries, berries, nuts and the crop for which it is universally known, garlic. In Gilroy you can shop at the Garlic Shoppe, visit Garlic World and plant your rig at the Garlic USA RV Park. There’s an annual Garlic Festival, a Garlic City Casino, and at the town’s best-know attraction, Gilroy Gardens, the kids can whirl about in giant garlic heads. At certain times of the year, as you drive through town, or even near it, someone in the car will scrunch their nose and say, “What’s that smell?”

Sounds unusual but not that romantic.

But Gilroy sits hallway between San Francisco and Carmel, and back in the day, before San Jose had an airport and freeways were built, movie stars — John Wayne, Will Rogers, Big Crosby — used to fly from Hollywood to San Francisco, then drive or be driven to their favorite vacation spot, Carmel, and on the way, spend a night in Gilroy.

So there’s a tradition of tourism, along with the ubiquitous stinking rose.

That’s why, along with the Garlic Festival, Gilroy has way more attractions than your average central California farm town.

One is golf; there are nine courses in and around town. A second is Premium Outlets; shop till you drop. A third is the big kahuna, Gilroy Gardens.

We spent a day there. Here’s what we liked and what we didn’t:

Like. It’s an oasis, beautifully planted with trees and shrubs and topiary. Employees are all enthusiastic and friendly. It’s enhanced by numerous lakes and waterfalls. Carnival rides range from totally gentle to thrill a minute. And once you pay the admission fee, they’re all free.

Didn’t like. Not only is the admission price steep, they hit you extra for parking. And there’s so much carny clutter for sale at cringe-worthy prices, it’s an invitation to a “Mommy, I want that!” whine fest.

For our stay in Gilroy, we bedded down at the large, comfortable and welcoming Best Western Plus Park Forest Inn — a big name, but it’s a big hotel.

We dinnered at Milias, where John Wayne used to go for steaks … and Joan Didion went for ribs. Everything is fresh, prepared from scratch and delicious. They call it comfort food; I call it great taste. They served us shortribs, avocado and shrimp, perfectly dressed wedge lettuce and the best carrot cake ever.

So it often is with destinations in seas less sailed.

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When you visit Sequoia National Park, King’s Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park, you come away knowing you now know the definition of “giant.”

Once you’ve seen the giant sequoias, giant redwoods, giant waterfalls, and the giant granite rock called Half Dome, their immensity is forever etched in your brain.

In Sequoia National Park stands General Sherman, the world’s largest tree. It’s about 2500 years old. In King’s Canyon National Park, the General Grant sequoia may not be quite as large as Sherman, but it’s known as the United States Christmas tree. Imagine trimming it!

Farther north in the Sierra Nevada mountains is Yosemite, the home of Half Dome. You look at it and wonder how on earth anyone could climb its 5000-foot sheer granite face. Or want to.

After you visit all three of these national treasures, “giant” has new meaning for you.

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Wow! Sacramento’s Tower Bridge is impossible to miss.

Like the Golden Gate, it’s all about the color—in this case, gold. It used to be silver, but everyone growled about the glare, so in 2001, citizens voted for a new color. The gold paint job should last about 30 years. Maybe after that there will be another vote.

Another Wow! Sacramento attraction is the Delta King paddle wheeler. From 1927 to 1940, it paddled the Sacramento River between Sacramento and San Francisco. Now, completely renovated, it’s docked in Old Sacramento and is a fun place to stay for a night or two. It serves up delicious food, drinks, and mystery dinner theater shows. So welcome aboard, matey.

Sacramento became California’s state capital in 1879. Before that, the capital moved from San Jose to Vallejo to Benicia.

Sacramento architecture combines modern new designs with buildings reminiscent of Gold Rush days. In Old Sacramento, wooden sidewalks, horse drawn wagons, and old timey shops help you imagine life when gold was first discovered in California.

There are plenty of restaurants, museums, hotels, and parks to explore in this city that has been described as the sunniest place on the planet from July through September. July is the sunniest month of all. Sounds good unless you don’t fancy heat that can reach over 100 degrees. And with global warming, who knows where temperatures will top out? If you come in summer, bring a fan.

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I learned a new word at Okane: ippin. It means small dishes or plates —  Japanese tapas.

Ippin defines dining at Okane, an izakaya restaurant. BTW, izakaya refers to a neighborhood, casual dining and drinking place in Japan. This small izakaya has just 46 seats plus an extra four at the sushi bar.

If you have a taste for the freshest of fish served a gazillion different ways, Okane fits the bill: cod, shrimp, mackerel, tuna, salmon, eel. They serve them tempura-ed, sushi-ed, seared, poached and raw. You name it, it’s on the menu. So is Japanese beer and sake.

Once you’re fished out, clean your palate with housemade sesame ice cream with a sweet sauce. It’s a lip-smackingly good finish.

669 Townsend Street; 415 865-9788; www.okanesf.com

 

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Stroll and whisper.

That’s what you do when you enter the peace and quiet of Hakone Japanese Gardens. If you’re there when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, you’ll want to shout about their beauty. Shhhh. Keep it to yourself and continue quietly enjoying the rest of the gardens.

Over eighteen acres, there’s much to see. The four different gardens are Hill and Pond with its three-level waterfall and plump koi; Bamboo Garden and its collection of rare bamboo; Tea Garden where you can enjoy the extra quiet tea ceremony; and Dry Garden, the center of harmony and tranquility.

Built in 1917, Hakone Gardens is an authentic oasis of Japanese architecture and landscape design, and it’s authentically non-digital in the shadow of Silicone Valley.

 

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Bill Graham (1931–1991).

Most people know Bill Graham as one of the greatest rock concert promoters ever. He opened Fillmore West and Fillmore East as public stages for rock music legends such as Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. He partied with the likes of Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. He used his concerts to raise people’s consciousness about social issues and to earn money to help those in need.

No doubt Graham’s social conscience can be traced back to his own life as a Jewish refugee in Germany and a Holocaust survivor. As the threat of Nazis grew ever closer, Graham was first sent to a safe home for Jewish children, then to France to another safe place. Soon there was no safety in Europe for him; at eleven and with no family, he was sent to America. He never left. And, the rest, as they say, is history.

With the help of his two sons, David and Alex, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is hosting an exhibit that includes well known Fillmore posters, one of Jerry Garcia’s guitars, concert footage, photographs of famous rock and rollers, and personal memorabilia like Graham’s note to this sons about coming home for a pillow fight.

Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991 after a Huey Lewis and the News concert.  Appropriately, nearly half a million people celebrated his life in a free concert in Golden Gate Park.

 

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Let us introduce you to Anders Zorn.

Zorn (1860 – 1920) was a Swedish painter and printmaker in etching.
He studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm, Sweden and became well known in his time as a portrait painter.

He painted portraits of two American presidents, Cleveland and Taft, and he made an etching portrait of Teddy Roosevelt.  Zorn is also famous for his nude paintings and his skill at vividly drawing water.

Zorn’s genius spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was an absolute master of watercolor, oil, sculpture, travel, fun and self-promotion.

 

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For years, MoAD, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, languished. Opened with much fanfare in 2005, it was pretty much static until late 2013.

In 2013, Linda Harris, a human dynamo from Chicago, took over the reins. Since then, the museum, which sits between SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and CMJ (Contemporary Jewish Museum), has created new gallery space, hosted exciting exhibits and started a Chef-in-Residence program.

MoAD’s goal is to “showcase the art, history, and cultural richness that resulted from the migration of people of African descent throughout the world.”

It succeeds.

MoAD has become a go-to museum in the heart of San Francisco.

685 Mission Street, San Francisco;  415 358-7200

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San Francisco loves its fights, especially intellectual fights. Here’s a current one — along with paintings and sculpture, the de Young Museum has hosted several major fashion exhibits: Saint Laurent, Bulgari, Gaultier, and now, Oscar de la Renta. Fashion’s popular, but is it art?

We say yes. And even if it’s not elevated to the heights of paint on canvas, haute couture brings citizens and school kids to museums, which is generally a good thing.

The fashions in this first de Young retrospective of Oscar de la Renta’s decades-long body of work include gowns worn by First Ladies Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Bush. Major stars like Taylor Swift,  Rihanna, Penelope Cruz, and Sarah Jessica Parker have awed their fans wearing de la Renta’s fabulous designs.

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Now we understand …

No matter the day or time of day, whenever we pass Pacific Catch, it’s always jammed. To the gills. Sure it’s small —28 seats including a few outside — but still.

We finally ate there. Now we understand. Freshest seafood. Cheeriest waiters. Most reasonable prices. Most convivial customers (which is good since the tables are within whisper distance of each other).

And one killer dessert. They call it Crispy Dulce de Leche “Spring Roll.” It’s an irresistible mix of cheesecake filling, vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. We shared; it wasn’t easy.

We also shared the rest of the meal: spicy tortilla lime soup, mahi mahi and Baja tacos, a wasabi rice bowl. All super fresh; all delicious.

Here’s another bonus: Tuesday, bottles of wine are half price.

The Pacific Catch on Chestnut Street is one link in a small chain of Catches.

2027 Chestnut St, San Francisco; (415) 440-1950 http://pacificcatch.com/locations/sf-chestnut-st/

 

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