Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Visiting "The Rock" - Tours of Alcatraz

While I have not been to Alcatraz, I do really want to go on a tour and know that I will one of these days. I'm especially intrigued by going on a nigh tour around Halloween, since Alcatraz is purported to be haunted. What can I say, I'm a fan of Ghost Hunters. Anyway, I've passed Alcatraz on the two bay cruises I've been on and have taken a number of pictures. Obviously, the view one has from a boat is not the same as what one sees while on the island. Some of the interesting sites you can see from the bay is graffiti left over from the Native American occupation that started in late 1969. Other interesting sites are signs warning you from picking up "hitchhikers."

While the island itself is part of the National Park Service and charges no entrance fee, the only way you can get to the island is via the official ferry service, which does cost. Depending on which tour you take, the cost varies from $26.00 on up. The most complete tour appears to be the evening tour for which reservations are definitely recommended, since this tour is only offered from Thursday to Monday. The other tours are offered daily.

The ferry for Alcatraz departs from the Hornblower Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33. If you do go to Alcatraz, make sure you have comfortable shoes, because there is a lot of walking once you disembark from the ferry.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Secret Lives of Sea Horses

A leafy sea dragon
(Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

On April 6, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has opened a new special exhibit, The Secret Lives of Seahorses. The exhibit features more than 15 species of seahorses and related creatures; it is one of the nation’s largest collections of such animals.

I look forward to getting to see this special exhibit on a future visit to Monterey. Seahorses are some of the oddest looking animals in the sea, especially the sea dragons. Pictured above is the leafy sea dragon, which is one of my favorites because they are especially bizarre and interesting looking.

I am sure the seahorse exhibit is very well done, based on my experience of the exhibits at the aquarium. This replaces the exhibit that closed last year, the Jellies: Living Art exhibit (available online.) The jellies exhibit was one of the best exhibits of its kind, with an extensive array of jellies from around the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More Spring Savings in Monterey

This time, I received an e-mail from the Monterey Bay Inn announcing their "Super Spring Rate Sale." The special is another great opportunity to enjoy a pretty decent discount on one of Cannery Row's fabulous hotels.

Per the e-mail the rates are valid March 11 through April 30, 2009. And need to be booked before March 20. Harbor View rooms start at $169 per night with Friday and Saturday nights just $199 per night. These rooms generally go for well over $200 per night.

You also get two passes to The Scheid Vineyards Wine Lounge, valued at $20. Blackout dates for this Spring Sale include the April 17-16, during the Sea Otter Classic, and during the Big Sur Marathon, April 24-25.

Black Oak Casino

(Photo credit: Black Oak Casino)

The Black Oak Casino is located in eight miles east of Sonora in Tuolomne in Central California, within easy distance of Yosemite. The casino is run by the Tuolomne Band of Me-Wuk (Miwok, Miwuk, Mi-Wuk) Indians. The Black Oak is your typical casino with a players club, a number of restaurants, live music, and a gift shop, as well as family-oriented activities in the form of a bowling alley and an arcade. Unlike some destination casinos, the Black Oak doesn't have a hotel. However, there are a number of places to stay in surrounding communities. The Black Oak also has a smoke-free bar and casino area. The casino is open 24 hours.

I have been to the Black Oak a couple of times. I'm not that big into gambling, but find it a pleasant way to pass a few hours. Since the casino doesn't close, it's a good place to go after some of the other area attractions are closed or when it's too dark to do any outside activities. The casino features four places to dine and two bars. The restaurants range from the Kingpins family eatery to the Seven Sisters fine dining restaurant. I've eaten at the 24-hour Black Oak Cafe several times and have never been disappointed with the quality of the food. I have ordered off the menu each time, although they do feature a different themed buffet daily. My boyfriend got the prime rib buffet on one visit and said it was the worst prime rib he'd ever had (somehow it tasted like ham); so, you may want to avoid this particular buffet item. I can, however, vouch for the tastiness of the veggie sandwich, which is a portobella mushroom instead of the ubiquitous veggie burger.

(Photo credit: Black Oak Casino)

As with most casinos that allow smoking, the casino air is permeated with the heavy stench of cigarettes. The more crowded the casino is, the more unbearable the atmosphere. However, if you don't mind the smoke, then you won't be bothered. The smoke-free portion of the casino is small in comparison with the rest of the casino (which you have to walk through to get to the smoke-free room), however, it does have several different types of games--mostly slots--to keep you occupied. The nice thing about the smoke-free room is that it has its own bar, so you don't need to venture into the smoke cloud in order to get a drink.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mono Lake

Mono Lake is a saline lake and wildlife habitat, located at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, bordering the Great Basin in Nevada. The Mono Lake Committee, a non-profit citizen's group dedicated to the protection and restoration of Mono Lake, is located in Lee Vining, CA. Mono Lake's current state is a result of it's tributary streams being diverted (starting in 1941) to feed the growing need for water in Los Angeles. As a result, the water levels in Mono Lake continued to drop as the salinity of the lake continued to increase. There are no fish that live in Mono Lake, only brine shrimp. Mono Lake is a nesting ground for the California Gull and is a stop for millions of migratory birds. Embracing 14 different ecological zones, over 1000 plant species, and roughly 400 recorded vertebrate species within its watershed, Mono Lake and its surrounding basin encompass one of California's richest natural areas (source: Mono Lake Committee.)

Tufa formations in Mono Lake.

One of the unique features of Mono Lake is the tufa formations exposed when the lake levels decreased. The tufas are calcium carbonate deposits which formed in Mono Lake from alcium-bearing spring water flowing into the alkaline lake. These are quite an odd looking sight and are also noticeable wheny flying over Mono Lake. There are also other ways the tufas have formed in Mono Lake, but the tufa towers are, essentially, limestone deposits. In 1981, the California legislature established the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, part of the California State Parks. The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center is located off Highway 395, at the north end of Lee Vining. The visitor center features a variety of exhibits about the natural and human history of the area. Lee Vining also offers the Mono Lake Committee Information Center and Bookstore, as well as the Mono Basin Historical Society Museum. A great place to explore is the Mono Lake County Park, 5 miles north of Lee Vining. The park offers trails and a boardwalk so you can easily explore the flora and fauna of Mono Lake.

Lee Vining is a good place to make your base in order to explore Mono Lake, the nearby ghost town of Bodie, and Yosemite National Park. Lee Vining is dubbed as the "Gateway to Yosemite" as it is near the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. I will share more details about Lee Vining in a future post.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Outlet Shopping - Gilroy, CA

Gilroy, known as the "Garlic Capital of the World," also seems to be the outlet mall capital of California. The Gilroy Premium Outlets is one of the best outlet centers that I have been to as far as store selection and number of stores. Gilroy is located off Highway 101 on Leavesley Road. It is situated between San Francisco/San Jose and the Monterey Peninsula. There are over 140 stores from the Gap Outlet to Michael Kors and many more low to middle-end designer stores. The Gilroy Outlet center is huge and spans both sides of Leavesley Road. There are four shopping quadrants, so you will need to drive to each section. I stop at the outlets either on my way to or from Monterey, depending on my timing.

As a seasoned shopper, I know that these days most oulets carry merchandise specifically made for the outlet stores. Sometimes, these are items that are similar to the regualr mall stores, but made at a lower quality. Sometimes the items don't sell in the store, so they are moved to the outlet. Very rarely these days do you find outlets that sell merchandise that is slightly defective or out of season. Because I am a fan of Gap, I always go to the Gap Outlet because I know that I can get clothes I like at a somewhat cheaper price than going to the Gap at the mall.

(Photo credit: Garlic sensation. by Gio JL.)

Gilroy is called the "Garlic Capital of the World" because Gilroy Foods processes more garlic than any other factory in the world. Gilroy is also home to the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, one of the largest food festival in the U.S. The Garlic Festival is held the last full weekend in July.

Cheap San Francisco Dining

If you are interested in dining on a dime in the City by the Bay, then check out this great rundown of Cheap Eats in San Francisco on the 7x7 San Francisco site. Also check out the 7x7 website for all things San Francisco. I know the next time I'm in San Francisco I just might check out a few of these places, because dining on the cheap for lunch is a great way to save for that splurge dinner at one of San Francisco's fantastic, gastronomic experience, restaurants.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo is a vibrant and interesting zoo. I've been to the San Francisco Zoo twice in the past several years. It has also inspired me to visit my local zoo, which I had not done for many years. The San Francisco Zoo is not only the largest zoo in northern California, it is also the oldest. There are many exhibits that have recently been renovated or added, so there is always something new to see at the zoo. The main entrance and parking for the zoo is located off either Sloat Boulevard or the Great Highway (bordering the Pacific Ocean). The main parking lot fills up fairly quickly, so you may need to park on the nearby streets; Sloat Blvd. has a lot of center and side parking. You can bring a picnic to the zoo or pick-up some pretty decent selections at one of their eateries (yeah! vegetarian selections.) As with any venue like this, prices tend to be a little high, so if you're on a budget I would bring your own food or eat before or after your visit.

One of the exciting new areas completed in the last few years is the giraffe barn. You can watch the giraffes get fed daily at 4:00, which is something I definitely recommend seeing. The giraffe feeding is very entertaining, but just watch giraffes move is very entertaining, as they are such odd looking, graceful creatures.

The zoo also has other scheduled feedings. One of my visits to the zoo was during Halloween, so I got some bonus feedings as the animals were given pumpkins to eat. It was hilarious watching the lemurs eat their Halloween treat; the penguins, on the other hand, really didn't care.

Of course, no trip to a zoo, nature center, or aquarium would be complete without seeing an otter of some sort. Otters, my favorite non-domesticated animal, live at the SF Zoo in the form of river otters. Otters in general seem to be either playing or sleeping...as seen in the picture of above, sleeping was the activity of choice the day I was at the zoo.

Springtime at the zoo is always an excellent time to go, as it is the season of baby animals. The zoo recently announced the birth of a new giraffe calf, which will be seen in the upcoming "Baby Bonanza" event in May.

(Photo credit: San Francisco Zoo.)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Spring Getaway - Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa Special Offer

I just received an e-mail promoting a special offer from the Monterey Plaza Hotel valid through the end of April. If you book a 2-night stay in an Ocean View Room ($299 rate), you get a $100 credit for the use in either the Duck Club Grill, Schooners Bistro or the Vista Blue Spa. While I haven't actually stayed at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, this is a great deal as the rate is significantly discounted off the normal room rate. With the addition of the $100 credit, it is an even better deal. You could easily have two meals at Schooners with the $100 credit or a nice dinner at the Duck Club. The food at Schooners, as mentioned in another post, is very good; I'm sure the Duck Club's food is equally as good.

The Monterey Plaza is located on Cannery Row, so is easily accessible to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other area tourist activities. It is easily identifiable by it's looming presence on Cannery Row and the luxury cars out front. The interior of the hotel is old world elegance; I'm sure the rooms are quite well-appointed, as well. I would like to stay at the Plaza, but have yet to do so as I've been comfortable staying at the Monterey Bay Inn just down the street. As previously reported, however, I plan to stay elsewhere on my next trip to Monterey.