Sailing on the Bay

It was a glorious weekend in San Francisco. The weather was clear and sunny in the 70’s, with lisps of fog here and there but not thick enough to obscure the sun. It was a busy weekend: Fleet Day, the next round of America’s Cup Sailing Races, the first playoff games for the San Francisco Giants, a 49er football game, the annual Italian Heritage Parade (formerly known in its pre-politically correct days as the annual Columbus Day Parade), and a huge music festival in Golden Gate Park. Not to mention all the other activities which go along with San Francisco just being San Francisco.

After the Fleet Day Parade of Ships and its annual air show with the Blue Angels (the elite US Naval flying team), the stage was set for the next round of the America’s Cup Racing on the bay. San Francisco has turned out to be a perfect venue for the races which started this past August and will continue next summer. The race course runs between Crissy Field, near the foot of the Golden Gate, to Fort Mason. The finish line is equidistant between the two in the small harbor that is home to the Golden Gate and St. Francis Yacht Clubs. The extreme end of the small protective jetty that nearly encircles the docks serves as the finish line.

Because the course covers so much area of public access, there is plenty of room to view the racing along the waterfront but the only reserved seats are bleacher-style near the starting line. That means the far edge of the course remains obscure but there is live “play-by-play” commentary from onsite announcers and large television screens so those paying the premium for a seat don’t miss a bit of the action. The adjacent “village” is a nice complement to the seating area and offers food, vendors, port-a-potties and additional screens to watch the racing live with a glass of Napa Valley wine in the shade of cool tents.

The best place to view the races, however, is from the water. The entire north side of the race course is San Francisco Bay and vessels of all shapes and sizes were out in full force to watch the races, which generally last about 1½ to 2 hours. Many charter vessels, including the boats of Hornblower Yachts and the historic USS Potomac, bobbed in the bay while passengers observed the sleek 45-foot catamarans racing at twice the speed of the wind. Of course, because they are unique venues with captive audiences, costs for passage on these vessels can be high. A luncheon cruise on one of the Hornblower Yachts started at around $175 per person. I settled for a blanket on a rock along the jetty with my binoculars and a sandwich from an Italian deli.

The next round of racing will be from July until the championship races in mid-September on boats that will be nearly twice the length as the boats raced this year. Sports Leisure will be looking at several options to give our customers a taste of the racing, most likely from on the water on board a comfortable luncheon cruise. Keep your eye on future newsletters and for more information about the races visit www.americascup.com.

One State Park a Week – That’s All We Ask!

Remember that advertising campaign from Blue Diamond Almonds? “One can a week, that’s all we ask.” The same could be said for California’s State Parks. If everyone visited a state park each week, the perilous situation our parks are facing would change dramatically. Of course, it’s certainly not realistic to expect busy Californians to visit a state park every week: Maybe once a month would be possible?

Over Memorial Day Weekend, I visited four state parks, none of which I had visited before: Boethe-Napa State Park near Calistoga, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, Bale Gristmill State Park, and Jack London State Park. All were wonderful. I camped with my wife and two children (along with three other families) in Boethe-Napa. One of only two state parks with a swimming pool, the other being Hearst Castle, the park is in the process of being taken over by the county park system which is already working to make the park more marketable for year-round visitation. During our stay we observed members of the California Conservation Corps building “yurts” for more comfortable winter-time camping. We also paid a visit to the pool and looked through the small visitors center with its adjacent Native American garden.

From our home base at Boethe-Napa, we hiked a short trail to nearby to Bale Gristmill State Park, also now being managed by the county park system. On weekends, the gristmill is going full-tilt with tours. Pass from the rustic museum into the mill itself and enjoy a wonderfully informative talk by the onsite miller. One jerk of a chain to allow water to pass over the largest working water wheel west of the Mississippi River, and the belts, cranks, gears and millstones of the mill come alive. The not only does the mill still grind corn, wheat, and buckwheat, it supplies several area restaurants!

At nearby Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, we tramped along trails frequented by the famous author during his honeymoon. The Napa Valley was one of his favorite locations in the world. Of course, he wasn’t the only famous author to fall in love with the area. Next door in the valley of Sonoma County, Jack London built his dream house only to see it succumb to fire days before he moved in. He died before he had an opportunity to restore it. His widow lived the rest of her life at the first home on the site and then gifted the home and land to the state. Today the old home serves as a museum dedicated to her husband and a short trail leads down the mountain to the ruins of the home that was never occupied.

Look for Sports Leisure to offer daytrips to all these locations in the near future. Without our state parks, our history continues to be forgotten as well as our inspiration.

Charity Begins at Home

A few months back, a Travel Club member got in touch and suggested a daytrip that would tour Sacramento’s Shriners Hospital for Children. Normally our staff spends its time trying to find places outside of Sacramento in which to travel. But Joe Hassna, the Travel Club member who contacted me, painted a wonderful picture of the important work the hospital and its staff performs on behalf of children who need the unique healthcare they provide. The hospital volunteers also provide private tours for groups on demand.

I contacted the hospital and made arrangements. Lunch would be important too so it made perfect sense to visit the Casa Garden Restaurant, owned and operated by the Sacramento Children’s Home. It was a perfect compliment to our daytrip. Soon we had a name for the tour: You Have a Date for Lunch for the Children. The tour quickly sold out and I volunteered to serve as Tour Director.

We were greeted with open arms by the staff at the hospital which gathered us into a small auditorium off the main lobby to show us a brief five minute film about the mission of Shriners Hospitals and specifically the hospital in Sacramento. Officially known as Shriners Hospital for Children of Northern California, the facility moved across the street from the UC Davis Medical Center about 15 years ago from San Francisco. Our Shriners Hospital is the only one in the system of twenty-two hospitals that serves all four medical missions of Shriners: burns, orthopedics, cleft lip & palates, and spinal cord injuries. Additionally, it serves as a research hospital and manufactures its own prosthetics on site, saving both time and money. Rooms for families of children staying at the hospital are also provided free of charge on site.

What’s amazing about the hospital is that it serves children of all needs, regardless of income or insurance. In other words, a middle-class family with health insurance would still get care free of charge at Shriners. What’s even more amazing is the fact that the hospital is never full; Mostly because people are simply “wired” to bring their children to regular hospitals to have their families taken care of in those facilities. As a result, the 80 beds at Shriners Hospital Northern California are typically only half full at any time. That said, the hospital does serve around 75 to 100 children on an outpatient basis every day, mostly providing follow-up care to children who have experienced multiple day stays in the hospital.

Started in 1867 as a home for orphans, The Sacramento Childrens Home has greatly expanded its mission to include crisis nurseries, a counseling center, residential and age-transitioning programs, and educational programs concentrating in after-school and youth literacy. One of the fundraising activities that supports the organization is its own on-site restaurant, The Casa Garden Restaurant. Open since 1973 as a restaurant and meeting center, it is staffed mostly by volunteers who don’t accept wages and donate their tips back to the organization. In fact, the volunteer servers at the restaurant have donated over $3 million in tips since the facility opened its doors.

Sports Leisure will be donating all the proceeds of our daytrip to both Shriners Northern California and Sacramento Chidlrens Home. As April 15 approaches, I hope you will take time to consider making tax-deductible donations to both these worthy charities. The websites are http://www.shrinershospitalsforchildren.org and http://kidshome.org/. And even more importantly, please help to spread the word about their important missions.

Love, Chaos, Dinner – My New Infatuation with Teatro Zinzanni

I’ll admit it. I was a Teatro ZinZanni virgin until a recent weekend performance.

For years Sports Leisure has been escorting groups to this very impressive and very unique dinner show and for years it has been on my bucket list of things to do in San Francisco along with Beach Blanket Babylon and a host of other activities one can only find in the City by the Bay. Now I can’t wait for the next performance.

Several weeks ago we learned the Teatro tent will be pulling down its poles to make way for a massive redevelopment of the city’s waterfront along the Embarcadero between the Ferry Building and Pier 39. The project anticipates the arrival of the final sailing races of the America’s Cup Series, scheduled for the summer of 2013. Teatro ends its historic run at Pier 29 with a closing show and party on New Year’s Eve. Unsure of where the performance will be moving, and when, I resolved to head to one of the final shows along with my wife Susan and our good friends Ted and Faye – longtime residents of San Francisco and themselves Teatro ZinZanni “newbies.” A matinee to accommodate the schedules of our respective babysitters suited both couples quite well.

We arrived early and took advantage of the beautifully decorated lobby. Before show drinks were available at the lobby bar, adjacent to the show’s kitschy boutique where one can dress up in purchased hats and feathered boas in anticipation of the performance. Shortly before noon, the doors opened and our costumed wait staff, who are themselves supporting cast members, seated us at our table.

Presented “in the round” the show changes themes regularly throughout the year but maintains a stellar cast of musicians, singers, and vaudeville-style entertainers. Jugglers, gymnasts, and acrobats joined a cast of very talented dancers and singers. The theme of this version of the show harkened back to the days of old-time radio and featured some beautiful songs, catchy jingles, and a little bit of the “chaos” for which the show is known. In between the impressive acts, a four course lunch was served: a starter of crostini, brie and fresh olives, a delicious spinach salad followed by a choice of three entrees, and an exquisite chocolate dessert.

After the show I had a chance to speak to a staff member who confided in me that Teatro ZinZanni will build a new permanent home on San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront to open by the end of 2012. The new site is a triangular parcel, located where Broadway and Davis meet the Embarcadero. With any luck, Sports Leisure’s next visit to Teatro ZInZanni will be announced toward the end of next summer. I know I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed!

S.O.S. – Save our State Parks

The phone call came a few weeks ago. The California State Parks Foundation was asking me to speak on the steps of the state capitol to a small rally. Comprised of concerned businesses, the folks at the rally were dropping off letters to Governor Brown supporting state parks and attending an Assembly committee meeting to discuss the impact of closing 70 state parks next year. I quickly accepted.

State parks are a tremendous resource for Sports Leisure customers and therefore, our business. We regularly visit state parks throughout California, many of which are on the closure list: Bidwell Mansion, Benicia State Capitol Park, Leland Stanford Mansion, and the Weaverville Joss House to name just a few. These parks provide not only products to sell and income for our company, more importantly they provide destinations for our customers to discover or re-discover.

Of course, they also generate income for the state through admissions and use fees. These figures say nothing about the local businesses adjacent to these parks that also rely on them for income; income that generates sales and employment taxes. In fact, the California State Parks Foundation estimates that for every dollar the state invests in a state park, it receives $2.35 back to its general fund.

Naturally these parks will never “close” in the traditional sense of the word. They will be operated under “caretaker” status. But how do you stop people from camping in parks? You can’t just erect a fence around an entire outdoor camping area. If the state has no money to keep them open how will they afford to keep out people who attempt to dismantle or deface buildings or other improvements? How will they prevent illegal activities from occurring? And what about parks that hold priceless treasures like the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento or Bidwell Mansion in Chico? How will these parks be secured? Will their contents be climate controlled to prevent irreversible damage? And what about the buildings themselves, many of which are on the register of historic places and in need of constant care?

It’s a terrible tragedy that our government is being allowed to sell off our inheritance. If you truly care about state parks and want to preserve them for yourselves and future generations, then you need to act. Speak out by contacting your representatives in Sacramento. Visit a state park or even better, volunteer in one. And spread the word to your family and friends or through social media outlets like Facebook. Only then can we assure these parks remain open to those to whom they truly belong.

To learn more about the state park closures and how you can get involved, head on over to www.savestateparks.org.

 

The Russians are Coming

Actually, the Russians already came and went. It was almost 200 years ago. Realizing Alaska was a good place for hunting and fishing but not growing a lot of food stuff, the Russian American Company decided it needed a new outpost; One that could grow food in support of its outposts in Sitka and along the Aleutian Islands chain. But where? Spain had everything from San Francisco Bay to the south and Britain’s Hudson Bay Company had most of the Pacific Northwest under its control. Russia, not wanting to make any of its European brethren unhappy enough to declare war, decided on a quiet, flat peninsula in between the two great world powers on California’s Sonoma Coast and named it Ft. Ross.

The Russians erected a stockade, plowed fields and fell redwood trees to build seagoing vessels. Ft. Ross was actually California’s first shipyard. They unofficially conducted trade with the Spanish and entered into hunting agreements with Yankee shipping for sea otter pelts. They formed peaceful alliances with the nearby native tribes and pretty much kept to themselves. After 40 years, the Russians decided it was time to vacate the fort. Growing food right along the seacoast had never been terribly successful and it was found to be cheaper to buy it directly from the Hudson Bay Company. The Spanish were spreading further north, establishing additional missions and granting large swaths of land to settlers in the region. The writing was on the wall. Most of the contents of the fort were sold to John Sutter and the Russian settlers left California as quietly as they arrived.

But in a fascinating way, Fort Ross has remained very much in the hearts and minds of not only the people of Russia, but the Russian-Americans who now reside in California. The fort represents an historical tie between émigrés and their homeland. Several times a year, Russian-Americans gather at the fort. They celebrate their culture with traditional food, music and dance. They celebrate mass in the fort’s chapel with assistance from Russian Orthodox priests from the Bay Area. The Russian Pathfinders Scouting organization regularly camp at the fort and help out with functions.

As the fort celebrates its 200th Anniversary next year, several special events will be held with several sponsors including the Russian Federation Consulate in San Francisco. Sports Leisure hopes to find one event we can put together with a tour. If you are interested in participating, please contact our office and asked to be put on the Priority Notification List.

Simply Charlotte

It’s 3,000 miles away as the plane flies, which means I don’t get there very often. That said, it’s still one of my favorite places to catch a flight or make a connection.

The last time I passed through Charlotte International Airport (CLT) was a few weeks ago. I was transiting from a puddle-jumper coming from Ocean City, Maryland to a full-sized jet on my way home to Sacramento. What makes Charlotte different you may ask? In a word: everything!

The wonderful part about Charlotte is its expansive atrium; a light, bright and airy building that overlooks the “B” and “C” gates. After the beautiful view out the windows, the next thing you notice is music. Not canned “mu-zac” from hollow sounding speakers – but a piano player seated at a baby grand right in the center of the building. On this day he was playing a few jazz standards. Want to sit and listen to the live music? No problem. Have a seat in one of the rocking chairs placed strategically throughout the atrium. Rock, listen to music, connect to the free Wi-Fi or charge your electronic toys at one of the several “power stations.”

Getting hungry? Try my favorite spot for Carolina BBQ, Brookwood Farms. They have a counter within listening distance of the baby grand. Or pick up a Jamba Juice if you want something lighter. Not sure what you want? I dare you to walk through the terminal and not be pleasantly surprised by the helpful airport volunteers who stand out in their bright yellow shirts. They’re easy to get food recommendations from because they aren’t behind a desk somewhere – they’re out in the open, walking around and approaching anyone who might have a confused look on their face.

And did I mention the staff in the restrooms? Yep, just like a fancy hotel or restaurant they have restroom attendants offering towels, fresh mints and other items that come in handy in between long cramped flights. Need something a little more powerful than a mint to put a spring in your step? Visit the AeroClinic in the atrium. The clinic provides treatment for minor ailments, preventative care, X-rays and vaccinations. Prescriptions and packaged medicines are also available.

Of course, there is shopping and a business center and a few other standard airport amenities. But I think you’ll agree that Charlotte goes above and beyond a “standard” airport. I can only hope that when our new terminal in Sacramento opens, they will take a lesson from “Simply Charlotte.”

 

Wild About Harry

It’s rare to figure out a way to go on vacation for next to nothing. Thanks to a couple of voluntary bumps my wife and I took on United Airlines recently and some hotel points, our family of four enjoyed a memorable week in Miami and Key West over winter break. Our first few nights were spent in Key West at a lovely hotel removed from downtown and across from a popular public beach. The kids swam and we met several East Coast ex pats escaping their harsh winter season. Drew, my ten year old, and I visited Truman’s Little White House, his primary residence of escape when Washington DC was getting overwhelming. The small house, then situated on a naval submarine base, has been lovingly restored and offers informative guided tours.

When not conducting the business of state, Harry enjoyed swimming, reading, playing poker and the piano, and had his staff participate in what he called “loud shirt” contests – he who wore the most outrageous tropical shirt won. Of course when Mrs. Truman and daughter Margaret came for a visit, a few things had to be put away. The custom made poker table had a top cover that instantly concealed what was underneath. The bar was generally closed down when Mrs. Truman was present, except for the President’s morning “heart starter”: a fresh squeezed glass of Florida orange juice and a shot of bourbon. Of course the President, who didn’t care much for fishing, nonetheless had to accompany the First Lady out on the water to indulge one of her favorite pastimes.

While the former President died when I was very young, his life as it was outlined by our guide reinforced my belief in just how much a man of the people he truly was, especially in Key West. He didn’t relax in a palatial mansion or private home far from the watchful eyes of the press or the public. He walked through town. He talked to people. He caroused with the press. He genuinely enjoyed the company of the servicemen and officers who shared this vacation home with him. Truly, he was exceptionally unique among other men who have held the office, but then again, those were different times.

I think the most touching story the guide told our tour group was about a small satchel the President always carried with him when traveling to and from Key West. The President never had it out of arms reach and never permitted anyone to carry it for him. His aides always believed the satchel carried important papers. While the contents were important to the President, it didn’t carry anything terribly important to country. It simply carried the President’s classical music records that he loved listening to in the evening hours as the sun set in Key West.

After my visit it was easy to see why our tours to this unique destination continue to sell out each January. I can only hope that someday, I might be able to wrestle the tour away from Mark so I can begin planning my return visit!

 

Morgan’s Wonderland

On a recent visit to San Antonio, I was introduced to a truly wonderful place. Morgan’s Wonderland, an amusement park just north of the city, is the first designed specifically for families with physically and mentally challenged children. The park, which opened just this year, was built by the father of a special needs child. During a family vacation, he noticed his daughter wanting to play with some other children in a swimming pool but she was unsure of how to communicate her wishes to them. Likewise, the children seemed to want Morgan to play with them as well, but they were unsure of how to approach her. Today, Morgan’s Wonderland is a father’s realization of a promise to himself to create an atmosphere where children and adults of all abilities and their families can come together and play.

During a short guided tour, myself and several other Tour Operators from the Travel Alliance Partnership were shown several accessible attractions, including a merry-go-round that was lowered so the platform with the animals is level with the ground. In this way, a wheelchair can simply roll onto the ride. Additionally, the merry-go-round features an apparatus that can accommodate a wheelchair, which itself will go “up and down,” just like the animals. No more simply going around in circles in a non-moving spot. Other rides included a fully accessible train and “off-road” vehicle. There were also play gyms, sand boxes and play tables, along with full-size swing sets, that could accommodate wheelchairs and other special needs as well.

What’s really amazing about Morgan’s Wonderland is how its staff takes care of families that visit. Reservations are highly encouraged as the park maintains a strict maximum attendance each day. This helps keep the crowds more manageable and provides a level of comfort to children with special needs who may be anxious in large numbers of people. Families are also provided unique radio wrist bands. If a parent feels comfortable allowing a child to explore the park on his/her own, the parent can locate the child at any time by using special kiosks throughout the park. Here’s the best part – admission for those with special needs is free to Morgan’s Wonderland. Attendants of special needs visitors are only charged $5 and others are admitted for only $15.

As the first of its kind, Morgan’s Wonderland is fighting to get the word out about the unique experience it offers. More parks are hoped for in the future with the possibility of franchising the idea so that like-minded individuals and non-profits can bring similar parks to their regions sooner. In the meantime, Morgan’s Wonderland continues to serve families from not only the greater region around San Antonio, but from all over the United States. For more information about the park and its mission, please visit www.morganswonderland.com.

Mystery Solved!

Chesterfield PubI expected the reactions I received from each traveler as I passed out the boarding passes on the curb at Sacramento Airport: A few raised eyebrows, a few expressions of surprise, and a few downright disappointed glares. No one wanted to think that a Sports Leisure Vacations Mystery Tour was headed for Ontario, California! But Ontario we were bound. Just the airport, mind you – our jumping off point for a four day tour exploring California’s Inland Empire on the Not An Oktoberfest Mystery Tour. I knew I had a big job ahead of me. Fortunately I had the tools to get it done – a list of solid attractions and restaurants I had scouted myself several months ago. Even though I hadn’t escorted a group of this nature in over ten years, I figured I was the natural choice to lead it – and to deal with those disappointed looks on the morning of our departure!

We started in the city of Redlands in San Bernardino County. Famed as the hometown of so many successful ranching and farming families, the community is filled with beautiful homes and architecture. One of those homes, Kimberly Crest, was our first stop. With it’s steep, one-lane approach, I immediately put the driver of our motorcoach through his paces. Lee Webb, one of our favorite drivers from Transportation Charter Services in Southern California, took it all in stride and drove beautifully throughout the tour. After exploring Kimberly Crest and its tiered gardens, lunch was included at Martha Green’s Eating Room in Downtown Redlands. Martha, who has a fair reputation as a cookbook author, chef, and television host, has put together a great menu of soups, salads and sandwiches. Of course, you can’t leave her place without stopping at the bakery counter for a cookie or other treat! Our final stop of the day was the Abraham Lincoln Shrine, just a few blocks away. It’s hard to believe that Redlands is the home of the largest depository of artifacts and papers about the Civil War and the former president west of the Mississippi.

After a restful night at the Hilton Hotel in San Bernardino, our home for all three nights, we paused at the California Welcome Center and learned a bit about the history of the city and Route 66, which passes right through the area. Next, a slow climb up the highway known as The Rim of the World to Lake Arrowhead. Of course, with the dense fog that surrounded us, there wasn’t much of a world to see. That said the sun made a guest appearance at the lake just in time for a paddle-wheel cruise and lunch and a little time for shopping in the village.

Our third and fourth days found us in and around Alta Loma, Rancho Cucamonga, Oak Glen and Riverside. A visit to the home and studio of Sam Maloof, the famous woodcarver and furniture maker who passed away just last year, was an unexpected pleasure for many. We also had fabulous colonial-themed dinner at Riley’s Farm, complete with costumed servers and hosts and traditional music of the time. Along with John Adams, Patrick Henry made an appearance and, with a little prodding, he recited his famed speech that ended with the immortal words, “Give me Liberty or give me death.” Sunday brunch at the historic Mission Inn was followed by a ranger-led walk among the groves of California Citrus State Historic Park and a visit to family-owned and operated Graber Olives before returning to Sacramento.

While the tour’s evaluations will have the final say, I am confident that all enjoyed the tour and everyone, including the two travelers who grew up in Riverside, learned more about the sites this region has to offer than they had ever known. I hope to put a similar tour together for next fall that will include another visit to Sam Maloof’s home and studio in conjunction with a retrospective of his work that is being hosted by the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino in September 2011. If you are interested in joining us, call the office and ask to be put on the Priority Notification List!