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.

 

Amazing Krakow

Krakow, Poland is absolutely AMAZING. Today was the kind of day the visitors bureau prays for–about 70 degrees, a light breeze, and a blindingly blue sky with big, white fluffy clouds passing by every now and them. I’ve witnessed architectural treasures today the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and I’ve seen a lot of Europe. After previously visiting largely bombed and rebuilt Gdansk and Warsaw, I can only say thank God that somehow, someway WWII passed over this city’s built environment. (The people, of course, were not so lucky, but the buildings survived.) There are over 130 Catholic churches here–all historic and all with a “first and only” to brag about: The largest bell, the oldest altar, the most gold in Europe. My mind blurred with all the accolades. We visited a number of churches today on our tour. The Franciscan sanctuary was pointed out, but we did not go inside. At tour’s end, we had a few hours of free time before dinner, and I headed to “my” church hoping for an afternoon mass. Well, I got it . . .

When I arrived, there was a big crowd standing outside. All at once, without any invitation I saw or heard, all raced inside and had a seat, me with them. It was only then that I noticed everyone was in a suit or dress, and everyone had a gift on their lap. Before I could react, everyone stood and the bride came down the aisle. In this way I attended my first Polish wedding and mass. As Toot would say, they were VERY married when it was over. The ceremony lasted 1:30. When it came the time in the mass to have communion, I decided to go forward as there will be no time for church tomorrow. I was mortified to see a camera was trained on the wedding guests as they received the host! The entire thing was being filmed! Oh well–I was the uninvited guest. What can I say? At the first kiss, the organ and choir broke out in the “Hallelujah Chorus” (thankfully in English) from a high loft in the rear. The bride left to the traditional wedding march, followed by a flawless rendition of “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Afterwards, everyone filed out to greet the new couple outside. I hung back to take pictures. Then, before I knew it, a new crowd came pouring in. I narrowly escaped before attending my second Polish wedding mass!

The church was amazing–dating to the late 1400s. (This in itself was interesting to me for St. Francis and Clare only lived in the 1200s. I had no idea the movement had come this far in less than two centuries!) But what really commanded my attention was the stained glass, which was Art Nouveau, clearly installed at a later time. I took lots of pictures, of course. In a cloistered garden, I happened upon a statue of Francis with the strangest bunny sitting next to him. He looks like a fanciful Easter bunny. His body was a roundish stone about twice the size of a basketball, with a face, ears and paws in bronze. I’ve never seen my good saint represented with this animal before. Francis said to love all creation, even this little critter. There must be a story there. One of the side altars was to a friar who was exterminated at Auschwitz. The story goes that three prisoners escaped the Germans, so 10 men were rounded up to be killed in retaliation. One man cried out, “My wife, my children, what will they do without me?” Hearing the cry, friar Raymond Kolbe offered to take his place. He was later sainted for this selfless act. We visit Auschwitz in the morning. I dread this visit, but it must be done. Tomorrow we shall walk upon hallowed ground. I can only imagine what emotions will be unleashed at the sight of the famous, if erroneous entry sign, “Arbeit macht frei”–Work makes you free.

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.

Around the Corner, Around the Bend

Sports Leisure’s 2012 Tour & Vacations catalog has hit the streets. After a nearly picture-perfect Tour Preview Day on Saturday, August 27th, at the Marriott before a crowd of over 600, the catalogs hit the post office and have been delivered to the nearly 8,000 Travel Club Members who weren’t a part of Preview Day.

The process began in the spring, when staff members are invited to submit destination ideas. An entire afternoon was spent sorting through the suggestions made by our staff and our travelers on evaluations and by mail and e-mail, deciding which ones might be on the schedule next year. A second “elimination” round followed two months later and a draft of the catalog was drawn up.

Next, vendors are contacted, pricing and availability negotiated. (Except with the airlines, they negotiate practically nothing. It’s take it or leave it with them. If only we didn’t need them to execute our travels together.) Hotels are chosen, restaurants and menus selected, attractions blended into the itinerary, timing is watched carefully to create a leisurely itinerary whenever possible.

Copy writing in up next. Each tour planner is responsible for writing their own copy. In that respect, the catalog doesn’t read like a book, because it has many different authors. It’s more of a collection. It represents the dreams of our staff and the dreams of our clients. It is the culmination of months of hard work and collective thought, while keeping in mind that not everyone is able to take a $5,000 trip (either physically or financially). In fact, some of our best trips are in the moderate price category.

I’m especially proud of some of my own new ideas for next year. There’s a 3-day trip to Weaverville, a gem in the Trinity Alps, west of Redding. Another features the town of Sisters, Oregon; a wonderful low-mountain community in the Cascades about three hours from Portland. Waterfalls and the great outdoors abound, with a naturalist guide that makes it all come to life. Finally, Chris Galloway and I worked together on a visit to Wendover, Nevada/Utah, a place we discovered had lots of promise on our recent Lincoln Highway tour, to create a new desert destination.

I‘d like to think there’s something for everyone who likes to travel within the pages of our catalog. Special commendation goes to my staff, who worked their buns off before during and after Preview Day to create and market our new dream book. I hope you find something in there that made your “bucket list,” a place you just have to visit. If that’s the case, then we have done our job.

One last thing. For 32+ years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to be involved in an amazing profession, the chance to take people places they’ve always dreamed of. It is a spectacular way to experience life, sharing it with others in special places. And while I don’t venture off the continent as much as I used to, I’ve found there are a multitude of wonderful places right here in North America. Some are just around the corner. My staff has found some that are around the world. Either way, here’s a toast to dreams coming true on the road in the year ahead. Thank you for the privilege.

A Day with the Fighting Irish, Weather or Not!

College football is one sport I’ve never been a huge fan of. No special reason. I’m not a big fan of professional football either. Perhaps the fact that colleges basically serve as a free minor league for football is something that doesn’t seem quite right to me. The landscape is littered with college football players who didn’t become academic scholars. Or even close. Such is the way of the world in college football. But as I discovered this past weekend, there is a side to college football I truly enjoy.

Last Thursday, Chris Galloway and I took a group of 35 to Chicago for a “sports weekend” with celebrity guest host Kelly Brothers of KCRA-TV and KFBK Radio. The idea had been Kelly’s – a 4 day trip including both a Cubs game and the Notre Dame football home opener at South Bend. Throw in some sightseeing and great food (Harry Carey’s and Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket – a Route 66 landmark – it just doesn’t get any better!) and we were all in for a real treat.

On Friday, we watched the Cubs and the Pirates, two teams that were playing only for personal glory, inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. It was a hot, humid day, but we were seated behind third base, in the shade. Overall, a great day to soak up the old ballpark.

Saturday morning, we arose early for an 8am bus departure to South Bend, arriving around 11am eastern time. By the time we arrived, thousands had already set up camp around the outside of the stadium. Tailgating? Practically mandatory. Kickoff was still 4 ½ hours away, but the campus was teaming with activity.

First stop, the bookstore. It’s the best souvenir spot on campus and our gang supported the local economy in a big way. Just about everyone getting back on the coach clutched a bag in their hands, some were large bags. Next up, a tailgate party fit for a football fan. Italian beef (a Chicago favorite), southern fried chicken and all the trimmings. Unfortunately, we didn’t make a clean connection with our “beer wagon,” which was in a different parking lot, until we were on our way into the stadium. Best laid plans…

Kelly led a walking tour of the campus, which was filling up rapidly with fans. We paid homage to “Touchdown Jesus,” a massive mosaic on the side of the library. The nickname comes from the fact that the artwork can be seen from inside the football stadium, and Jesus has his arms outstretched over his head, as a football referee would pose signaling a touchdown. A bit irreverent, but it works.

This being the first game of the season, lots of parents were on hand to proudly root for their child’s new alma mater. Kelly, being a Notre Dame grad, was in his element, as he showed us around. A highlight was the story of his dorm, Zahm; and the obvious nickname for its residents (Zahmbies, what else). To say there was excitement in the air is an understatement.

As game time neared, the players, attired in coat and tie, marched to the stadium; followed by the band, after a pre-game concert. Once inside, it was obvious the excitement had come right through the gates with us. Professional sports have a certain aura surrounding them. College sports do also, but it’s a different vibe.

Fan’s investment in pro sports teams is in dollars and years of rooting for their favorite teams. College is different. The investment in college teams often comes from the heart and soul. Alumni who spent some of the best years of their lives working towards a degree have a tie to their school’s sports teams that borders on the fanatic.

As the game began, the stadium announcer informed us they were tracking thunderstorms 100 miles from the stadium, but expected no problems with the weather. Famous last words.

By the end of the first quarter, the storm clouds had begun to gather. Notre Dame, after an initial burst of energy, found itself down 16-0 to South Florida, a team they expected to beat handily. The stadium felt like the air had been pumped out. When your team is getting their collective hats handed to them, it’s hard to maintain your level of pre-game enthusiasm. Then came the announcement. Due to a major wave of thunderstorms headed our direction, the decision was made to suspend play at halftime.

The rains came, as advertised. The fans, many disgruntled by the delay (Don’t they play football in all kinds of weather?), grew impatient. Some left. But at least 85% of those gathered remained on the concourses for what became a two hour delay. When play resumed, the Fighting Irish lived up to their name, marching down the field to score. Perhaps the second half would be different from the first.

But Mother Nature wasn’t done. Another thunderstorm approached and with only 4 minutes to go, a second suspension was announced. This time, with the game seemingly out of reach for the hometown boys (23-13), most headed for their vehicles, hoping to beat the raindrops. BIG raindrops. Buckets of raindrops.

Our gang returned to the coach, the last few arriving as the skies opened up. We had called it a day. (The game did resume again after a 40 minute delay and ended up 23-20, in favor of South Florida.)

Some fans were upset, some confused, some were on the back side of a lot of drinking earlier. (Tailgating has to stop when the game starts, and no alcohol is sold inside the stadium, which certainly helps dry out the imbibing fans.) And if you didn’t know “the rest of the story,” you might have wondered why a football game had been stopped twice for thunderstorms.

Think back just a few weeks. At the Indiana State Fair, severe thunderstorms brought high winds, but the show went on. Unfortunately, the winds caused a stage to collapse, killing 7 people. Now think back to last fall. You might have missed the story about the Notre Dame Student Manager who was video-taping a practice at the stadium when lightening and thunder came. The young man, Declan Sullivan, was killed by a lightening strike, an event that deeply troubled the Notre Dame leadership, because they had not provided a safe environment for a young man in their charge. They were humbled.

So when the word came that 80,000 people were in the path of a potentially life-threatening wind and rain storm, those in charge of one of our country’s most venerable schools did the right thing. They acted with an abundance of caution and suspended play, getting people out of the elements.

It was an unpopular but well thought out decision. A football game is not worth anyone’s life or limb. Yes, a wonderfully exciting day had come to a less than glorious conclusion.  But the day was a success. I think the folks who went with us had a good time and got to experience a college campus on game day. Not just any college campus, Notre Dame. Thanks to a few thoughtful, caring school officials, we’ll all live to tell about it. Sometimes good decisions are not easy or popular. Even when they seem insignificant 24 hours later. Which I think is the point.

I’ll attend another college football game someday. I had a great time. The people at ND were super, Kelly was a terrific host. Next time though, let’s leave the thunderstorms behind.

 

Are You New?

Since my 22nd Tour Preview Day is fast approaching, I started thinking about the past 21. In 19 of the 21, including last year, at least one person has asked me this question. Are you new? Well, not exactly. I have been Sports Leisure Vacations’ controller for two decades. Since I am not a tour director, I have become the company phantom. To change that fact, I am writing a short biography.

I grew up in rural New Jersey. By the time I was 18, I was sick of shoveling snow. Like Clayton, I love the South. I moved to Tuscaloosa to attend the University of Alabama. I am a proud graduate and a huge fan of Crimson Tide athletics, especially football. After graduation, the Air Force brought me to the Golden State.

California has been golden for me. My daughter, Robin and son, Nick were born here. Yes, they are twins. No, they are not identical. I was introduced to my lovely wife Linda by mutual friends.

In the July/August Traveler, Clayton & I were pictured with our classic yellow cars. My wife and I are the original owners of a 1979 MGB. I am also the long-time treasurer of the Sacramento Valley MG Car Club. On numerous weekends, you can find us motoring around the back roads of Placer, Sacramento and El Dorado counties. If you see us, honk and wave. We will do the same.

For an accountant, I am quite friendly. If you are in our office, pop your head in my office and say “Roll Tide”. If you are attending preview day, I will be wearing a blue SLV shirt and Bob Veliky will be on my nametag. When you see me, please do not ask “Are you new?”.

 

From Donuts to Don’t Buy This

After a weekend exploring my favorite Farmer’s Market in Vancouver, Washington; and the Saturday Market in Portland; it’s back to Sports Leisure world for just a day, until a business trip takes me to Pittsburgh.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Portland in the summer, be sure to find room for Vancouver on your itinerary. Not Vancouver, British Columbia; Vancouver – just over the border from Portland. A quiet, beautiful little town, with a character all its own and a Farmer’s Market that might just boast one of the best selections of fresh berries, flowers, food and unique stuff found anywhere. Small but perfect in every way.

No visit to Portland would be perfect without a stop at famous Voodoo Donuts. Made popular (heck, made cult-like) by the weird shaped donuts they make (think parts of the male and female anatomy for starters) they make, the line at Voodoo is always 45 minutes to an hour. Having sampled them, I can assure anyone who is about to stand in line, they taste pretty much like any other donut….

We return to Sacramento Sunday evening, after a chance to pick fresh boysenberries, marionberries and blackberries at a small family farm. Always a highlight of our visit.

Then I’m back in Sacramento, putting on my Sports Leisure hat, and appearing on the Fox 40 Morning Show at 7:40am on Monday morning. They want someone to talk about how to avoid getting nickeled and dined to death while traveling. Happens to be one of my favorite subjects. Id’ be flattered if you found time to tune in. That from a guy who has a face for radio.

The Wonders of Cape Cod

The name Cape Cod conjures up images of gray shingled homes with white trim, succulent seafood meals and the Kennedy clan in pressed Oxford button-down shirts. There’s a definite ring to it…and for good reason. The Cape (as those in the know call it) while close in geographical proximity to Boston, is many miles away in attitude. Where deadlines and business appointments fill the days in the big city, out on the Cape, time slows. Time really doesn’t matter.

I have just returned from a four day scouting trip in preparation for our upcoming Islands, Ferries and Towns of Old Cape Cod tour in September. As I sit here in the office under unflattering fluorescent lights, I wish that for just one minute I could be back on board one of the ferry boats making my way across the calm waters to an island getaway. Folks, we have got an amazing trip scheduled, and we have already begun to make minor tweaks and changes in the hopes of being able to offer this trip again in the Summer of 2012. I’m definitely signing up to be the tour director.

I’ll share a little of what I saw and experienced during my time last week. Leaving Boston behind, I made my way to Provincetown (P-Town to the locals) out on the far eastern tip of the Cape. This is an awesome little community. Being the home of and playground for a large gay and lesbian population has helped to foster a live-and-let-live open-mindedness. There are smiles all around and stress is checked at the dock. If you know me at all, you know that I love seafood…you also know I am a human garbage disposal and can easily put away the groceries. It is here that I began my lobster quest at one of the same restaurants (The Lobster Pot, if you’re taking notes) where our group will have the pleasure of dining. That poor lobster didn’t stand a chance. I’m already looking forward to September and Round 2!

Next, I visited Martha’s Vineyard. This is a slightly larger Island with 5 small villages on it. Mark and I were so taken with the charms of the Vineyard that we had a brainstorm and began working on a way to include a stay on the island in our Summer 2012 tour. I have included pictures of The Kelley House, which would be our prospective hotel. After a delicious Lobster Roll Sandwich for lunch we were off to check out the other island of Nantucket. Cobble stone streets lead the way from the dock to the center town where shops and restaurants galore await you. Again, we began to devise a plan to stay on the island and after meeting with a hotel manager, it seems as though this too is a solid possibility for the 2012 itinerary. Those details are still very much in the air so stay tuned for more information.

Okay, so I have officially teased you. Our 2011 travelers that will be joining Mark and me for the September trip are in store for a wonderfully relaxing vacation. Say goodbye to the dog days of Sacramento summer and lose yourself on The Cape. Who knows, today is Mark’s birthday so maybe we can talk him into making a down payment of one of the smaller mansions on the islands so that Sports Leisure can open its Cape Cod offices. If not, I’ll definitely be there in September 2011 and, with any luck, the Summer of 2012. Are you coming with me?

For those of you interested, our 2011 trip to Cape Cod can be found here.  To add your name to the priority list for our 2012 departures, drop us an email on the contact page.  If you just can’t get enough of Cape Cod (and really, who can?), then please check out our Travel Guys episode on this fantastic destination!

Happy Anniversary to Us!

happy_birthdayI just can’t let the day slip away without casting a spotlight on this important week.  Thirty years ago on June 7, a wise-for-his-years (or at least he thought he was) 17-year-old in Georgia escorted his first tour, almost fulfilling his adolescent dream of growing
up and becoming Julie the Cruise Director of “Love Boat” fame. Over the next decade, the hobby became a part-time job, then full-time, then a career. Now, it’s safe to say doing what I’m doing is my passion, as is doing it right here, right now, for all my
beloved Sacramento travelers.

Passions need a place to hang their hat. Thankfully, two years prior to my launch into the industry, Mark Hoffmann opened the doors (so to speak—his first “office” was his apartment on Fulton Avenue) of Sports Travel, later Sports Leisure Travel, and for the
past decade Sports Leisure Vacations. Our first trip was a casino overnighter that left Sacramento on June 8, 1979 and returned on the 9th. We’re 32 years old this week!

And speaking of June 9, it was on this day in 1955 that a bouncing bundle of baby joy was brought forth into the world in Omaha, Nebraska. His name was and remains Mark Alan Hoffmann. Thank you for your dream, Mark. We are all better because of it!