Downtown offers unexpected pleasures.
By RON DONOHO
I’VE LEARNED TO EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED on Palm Canyon Drive. Palm Springs’ main drag is alive with women this April Fool’s Day weekend. There are myriad groups of gals eating at Happy Sushi. Other ladies are devouring Einstein Bros. bagels and downing Starbucks lattes. At breakfast, I’m surrounded by the fairer sex at More Than a Mouthful Café. San Diego foodies can imagine More Than a Mouthful by picturing Hash House A Go Go (and its heaping portions) morphing with Lips (gay, straight, it’s all great). Want milk for your coffee at More Than a Mouthful? The milk container on my table is a baby bottle—complete with nipple.
So I get up and pay the tab. As I’m innocently considering the aesthetic advantage of having so many members of the opposite gender in town, I glance at a flyer set at the café’s entrance: DINAH SHORE WEEKEND. Reading on, the flyer claims this is the premier lesbian party weekend of the year. So three things of national note are in convergence in Palm Springs: April Fool’s Day, world-class lesbian revelry and, rounding out the trifecta, resumption of Daylight Savings Time. Kind of a pity the year’s top lesbian bash is going to lose an hour Saturday night.
I’M BOOKED INTO THE VICEROY PALM SPRINGS. Formerly named Estrella, it’s in the heart of downtown, one block off teeming Palm Canyon. It’s part of the distinctly funky Kor Hotel Group. Kor has a sister Viceroy in Santa Monica, not to mention two in southern Florida. Like most Kor properties, Viceroy Palm Springs is anything but cookie-cutter.
I’m stowed in a Dorrington villa. It’s a one-bedroom detached home with a full kitchen and enclosed backyard patio. The bedroom is all white, with king-size bed, hanging lantern lighting and a very cool iHome radio, which lets me plug in and play my iPod. There are floor-to-ceiling shades in the bedroom. Imagine my surprise to find no windows behind the shades—just white wall. Even stylistically, I’m learning to expect the unexpected.
The villa’s avant-garde-duels-with-retro styling can take you aback. The bathroom (with seated vanity) and living room are standard enough. But there is a dining room off the kitchen that will make you feel dizzy if you stare too long at the black-and-white floral patterned wallpaper. It would have been easy to rest and recreate in my villa— room-serviced by the hotel’s chic Citron restaurant. But it was time to go see what fun all the Dinah Shore Weekenders were having.
HARDLY ANYBODY WAS AT THE CASINO during the day. The recently renovated Spa Resort Casino Palm Springs is impressive, if only in comparison to its former self. Gaming shares the floor with five restaurants, including an upscale steakhouse. I enjoyed losing my money at a poker table sandwiched between The Corner Deli and the Agua Bar & Grill.
My next idea for fun should have been better planned. Viceroy loans out bicycles. I decide to pedal to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. I’m informed it’s a 3-mile trip. Yeah, right, just like Gilligan took a three-hour tour. It’s 3 miles to the visitor information center. It’s another 4 miles up—straight up—to the tram station. I bike back to Viceroy and drive back to the tram entrance.
I’m glad I did. The tram—with a floor that gently rotates as you rise——travels up the side of Mount San Jacinto via overhead cable. The station at the top is at an elevation of 8,516 feet. A pleasant surprise up here is the Lookout Lounge. The bartender talks about kids who bring or buy sleds and use them at the Wilderness Area. There are snow-covered hiking trails and campgrounds here, too.
Back down in the desert, the craving is for sushi. Eschewing Happy Sushi, I follow the best tip all weekend and go to a place called Margaritaville. Huh? For sushi? It’s a mile from the main drag. But the former Otani Japanese Garden Restaurant is worth the walk. It’s now one-third Mexican eatery, hence the new name, one-third pasta bar and one-third sushi bar. I couldn’t have received better service if the waitress had mistaken me for Billy Bob Thornton. Which she did. (As if. Though in her defense, I was wearing a Robb Report hat, and hadn’t shaved.)
But since I expect the unexpected now, I kind of expected that.
My flight begins its descent into Denver, cutting through cotton-candy clouds to reveal the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains. A 40-minute shuttle ride drops me on the Pearl Street Mall, an outdoor, tree-lined pedestrian mall filled with a mix of restaurants, sidewalk cafés, bookshops and boutiques. It’s also an ad-hoc stage for a number of street performers. A quintet of college students performs a jazzy number on one corner; ZIP Code Man entertains by guessing tourists’ hometowns; a small crowd gathers to watch a dreadlocked contortionist fold himself into a small plastic box.
But it’s the mountain setting that really steals the show. Framing Pearl Street are Boulder’s iconic Flatirons, slabs of rock jutting diagonally along the foothills of the Rockies. Beginning in April, you can rent a cruiser at Full Cycle bike shop and ride into the shadow of the Flatirons. At their base, the Chautauqua Park Historic District is a popular spot for hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers. It’s also an active summer venue for music festivals, theater performances and other community events. Chautauqua is a small fraction of the 30,000 acres of open space in Boulder.
Heading back downtown, I cycle onto the 200-mile-long Boulder Creek Path. Near the University of Colorado campus, I veer around bleary-eyed students weighed down by bulging backpacks. Thirty thousand such students make up 30 percent of Boulder’s population, and they breathe a palpable energy into the city. Students pack The Fox for top-billed music acts any night of the week. And the numerous local breweries love their college clientele.
The Dushanabe Teahouse, another stop off the Boulder Creek Path, is a local landmark and the only teahouse of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. A gift from Boulder’s sister city, Dushanabe, Tajikistan, it was hand-built by 40 Tajik artisans. Between sips of fragrant jasmine tea, I stare at thousands of pieces of vibrantly colored tiles laid out in exotic patterns. It’s on par with the exhibitions at the neighboring Museum of Modern Art.
Just across the path, I park at the St. Julien Hotel & Spa, Boulder’s newest luxury accommodation. My room has a breathtaking view of the Flatirons, and an outdoor terrace. There’s an airy, stylishly furnished living room (oooh, leather pillows) with a huge plasma-screen television and fireplace.
The gorgeous, cavernous stone-and-glass bathroom is the size of a typical hotel room.
The hottest place in town to eat is Frasca Food & Wine (swap the Birkenstocks for the Manolo Blahniks here), where nationally renowned chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Peterson creates a seasonal menu incorporating local produce and meats. Master sommelier Bobby Stuckey (one of 60 in the country carrying the distinction) perfectly pairs each plate with any of the 200 wines Frasca cellars.
Also on Pearl, The Kitchen is another spot that caters to food gourmands in a sophisticated setting. For lunch, check out The Dish’s heaping gourmet sandwiches, or grab an oversized burrito and a pint at Foolish Craig’s.
I SIGN UP FOR A GUIDED CITY TOUR on day two. Banjo Billy’s Bus Tour showcases (screams, actually) Boulder’s offbeat personality. It’s an 80-minute stand-up routine/tour/historical lesson enjoyed from the seats (take your pick between a saddle or recliner) of a 1994 yellow schoolbus reincarnated as an eccentric shack-on-wheels. Cruising around Boulder, "Banjo Billy" alternates historical accounts of Boulder’s earliest inhabitants and notable buildings with ghost stories and grisly true-crime tales. I spend my last night in Boulder at The Bradley, on Pearl’s east end. It masterfully combines the homey feel of a mountain bed-and-breakfast with the upscale style and privacy of an urban boutique inn.
It could have been the smell of banana bread in the oven, or the crackling fire in the stone fireplace—or maybe it was our hostess Sarah’s invitation to the nightly wine-and-cheese hour—but walking through The Bradley’s front door felt like coming home at the end of a long day. There are 12 guestrooms appointed with luxurious linens, fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs and Aveda spa products. Their gourmet breakfast is the only lure out of my room for the flight home.
IF YOU GO
Frontier Airlines offers six nonstop San Diego–Denver flights daily; see frontierairlines.com or call 800-432-1359 for schedules and reservations. Full Cycle bike shop is located at 18th and Pearl Streets (303-440- 1002; fullcyclebikes.com). Rooms at St. Julien Hotel & Spa start at $285 and range up to $655 for a suite. For reservations: 877-303-0900 or stjulienhotel.com. Rates at The Bradley range from $145 to $200 (800- 858-5811; thebradleyboulder.com). For a schedule of summer programs and events at Chautauqua, go to chautauqua.com. Banjo Billy’s Bus Tours depart from the Hotel Boulderado at 13th and Spruce daily, Memorial Day through Labor Day. Call 720-771-0087 or see banjobilly.com for a schedule and more information. For general information on the Boulder area, visit bouldercoloradousa.com.
BerkeleyBy JULIA BEESON
THE PUNK WITH A PEROXIDE-BLOND MOHAWK grabs my attention away from the woman with more face piercings than a pincushion. I’m strolling Telegraph Avenue, a major artery running through Berkeley and a historical hotbed of all things alternative. Birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement and home to 33,000 University of California students, "Bezerkeley" remains a tie-dyed swirl of viewpoints and ideas. But there’s much more to Berkeley than its legacy of liberalism. The university community injects
a cosmopolitan feel into its neighborhoods, and its bay-side location boasts an abundance of striking natural beauty. It’s also a convenient access point to San Francisco and Napa Valley for exploration of the finer side of life, Nor-Cal style.
Home base is the Claremont Resort & Spa, a 22-acre Bay Area landmark. Created when a Kansas farmer struck it rich during the Gold Rush and decided to build his wife a castle in the Berkeley hills, it burned to the ground in 1901. The property exchanged hands in a game of checkers and was rebuilt as a hotel in 1915. Ongoing modernization efforts have preserved its exclusive status among resort hotels (AAA Four- Diamond), and the architectural integrity of the original castle remains intact.
As I draw open the curtains in my suite, my breath stops short at the sweeping panoramic view of the San Francisco cityscape. Thanks to the resort’s lofty perch, most of the 279 rooms offer a view of Berkeley and the bay. Grainy blackand- white photos hanging on the walls pay tribute to the Claremont’s tradition and classic elegance. But a multimedia entertainment center suggests the amenities have kept pace with the times.
The resort’s fine-dining restaurant, Jordan’s, is a showpiece. The menu features vegetables from the San Joaquin Valley, Monterey prawns, Sonoma lamb and cheese from Napa. The next morning, a thick blanket of clouds shrouds the city, lending an ethereal quality to my hike through the renowned University of California Botanical Garden. The 32- acre garden is arranged by plants’ regions of origin; more than a third of the garden is devoted to California native plants. The Japanese pool in the Asia section is a peaceful spot to sit and tap into your inner Zen (this is Berkeley). Or visit the Tropical House for a steamy tour around creeping fig and cinnamon trees.
JUST OVER AN HOUR’S DRIVE AWAY, we’ve gone from a tangle of wild-growing vines to meticulously harvested ones. Napa’s Cakebread Cellars has produced premium wines for more than 30 years. Chardonnay is the flagship; crisp apple and pear flavors blend harmoniously with oak undertones. It’s paired with a Dungeness crab melt in "The Wine-Food Experience" tasting program. Cakebread’s Tim Gratchen leads us through each tasting, expertly paired with an appetizer prepared by one of the winery’s two full-time chefs. He describes the property’s grape-growing conditions as "Club Med for grapes"—the ideal conditions for producing the finest quality wines. He also lets us in on an emerging trend: The grape to watch is Syrah.
Wine tasting may be the (slightly blurred) focus in Napa, but a tour of the valley isn’t complete without a stop at Martini House for dinner in its quaint garden setting. Try chef Todd Humphries’ seared Maine sea scallops, served in a sake-mirin broth. The martini menu makes good on its promise that "One sip sends you into a slippery, viscous utopia." Or maybe it was the strawberry-rhubarb shortcake and heaping dollop of buttermilk ice cream.
You might be inspired to pick up some fresh organic rhubarb the next morning at the Farmers’ Market at San Francisco’s historic Ferry Plaza building, a 20-minute drive from Berkeley. Stroll aisles of locally grown produce, fresh fish and meats, vibrant blooms of flowers and regional specialties such as breads, cheeses and jams. The adjacent Ferry Building Marketplace offers a plenitude of upscale shopping and dining options.
Back at the Claremont, I’m again gazing at the San Francisco waterfront, this time from the comfort of the resort’s 20,000-square-foot spa. Reflective of the Bay Area’s cultural diversity, the spa offers "Signature Journeys" inspired by the native countries of the staff. My massage therapist is from the Philippines. She performs a gentle exfoliation using a ginger and raw-sugar scrub, followed by a massage with coconut oil.
Its appreciation of disparate cultures is one of myriad reasons I leave charmed by Berkeley. Now if I could just decide on a tattoo.
IF YOU GO
The Claremont Resort & Spa is a 20-minute drive from Oakland International Airport or a 25-minute drive from San Francisco International Airport. Rooms range from $189 for a classic guestroom to $1,000 for the signature suite (877-206-1781; claremontresport.com). The University of California Botanical Garden, at 200 Centennial Drive, is open daily, 9-5. Admission is $5 for adults; $1 for children. Call 510-643-2755 or go to botanicalgarden.berkeley.edu. Cakebread Cellars is at 8300 St. Helena Highway (800-588-0298; cakebreadcellars.com). The Wine-Food Experience is $20 per person. Tasting is by appointment only, 10-4 daily, and costs $10. Martini House is at 1245 Spring Street in St. Helena. Call 707-963-2233 or go to martinihouse.com. The Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market hours are 8-2 Saturday, 10-2 Sunday. Call 415-291-3276.