Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bay Area Military Historical Sites - Marin County

The November issue of "Rick's Tips," is out. This edition covers military historical sites in Marin County that are of interest to both visitors and locals. To see the latest edition of Blue Heron's free quarterly newsletter, click here. 

If you would like to have a free copy of "Rick's Tips" sent directly to your in box, send a request to

Monday, October 28, 2013

Best Restaurants in San Francisco - 2013/2014

The Zagat San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants 2014 and The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2014 were recently released. So it's time for Blue Heron's annual summary of the critics' choices for the best restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Zagat's list of the five most popular restaurants includes Gary Danko, Kokkari Estiatorio, Boulevard, French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley) and Slanted Door. The top rated restaurant for food is Gary Danko with 29 points. Erna's Elderberry House (Oakhurst), French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley), Sierra Mar (Big Sur), Acquerello, Cafe Gibraltar (El Grenada), Kiss Seafood, Evvia (Palo Alto), and Kokkari Estiatorio received 28 points. (All restaurants are in San Francisco unless otherwise noted).

Once again, Michelin awarded three stars to the French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley) and The Restaurant at Meadowood (near St. Helena, Napa Valley).  As in 2013, two stars were awarded to Atelier Crenn, Baumé (Palo Alto), Benu, (San Francisco), Coi (San Francisco), Manresa (Los Gatos), and Saison (San Francisco).  Quince, which received one star last year, received two stars for the first time.

The "San Francisco Chronicle" awards four stars to the top restaurants. Current recipients are the same recipients as last year: Benu (San Francisco), Chez Panisse (Berkeley), Coi (San Francisco), French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley), La Folie (San Francisco), Manresa (Los Gatos), Quince (San Francisco), and The Restaurant at Meadowood (near St. Helena, Napa Valley).

Come to San Francisco and you'll have a chance to pick your favorite. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance as these top restaurants frequently fill up two months in advance. If you wait until the last minute, you may not be able to get a table or may have to dine at 5:30 or 10:00 p.m.

If you want to see last year's summary, click here

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Military Historical Sites in Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano Counties

Here's the latest issue of "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron's newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California.  The August issue covers interesting military historical sites in Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano Counties.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial

The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial honors the 320 men who died in the largest homefront disaster during World War II.  On July 17, 1944 two munitions ships exploded at Port Chicago (near Concord, CA) killing and injuring sailors loading the ships and other nearby naval personnel.  Many of the victims were young, African-American stevedores who received no training in the handling of munitions.

After the blast, 50 African-American sailors refused to continue loading munition ships unless they received training.  These men were court martialed in the largest mutiny trial in the history of the US Navy.  The Memorial remembers these men, whose defiance is considered one of the key events leading to President Truman's decision to desegregate the armed services.

The Memorial is one of the most difficult units of the National Park Service to visit as it is located within an active military base.  When the military permits visitors, reservations are required at least two weeks in advance.  Annually, visitors are welcome for the memorial ceremony to remember those who died at Port Chicago and those who were court martialed when they stood up for their civil rights.

On July 20, I had the opportunity to attend the remembrance of the 69th anniversary of the explosion.  A crowd of about 200 gathered to hear speakers and to view the memorial.

Remains of the Pier


The explosion at Port Chicago and the subsequent court martial must be remembered.  However,  there is not much to see at the Memorial.  There are a few plaques describing the events surrounding the explosion as well as plaques listing the names of those who died.  Perhaps when the National Park Service secures funding for a visitors center, more people will find their way to Port Chicago and learn about this tragedy.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park

When we visited Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park we were told that this is the longest park name in the National Park system.  It's also an unusual park in that the sites are not contiguous.  This park celebrates the work done in the United States to support the efforts of our troops overseas during World War II.  Richmond, CA was home to three large shipyards run by Henry Kaiser.  The town of Richmond grew from 20,000 to over 100,000 residents in just a few years, straining its resources immensely.

Start your visit at the Visitor Education Center to see exhibits on the shipyards, the beginnings of child care in this country, the unique contribution of Kaiser to health care, and the large numbers of women and minorities who entered the urban workforce.  During our visit, we saw two interesting films on Richmond, CA and the Home Front.  Here you can pick up maps for driving and walking tours of the park. The Visitor Education Center is open daily (except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day) from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. at 1414 Harbor Way.

Next head to Kaiser Shipyard 3 where you can see historic buildings and tour the SS Red Oak Victory.  This ship hauled ammunition during World War II and was built at nearby Shipyard 1.  The ship is named after Red Oak, IA, the town that suffered the highest per capita loss of military personnel during the war.  The Red Oak was scheduled for demolition but was rescued by the Richmond Museum of History.  Visitors are welcome on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.  Admission costs $5 per person.

SS Red Oak Victory

Whirley Crane

Your last stop can be the Rosie the Riveter Memorial.  The design is in the shape of prefabricated parts used in the construction of Liberty and Victory Ships and is laid out to resemble a vessel under construction.  The memorial, which precedes the founding of the national park by three years, honors the women who entered the industrial workforce for the first time during World War II.

Rosie the Riveter Memorial

If you want some lunch during your visit, Assemble Restaurant is located next to the Visitors Center and has American food.  For Italian cuisine with a water view, check out Salute e Vita Ristorante near the Rosie the Riveter Memorial.

To take a private, custom tour that includes a visit to Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at or (415) 337-1874. 

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Bay Area Military History - Part 1: San Francisco

The latest edition of "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron's free newsletter on fun things to do in San Francisco is now available.  The May issue is the first in a series covering the Bay Area's rich military history.  This newsletter covers sites to visit in San Francisco.  You can see the newsletter by clicking here.  If you would like to subscribe to "Rick's Tips," send a message to

Thursday, April 18, 2013

East Brother Light Station

Last week, I finally visited East Brother Light Station, a Victorian lighthouse on a small island just off the Richmond (East Bay) shore.  The beautiful lighthouse and keepers' home was built in 1873.  After years of neglect, a non-profit organization took over the buildings and restored them to their former glory.

East Brother is a ten-minute boat ride from Point Molate, not far from Point Richmond.  The drive to the dock is an adventure as you pass through the old naval fuel depot and by the Winehaven Winery castle.  The road to the Point San Pablo Marina hasn't seen fresh asphalt in many years so drive slowly or you'll be paying for a new suspension for your vehicle.

Richard, one of the keepers, will pick you up at the marina and take you to the island.  The ride is usually calm as this is a protected part of  San Pablo Bay.  When you arrive at the island, you will climb a ladder to the light station.  Your bags, along with the boat, will be hoisted up to the island.

Once you arrive, you will be treated to beautiful views of the Bay, Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and San Francisco.

If you are visiting for the day, like we were, Richard will take you on a tour of the light station.  We got to fire up the old fog horn and let it blast a few times.  We were then left to enjoy the picnic lunch that we brought and to relax with friends for a few hours.

If you stay overnight in the bed and breakfast, you will be served dinner and breakfast.  Since water is very scarce on the island, visitors may only shower if they stay more than one night.  If you visit between November and early April the current fog horn sounds regularly.  Some guests can sleep through the noise while others find sleeping difficult.

If you enjoy lighthouses, I recommend visiting East Brother.  Day trips are available on most Saturdays during the dry season (April - October).  Overnight accommodation is available year round, Thursday to Sunday.  Most folks stay one night.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Exploratorium Opens in New Home on April 17

San Francisco's interactive science museum, the Exploratorium, left its long-time home in the Palace of Fine Arts in January.  This Wednesday, April 17, the wonderful museum will open in its new home at Pier 15 on The Embarcadero.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to see the new facility.  While not all of the exhibits were operational, I saw many old favorites as well as quite a few new exhibits.  Children of all ages will enjoy exploring these many wonderful interactive science lessons.  The new building houses six galleries, each with different areas to explore.  In addition, beautiful views of the bay can be seen from the deck at the rear of the museum.  

One of San Francisco's iconic chefs, Loretta Keller, developed the food program at the museum.  The Seaglass Restaurant is a sit-down restaurant at the rear of the building that offers beautiful views of San Francisco Bay and family-friendly fare.  On the street side of the Exploratorium, the Seismic Joint Cafe offers food to go.

The Exploratorium is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 until 5:00, except on Wednesday when it closes at 10:00.  On Thursday from 6:00 until 10:00 p.m., the museum is open only to adults age 18 and over.  Various ticket packages are available with discounts offered to Bay Area residents.  The new museum is sure to be a hit so buy your tickets in advance.  Take public transportation to the museum as parking is limited.  The F line, with its historic streetcars, stops in front of the museum.

If you are visiting San Francisco with children, the Exploratorium is one of the city's must-see attractions.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Dining in West Marin County

West Marin County is a place treasured by locals but less known by visitors from afar.  Blessed with dairy farms on rolling green hills, spectacular views of the Pacific and Tomales Bay, abundant wildlife, and miles of hiking trails, West Marin is a favorite weekend getaway for San Franciscans.  However, this part of the Bay Area, which produces artisan cheeses and organic milk, beef, fruits, and vegetables used in restaurants throughout the Bay Area, is not known for its fine dining.

Two of the better restaurants are now gone:  Manka's and the Olema Inn's restaurants.  The latter may reopen later this year under new ownership.

Last weekend I had a chance to visit two of the newer restaurants on the West Marin dining scene. I was pleasantly surprised by dinner at Saltwater in Inverness, a village on the shore of Tomales Bay.  We started with the freshest raw oysters that probably came out of the bay earlier in the day.  Saltwater offers a dozen oysters and a glass of wine for $30, less than most places charge for the oysters alone.  Our mains were porcini crusted sturgeon and roasted lamb shank, both of which were very good.  The menu is small with about six appetizers plus raw and cooked oysters, six entrees, and four pizzas.  Similarly, the wine list is small with interesting wines from California and a few from around the world. If you are visiting West Marin, I'd head to Saltwater.  The restaurant is not very big, so a reservation is recommended, especially on weekends.

Osteria Stellina, in Point Reyes Station, opened a few years ago to very good reviews, but I was a bit disappointed.  I found the service a bit rushed and the food nothing special.  I had risotto with crab but I was hard pressed to taste any crab in the dish.  My wife enjoyed her thin crust pizza but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.  Lastly, I found that the chef had a heavy hand with pepper as most dishes, including the olive oil, were spicy when they didn't need to be.  Given the good reviews, I'd give the restaurant another shot.

While options for good dinner are limited, West Marin is home to two good bakeries:  Busy Bee Bakery in Inverness and Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station.  Both are worth a visit.  If you love oysters, try the Marshall General Store along the east bank of Tomales Bay for lunch.  Here you can get great raw, barbecued, Rockefellered, and other cooked oysters.  The menu has other items that look delicious but we always go for the oysters.  If you want to pick up food for a picnic or want great cheese, stop by Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station.

Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel offers private tours to beautiful West Marin County.  If you would like to take one, contact us at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Monday, February 04, 2013

Excellent Scandinavian Food in Civic Center

Potato dumplings, smoked salmon, herring, venison, Swedish meatballs, and many other Scandinavian-inspired dishes are among your dinner choices at Plaj (pronounced "play"), a six-month old restaurant in Civic Center.  Foods are grouped according to their origin:  earth (vegetables), sea, and land.  Small and large plates are offered, making sharing easy.  

Being intrigued by all of the different flavors, we opted to share 3 small plates and one large dish.  Everything was delicious.  My wife, who loves lobster, was especially fond of the poached lobster with caviar, avocado, horseradish, and chili.  We were too full to try any of the intriguing desserts.

Plaj has an extensive selection of Scandinavian beers; mostly in the bottle with a couple on tap.  There's also a good list of Scandinavian-inspired cocktails as well as spirits from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.  The wine list is small but adequate.

Plaj is located at 333 Fulton Street; close to the Opera House, Symphony Hall, and the new SF Jazz Center.  If you're attending a concert or performance at one of these venues, Plaj is a good spot for a pre-show dinner.  The kitchen is open until 10:30 on Sundays through Thursdays and 11:00 on Fridays and Saturdays, so you can dine after your show on weekends.

For something  a little different, give Plaj a try.  You won't be disappointed.