California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Jellyfish in the Steinhart Aquarium at the new California Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco

San Francisco’s newest museum building thrusts one of its oldest institutions into the 21st century, with the latest in sustainable architecture and green technology…

My most recent travel article, on the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Advocate. If you missed the print edition, you can read the entire article on their web site at:

http://www.advocate.com/issue_story_ektid76378.asp

Added 12 September 2009: The original text of the article is reproduced below:

Nature and Nurture

San Francisco’s newest museum building thrusts one of its oldest institutions into the 21st century, with the latest in sustainable architecture and green technology.

A field of native California plants rolls across a plain of undulating hills—hovering high above the ground in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Supported largely by glass walls, the “green roof” is only the most surprising of the many striking features of internationally renowned architect Renzo Piano’s new building for the venerable California Academy of Sciences.

The Academy, which houses research and educational facilities and a vast collection of scientific specimens as well as the Kimball Natural History Museum, the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium and more, was formerly housed in a hodgepodge of 13 buildings built in Golden Gate park over the course of 20th century. The park location was chosen after the Academy, founded in 1853, lost it’s original building and and most of its collections to the 1906 Earthquake and fire.

The new building grew from San Francisco’s second major earthquake, the 1989 Loma Pietra. While the museum remained open until 2003, structural damage from the quake presented the opportunity to reinvent the Academy in a totally new, unified, and revolutionary building.

The Academy selected Pritzker Prize winning Architect Renzo Piano, designer (with Richard Rogers) of the revolutionary Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and numerous other museums, to create a new structure that is not only an artistic landmark but also reflects and reinforces the mission of the Academy.

“The Academy’s mission is to explore, explain, and protect the natural world” according to Executive Director, Gregory C. Farrington, Ph.D. The result is a structure that is not only visually striking but is also the world’s “greenest” museum. The building has earned a Platinum rating for for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), making it the largest sustainable public building in the world, incorporating, among other features, solar energy panels and a passive cooling system.

“This museum has always worked on three levels – displaying the collection, educating the public, researching the science. The spirit of this new building is to announce and enforce this complexity of function,” Piano explains.

The long lines waiting to enter the building since it’s opening at the end of 2008 likely have as much or more to do with the awe-inspiring exhibits inside as the environmentally friendly structure however.

The main floor, an enormous rectangle of glass and limestone, houses the Morrison Planetarium in a giant opaque sphere, and a four story rainforest in a sealed transparent dome, on each side of square glass courtyard. Exhibits on the main floor are a creationist’s nightmare: the evolution of species is thoughtfully and clearly explained in series of very visual exhibits illustrating natural selection and biodiversity. The second main floor display is devoted to the effects of climate change and habitat destruction.

Interestingly, favorite sections of the old buildings have been incorporated into the new museum to delightful effect. The neoclassical African hall, with it’s classic dioramas of taxidermied animals has been preserved—with a twist. The main window now contains the Steinhart Aquarium’s collection of live South African penguins, swimming and waddling in startling contrast to the stuffed creatures. Other parts of the original buildings have been preserved to great effect as well, including the 1934 entry colonnade, the Foucault Pendulum, and the playful brass seahorse railings of the original aquarium building.

The aquarium itself now occupies the entire basement of the new structure—an underground, underwater fantasia of 38,000 living creatures. Twenty-five feet high and holding 212,000 gallons of water, the Philippine Coral Reef is one of the deepest exhibits of live corals in the world; while the 100,000 gallon Northern California Coast tank highlights local sea life. Other exhibits feature a walk beneath a glass bottomed Amazon lake, tanks of delicate jellyfish, a hands-on tide pool, and a swamp housing the aquarium’s famous decades-old Albino Alligator.

And high above, a rooftop viewing platform provides a close up look at the amazing living roof.

Finally, the building also features the Moss Room, a gourmet restaurant open for lunch and dinner, featuring local, organic, and sustainably raised produce, sea food and meat—addressing the one question not answered elsewhere in the museum: how does nature taste?

The museum is located at 55 Music Concourse Drive in Golden Gate Park. It’s a short walk from the 9th Avenue N-Judah streetcar stop. Admission can be guaranteed by purchasing tickets online at least 24 hours in advance. Phone: 415 379-8000. www.calacademy.org

Amsterdam Hotels

092008amsterdam492

A friend of my sister recently wrote:

Do you know of any cheap but clean/safe hotels in Amsterdam (specifically, safe for a mom and child alone)? I want to get a hotel in Amsterdam for a couple nights to avoid all the train riding back and forth from my friend’s house in the Hague but money is very tight so….some inside info would be great! My friend in the Hague never really seems to go to Amsterdam; perhaps you can help?

Hi

I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Amsterdam for quite sometime, but I’ll try to give you some help.

My favorite hotel is the Ambassade (http://www.ambassade-hotel.nl/) great location, rooms, service etc, but it might be more than you want to spend. Hotel prices in Amsterdam have risen quite a bit since the introduction of the Euro.

I think the NH chain of hotels in the city are good values for larger hotels with elevators, etc.

You might also check out the Lloyd Hotel (http://www.lloydhotel.com) along the eastern docklands; they have rooms in all price ranges and it’s rather a fun place. A short tram ride from the historic center.

A brand new hotel that might be good for you is the Citizen M Amsterdam City (http://www.citizenm.com/) it’s adjacent the WTC train station (NOT centraal Station) which you can get to by direct train from the Hague. It’s brand new, seems really nice and cheap. It’s in a quiet residential neighborhood, but the number 5 tram will take you to the museum quarter and the city center.

If you go to hotels.nl you can compare prices and possibly find a good deal. There are lots of great little hotels along the canals if you don’t mind the steep dutch stairs. Best places to stay would be along the Western or Southern canal belt. This is the most picturesque part of the city, and it’s central yet quiet. Hotels between the Central Station and the Dam can be nice, but the nightlife there can be noisy and perhaps a bit seedy for a child, though the whole city is quite safe. Find a hotel that meets your budget, check the location on google maps, then go to the hotel’s website to check it out and see if you can book it even cheaper directly.

Also, if you don’t plan on staying out very late in Amsterdam, you can easily get from the Hague (either Den Haag CS or Den Haag HS stations) to Amsterdam on the intercity trains which run quite frequently. The trip takes about 45 minutes. The The train system is excellent so you may also want to visit Haarlem, Utrecht or Rotterdam as well. You can check the schedules online (in English at ns.nl. By the way, you can get to Delft from Den Haag by city tram.

Clay

At the Restaurant Jules Verne

“It would be easier,” I remark, “To have lunch with Jacques Chirac.” We are standing outside the Pilier Sud, at the entrance to private elevator to Restaurant Jules Verne. Our way is blocked by a pleasant but stern young man, clad in all black, with a radio headset. It is a near impossibility to make a reservation at Jules Verne, the luxury restaurant on the second tier of the Tour Eiffel.

Tour Eiffel

“Three months in advance” is their standard reply…and even then…I finally had a friend who works for the French Tourist Office in LA make the reservation…to her slight annoyance, as even for her it required multiple phone calls and faxes. It’s somewhat ridiculous…Le Grand Véfour, Le Cinq—great, three star restaurants—booked with a simple fax on our last trip to Paris. Anyway, even after going to such great lengths to extract a reservation, and a fax from the restaurant confirming such reservation, the Jules Verne insists that you reconfirm the reservation the day before. OK, slightly annoying, but not unheard of. Except that they never answer their telephone. Call, call, and call again, and all you get is a multi-lingual message telling you that all lines are busy and please try again in a few minutes. At the prices they charge, you’d think they could hire someone to answer the phones…or outsource it to a call center in India or something. Finally we sent them a fax. But, of course something has gone astray…our table has been canceled (and given to who I wonder, considering the difficulty of making a reservation and the impossibility of reaching them by phone. Have they a list of stand-ins at the ready?) Calls are made from the elevator desk to the restaurant upstairs; someone comes to confer with us…I wave my confirmation fax (bearing the imprint of the French Tourist Office) and Logan explains the multiple unanswered phone calls. Still the young man in black bars our entry to the private elevator lobby, snicker though he did at my comment about lunch with Jacques Chirac. Clearly this is a commonplace occurrence. Someone in authority explains that they had tried to call our hotel, unsuccessfully, that morning, and then—finally behaving in the manner one expects from such a restaurant—says, but of course we will take care of everything, please come up…

Restaurant Jules Verne 1

From that point on, all is pleasant. A sweet boy lifts us to the second étage in one of the tower’s uniquely slanted elevators; we can see the young and the vigorous clambering up and down the stairs as views of Paris flash in and out of sight between the steel girders. We are offered an aperitif in the bar, but already they have a table ready for us. It’s a small table…too small really for the theater of food the restaurant requires, but it is right at the window, on the best side of restaurant. All of Paris is below our table: Sacre-Coeur on its hill, the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, the roofs of the Madeleine and the Opera, the expanse of the Louvre, and, in the distance, the distinctive towers of Notre Dame and the brightly colored tubes of the Pompidou Center. Directly under us, on the platform below the restaurant, tourists admire the view. It is spectacular, as promised. Inside, the restaurant is all black and grey and leather—very eighties. It seems a bit, well, too eighties, though in mint condition. Logan admires the china, white with black geometric accents, eighties too, but handsome. I find the black stemmed wineglasses less successful. We have glasses of Veuve Cliquot vintage rose (€29 a glass!) Logan promptly knocks his over—25 euros spilling into my plate and lap—fortunately protected by my napkin. Fortunately our only mishap. Service is efficient, professional, but no better than most Paris restaurants. Food is fairly excellent. The à la carte menu is shockingly expensive—50 starters, €90 entrees, and up. But there is a very nice “businessman’s” lunch menu for 55 (the only thing not translated into English—Logan finds this very cunning). He and I have a starter of haddock prepared three ways: a soup that is almost entirely fish flavored air—really good; haddock tartare, and a little spinach and haddock tartlet. Abbie has a terrine of foie gras and oxtail—terrific. They have lamb for the main course—they proclaim it excellent. I have quail—deboned for the most part, and stuffed with foie gras. It is excellent. We drink two bottles of wine, a white and a Bordeaux, neither particularly expensive. Dessert is a sablé with strawberries, with custard and ice cream; and a lemon thing that Abbie had. Various little candies and cookies and truffles are brought to the table, of course. The wine waiter is cute. After lunch, we wander downstairs and out amid the milling crowds for the view of Paris from the open platform. Logan buys another cheap souvenir Tour Eiffel to add to his odd little collection. We make a waiter open the back door to the Jules Verne for us, so we can take the private elevator down. We are about the last lunch guests to leave the restaurant. The crowd was largely American; a few French people. What can I say? The view: extraordinary. The decor: fair. The service: good but not outstanding. The food: very good. The price: the prix fix lunch is a good value. Otherwise for the money, I’d go to Le Cinq, hands down.

Restaurant Jules Verne 2

Excerpted from Clay Doyle’s Journal, Anecdotes from a French Spring, 2005

Online booking, now available via their website may make getting a table easier…. Clay, 2009

Venice Restaurant picks

Eating in Venice

My friend Dave, in Berkeley, recently asked:

Hi Clay,

I have friends going to Venice in 2 weeks. Could you give me a short list of 2 or 3 restaurants that you have liked there. I know you have found some special ones.

Thanks, Dave

Our best meal in Venice recently was at Antiche Carampane, a hard to find family-run restaurant in San Polo frequented exclusively by locals. The menu changes daily and is based entirely on what they find that morning at the market, so it has a somewhat limited menu composed almost entirely of local fish, shellfish and vegetables, all brilliantly prepared. The atmosphere is very friendly, and the owners will basically tell you what to eat. If you are not picky, you will have a great meal. The atmosphere is lively and fun and even the desserts are great. It’s quite moderately priced given the quality of the food—and that it’s in Venice. It’s small, and reservations are essential. It’s also quite hard to find, so you’ll need a good map. As Venice addresses are useless you’ll be wandering some fairly deserted residential alleys and squares until you find the Calle de la Carapane. When you’re sure you’ve missed it, just go a little further, and there it is.

Other favorites in Venice are San Marco, a stylish restaurant with excellent food and a good wine list, centrally located on a small street called Frezzeria behind the famous piazza; and Vino Vino a  casual and inexpensive winebar/restaurant (on Calle della Vesta, no credit cards) near La Fenice opera house.

The three restaurants mentioned by every food writer in the world are all excellent, but also extremely expensive. The very formal Da Fiore is great, but you may not want to drop the 200 Euros per person it will cost you to eat there. Likewise the equally delicious and famous Al Covo. Fiaschetteria Toscana is my current favorite among the three, being slightly less pricey. All offer expansive menus, multi-lingual staff and excellent food—for a price.

If you have time to take a day trip out to Torcello (a very pleasant boat ride in good weather), one of my favorite restaurants for a long, leisurely lunch is Osteria al Ponte di Diavolo. Great, typically Venetian food in a lovely outdoor setting between the boat dock and the oldest church in Venice. A little expensive, but worth it, and again reservations advised.

It’s worth visiting Do Mori, one of the oldest bars in Venice, for a drink and a few excellent cicheti. This stand up establishment, tucked away on the Calle die Do Mori on the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge is a stand up affair, and open only during the day. Nearby there are several similar bars offering cicheti and wines by the glass.

Notable too are a number of new, very stylish and modern bars and restaurants that seem to be popping up around Venice, indicating that the city is more than simply a museum. You’ll encounter them in out of the way places, but Aciugheta (on the Campo Santi Filippo e Giacomo, between San Marco and San Zaccaria) is a nice central place for a drink and cicheti. They also operate a stylish new restaurant with only five tables (on the same square) which serves very good modern takes on Venetian food.

I will also recommend the guidebook Venice Osterie (in English) though you’ll probably have to pick it up in Venice itself at the Mondadori Bookshop (Salizada San Moise, in the haute shopping district off Piazza San Marco.) By the way, there is a very stylish cocktail bar behind the bookstore, one of the few that is open late in Venice, but drinks are rather expensive. If you still want to drink after dinner, I’d suggest a walk to the Campo Santa Margherita and the cheap and lively bar Margaret Duchamp.

In addition to the above, I cannot stress enough the value of simply wandering around the farther, tourist-ignored reaches of Castello, Cannaregio, San Polo or Dorsoduro around lunch time, where you will encounter wonderful little restaurants catering to local residents and workers, and serving up simple, delicious food at absurdly low prices. Poke around and go with your instincts. In these non-tourist areas you’ll also find great places for coffee and drinks (try the Spritz Aperol, a local favorite) at rock bottom prices—the Venetians love their coffee and drinks.