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Swimming in Sicily

Sicily’s known for its cuisine, its Greek ruins, and its beautiful landscapes. As a large island, it has also has many beaches, some of which are spectacular. Quite a few others are, if not spectacular, certainly good. I’m not a great swimmer, but I love to swim outdoors and snorkel, and swimming in the ocean was one of the main reasons I went to Sicily for a few weeks in July.

The beach at Isola Bella, near Taormina in Sicily.

The beach at Isola Bella, near Taormina in Sicily.

Even three weeks or so isn’t nearly enough time to sample everywhere worth swimming in Sicily. But we did manage to hit quite a few spots considering our limited time. Even the five we visited were pretty different from each other, but all are worth a dip  should you make it over.

There are many reasons to visit Palermo, the capital of Sicily, including its architecture and lively streetlife. Beaches are not at the top of the list, nor close to the city center, but you might find yourself dying to cool off if you visit when the temperatures are nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as we did. It’s a pretty short bus ride to Mondello beach a few miles outside the city.

Mondello beach, looking to the west.

Mondello beach, looking to the west.

Mondello isn’t a secret, and you’ll likely find it jammed in summer. But the water’s calm, its temperature moderate, and you’ll be able to wade out quite a ways without it getting so deep that you’ll lose your footing. And if the scenery isn’t as monumental as some other Sicilian beaches, it’s quite pleasing:

As with most beaches we visited, there are areas where visitors can plant themselves for free, and others where you’ll need to pay a fee for an umbrella and deck chair. Unless you’re traveling with a beach umbrella, it’s often worth it to spring for the paid spots, elitism be damned. The Mediterranean sun can be pretty searing — certainly more so than summer sun in California and New Jersey, the two states where I’ve done most of my ocean swimming in the US.

Mondello beach, looking to the east.

Mondello beach, looking to the east.

Agrigento is most famed for its Greek ruins, and we were lucky enough to also get caught up in a huge holiday parade and fireworks during our stay. South of Palermo and even hotter, you might again feel the need to cool off in the beach, even on a Sunday when few buses are running and little info on their departure stops and times is available.

Nonetheless we managed to catch one to San Leone, just a few miles outside town, not long before sundown. The manager of the umbrella/deck chair operation we patronized took pity on us and charged us about one-third of the going rate. It was quite a bargain for an hour or so of swimming in much choppier, more churning waters than Mondello. The beach is pretty narrow and stony, so you’re going more for the ocean than the lounging here.

The beach at San Leone.

The beach at San Leone.

Siracusa is another town whose beaches don’t dominate its image. (Anglicized as “Syracuse,” we referred to it by its Italian name Siracusa after the taxi driver taking us to Rome from the airport told us, “Syracuse is in New York.”) But this was one of my favorite places to swim, in part because the hot spot in the old historic town, Ortigia, wasn’t a beach or particularly dominated by tourists. Instead, you camp out on tall rocks in a site called the Solarium, with various points of entry, whether by stairs or slithering down the actual rocks:

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Even if you enter by stairs (which are only installed in the summer months), this site might not be for the more casual swimmer. The water gets pretty deep pretty quickly just feet from shore, and some parts are quite rocky, especially the narrow channel connecting different parts of the swimming area. Even wearing beach shoes in the water, I got a few cuts bumping my knees and thighs against the irregularly spaced and shaped rock formations under the surface.

Most of the swimmers here and at other beaches-with-rocks we visited nonetheless swam barefoot. Their heartiness is admirable, but I’d really advise considering taking along a hardy pair of beach shoes to wear while you’re actually swimming in the water if you don’t want to come home limping, or worse. It’s no time to be macho (in a crowd where many women and girls, I hasten to note, were swimming barefoot) if you’re not feeling like a local expert in navigating the rocks. My traveling partner is a much better swimmer than I am, and even she couldn’t avoid a hip bruise. I got my efficient beach shoes for less than $50 at REI, and those or equivalents shouldn’t be hard to track down before you visit.

Overview of the rockiest parts of the Solarium beach in Ortigia, in Siracusa.

Overview of the rockiest parts of the Solarium beach in Ortigia, in Siracusa.

Also in Siracusa, we took a boat ride out to some grottoes a few miles away, taking us close to the rocks to see purple hues such as this. One of the crew took a couple minutes to free a bird that had somehow gotten stuck in one of the fissures:

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On the same ride we passed by the rock below, off which people were jumping or diving into the sea (I can assure you I am not one of the divers in this picture). The captain of our small craft took this opportunity to swim to the rock and execute an impressive flip/dive into the water, nonchalantly swimmng back to the boat to pilot us back to Ortigia.

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We were supposed to have a few minutes to swim in the grotto too, but the company selling the trip didn’t inform the boat crew, who were recruited spur of the moment after the original boatman didn’t make it. If you’ve seen Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, you’ll remember the scene where Eric Idle, playing a European waiter, leads us on a long walk through heavy traffic to the meaning of life, all the while intimating that it’s just around the corner. That’s how we felt when the young woman from the tour company led us to the boat, telling us all the while, “just two more minutes” before we ended up at a tourist office where we were asked if we could wait another hour. We couldn’t, so a substitute was hastily arranged, but apparently not informed that a grotto swim was part of the deal. Maybe next time.

There are a few places to swim near Taormina, including a small rocky one in Mazzaro where we went for brief immersions. The most celebrated by far, however, is Isola Bella, connected to a big beach by a sandbar through which you can wade even if you can’t swim:

Isola Bella, viewed on a bus ride down from Taormina.

Isola Bella, viewed on a bus ride down from Taormina.

Isola Bella is much photographed, and the opposite of unknown. Some things that have been heavily hyped — like Paris, the Beatles, or the seventh game of the 2016 World Series — are actually just as good as people say they’ll be, and Isola Bella is one of them. The swimming is varied and superb; there are shallow parts, deep ones, rocky areas, and rockless sections; there’s decent snorkeling, and patches several dozen feet deep, if you want; the clear water boasts stunning hues of blue, green, and purple; and the scenery is phenomenal:

Rocks to which we swam at Isola Bella.

Rocks to which we swam at Isola Bella.

That does mean you’ll never be alone on Isola Bella in the summer, and one day it was so crowded we couldn’t even rent one of the 20-Euro-per person umbrella-deck chair deals. But it’s worth  putting up with and then some, and once you get in the water, there’s space enough and more, especially as it’s not hard to get several hundred meters from shore in calm and safe conditions. You can also get a bit more breathing room by walking around Isola Bella itself, though there’s a small (four-Euro) fee for that, and much of the island remains off-limits to visitors.

If you’re staying in Taormina and using public transportation, taking the cable car down’s a must, with this view as you approach Isola Bella:

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The last beach we visited was in Cefalu, which would be worth visiting even without the water owing to the stunning and relaxed maze of alleys forming its historic center. There is a beautiful, lengthy beach, however, from which you can see the city’s breathtaking old quarter:

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The swimming’s quite different from Isola Bella, or Siracusa. In those places, you really need to swim, not wade, if you get more than a few feet from shore, so deep does it get so fast. In Cefalu, it’s almost impossible to get out far enough to where your feet won’t hit the sand. And for most of the beach, it is smooth sand in the water — smooth enough that you won’t need those beach shoes.

Sunset as viewed from the beach in Cefalu.

Sunset as viewed from the beach in Cefalu.

On the Road to the Summer of Love Exhibit

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Back in the late ’80s, I found Ralph J. Gleason’s paperback The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound for $3 at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books. I never thought the next copy I’d see would be in a glass case in a Summer of Love exhibit at the California Historical Society — a testament not only to the book’s rarity, but to the sky-high esteem in which the era is now held as it marks its 50th anniversary.

Although more modest in scale than the de Young’s current Summer of Love extravaganza, the California Historical Society’s current exhibition On the Road to the Summer of Love, running through Sept. 10 in downtown San Francisco, offers important context through photos, memorabilia, and audiovisuals. (And at $5, the price is right.) Rooms on the Beats and the Free Speech Movement trace the Bay Area’s proudly rebellious bohemianism back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. The folk revival (check the pictures of a pre-rock Janis Joplin and short-haired Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen), the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the experimental music of the San Francisco Tape Music Center all get their due as vital forces in the city’s simmering volcano.

Death of Money Parade, Haight Street, 1967.
The ‘Death of Money’ parade, Haight Street, 1967. (Photo: Gene Anthony; Collection of the California Historical Society)

Yet the heart of the displays focus on that brief time from around late 1965 to late 1967, when psychedelic rock and the counterculture made San Francisco the place to be. Smack in the middle of those two years, the Grateful Dead played a “Love Pageant Rally” in Golden Gate Park’s panhandle, held on the very day (October 6, 1966) LSD became illegal, as captured in one particularly vivid color shot. As Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner remembers in one of the interviews visitors can hear at audio stations, “It was just Halloween all the time.”

San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966.
San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966. (Gene Anthony; Collection of the California Historical Society)

Some of the images will be familiar to visitors well-versed in the time and place, whether it’s Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival or the “Death of Hippie” procession down Haight Street in fall 1967. However, many pictures are uncommon, even some of the ones that are focused on celebrities. For instance, major collectors might not have seen the poster for a pre-Janis Big Brother & the Holding Company benefit show for Berkeley’s Open Theater, or an ad for the “Jefferson Airplane Loves You” fan club (housed at “Jefferson Airport” in Millbrae, $1 entitling members to a “Far-Out” Flight Card, among other goodies). The Free Speech section features not just the expected shot of Joan Baez, but also a couple shots of folkie Barbara Dane, who was probably even further to the left of Baez.

Both the Airplane and Big Brother made big splashes at the Monterey Pop Festival, and photographs of them and others in action at the event make their expected presence. But so do color shots from the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, a much smaller yet almost equally vibrant festival on Mount Tamalpais held the weekend before Monterey. Other artifacts remind us the new dawn was far from universally welcomed, whether it’s a somber Lawrence Ferlinghetti standing in front of a “Banned Books” window display at City Lights in 1958, or an issue of Record, the neighborhood Haight-Ashbury paper, headlined “SUPERVISORS FACE HIPPIE AVALANCHE” nearly a decade later.

If you have ample time on your visit, one screen shows the full-length documentary The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon, spotlighting the Virginia City venue that hosted a lengthy residency by one of San Francisco’s first psychedelic bands, the Charlatans. As a shorter audio soundbite, there’s a five-minute recording of the Grateful Dead jamming with jazz flutist Charles Lloyd on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” at the January 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields. Paul Kantner’s seven-minute history of the launch of the Airplane is quite entertaining, too, revealing how the band considered naming themselves the Other Side before settling on “Jefferson Airplane, [which] was the name of somebody’s dog.”

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For all the great music and charismatic figures around which the Summer of Love revolved, some of the most affecting relics remind us that many of the hundreds of thousands flocking to the Haight were ordinary, sometimes struggling youngsters. One shows a group of anonymous young guys – all with backs turned to the camera – looking over the city from a rooftop, some perhaps to make a big impression on the community, like the longhair on the left with a guitar. Others, perhaps, became some of the runaways who ended up on the streets, relying on free food giveaways by the Diggers to survive. A contact sheet of pedestrian traffic on Haight Street shows a mixture of such street kids and hippies, as well as the odd pair of straight businessmen in suits somehow caught in the sweet madness that this exhibit revives.

‘On the Road to the Summer of Love’ runs through Sept. 10, 2017, at the California Historical Society at 678 Mission Street in San Francisco. For more details about the exhibit and corresponding events, see here.

Biking and Hiking in Kauai

Since I started this blog, all of my posts about hiking and biking (except one for Reno) have been about places to do so in the San Francisco Bay Area. So why a post about where to do it in Kauai? It’s a five-hour flight away. True, but I was there in early September, I took a bunch of pictures, and San Francisco is about the closest US city to Kauai. And as pretty as San Francisco is, you’re not going to find pictures like these walking around the Bay Area:

Ke'e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

Ke’e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

That’s from the Kalalau Trail on the island’s northern shore, overlooking Ke’e Beach. It’s a popular trail, though not overcrowded. Since the parking lot at its southern entrance also serves Ke’e Beach, it’s pretty hard to find a space there—and you probably will need to drive, since public transportation doesn’t go this far north. There’s a very rough dirt parking lot a quarter mile south, and a few dozen other places to leave your car on the side of the road within a half mile.

The Kalalau Trail runs eleven miles in all, and it’s not going to be possible to go all the way out and back, unless you camp at the northern end. It’s enough of a challenge to go five miles in and five miles back, as I did. Walking ten miles isn’t a problem for me, but this is a hilly trail—it has to be to get high enough for views like this:

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There are also a lot of rocks to clamber through at points; a stream to fjord (or just take off your shoes and wade through, as I did) after a couple miles or so; and a lot of mud. So much so that most hikers spend at least a couple minutes washing themselves off at the outdoor beach showerheads after coming out the Ke’e Beach end, as well as thoroughly dousing their shoes (and sometimes, other clothes). Unless you have high-end hiking boots, consider bringing a pair of worn-out shoes that won’t be good for many more hikes anyway, as I did. In fact, the shoes I wore won’t be good for any more hikes after this one.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

There are other hikes on Kauai, but with only a week and so much swimming and snorkeling to do, I didn’t take any others. There are some in or near incredible canyons like this one that I’ll try if I go back:

Waimea Canyon.

Waimea Canyon.

Biking, like hiking, takes a distant place behind snorkeling and swimming on Kauai. You have to use a road that rings much of the island to get most places, and there’s a good amount of traffic, especially when it goes through the town of Kapaa, where I stayed. I did see some triathlete-types bicyling the road (really a highway), but most recreational cyclists stick to the Kapaa Bike Path, which runs about seven miles. Most of them stick to the four miles or so that run close by the ocean north of town.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

The good news: there are plenty of bike rental places in Kapaa, and while I didn’t do a price survey, the one I used, the Kapaa Beach Shop (which is just yards away from the path on the northern edge of town), charged a very reasonable $10 for the entire day. The not as good news, though hardly bad news, is that the bikes rented by all establishments seem to be clunky three-speeds. If you’re used to eighteen or so speeds as you whiz around paths connecting to the Golden Gate Bridge, as I am, it’s slow going. That’s not a big problem, though, as the path is pretty level with only very mild gradations, and you don’t really want to be going that fast with the ocean views on your right anyway. (Or going that fast considering there are a lot of tourists on bikes who might not be able to handle higher speeds too well.)

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Since it’s not that long, and not that much of a workout, I’ll consider actually walking the path (as many do, in part or whole) if I return. However you navigate it, there are periodic shaded shelters to lean your bike in, close to views like these:

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But as much as I hike and bike at home, I have to say you should prioritize swimming and snorkeling if you’re coming all this way. (The Kapaa Beach Shop also rents snorkeling gear at very reasonable rates, and the friendly, straightforward staff did not, like the first place I used, try to sell me things I didn’t ask for and in which I wasn’t interested.) Ke’e Beach, photographed below, and Tunnels Beach, which is only a mile or so south (though again presenting parking challenges), are the most highly recommended spots:

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There’s other stuff to do and see in Kauai besides outdoor exercise, though I’d do that as breaks between the ocean. Here are a few:

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

Talk Story in Hanapepe, "The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States" (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Talk Story in Hanapepe, “The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States” (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Biking and Hiking in Reno

Time was when Reno, Nevada was known — like Las Vegas and the entire state of Nevada — for its casinos. A town where, as Richard & Mimi Fariña sang in their song “Reno, Nevada” (done better by Fairport Convention a few years later on the BBC and on French television), “The odds have been doubled, and it ain’t worth the trouble/And you’re never going nowhere at all.” And to look outside my hotel when I visited in late April, you’d think that nothing had changed.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

Yet these days Reno, Nevada is a lot more than a casino city. In fact, you could easily visit, as I recently did, and not come across casino culture at all, most of it being contained within about three or four square blocks. Reno’s also a fairly liberal place where biking, hiking, and outdoor activities in general thrive, as does a decent arts scene.

Reno’s not too big, and it’s just a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to the Huffaker Park and Mountain Trail. No, these are not going to challenge the vistas and greenery of the many fine parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home base. On the other hand, it’s nice to walk around for an hour or so on a weekday morning, as I did, and come across no more than a couple other people. The trail’s narrow and rocky, but gives you some good looks at Reno’s compact downtown and the surrounding area, though the solitude’s sometimes interrupted by the sound of airplanes landing at the nearby airport:

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

If you want to get some biking miles in (I do) and don’t care to do some rugged mountain trails (I don’t), the flat and mostly well-paved Truckee River Bike Trail runs twelve miles, and can easily be picked up bang in the middle of downtown:

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

The best views are on the four miles or so that run west of downtown, passing through some of Reno’s well-to-do neighborhoods, including some small well-kept parks:

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

The eight miles east of town are a little rougher, both in physical character, as the paths are sometimes gravelly, and in physical appearance, often running right alongside industrial parks and trailer parks just to the north. There’s also a tent city of transients a mile or two to the east of downtown, near the Grand Resort and Casino skyscraper:

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You wouldn’t guess that there are run-of-the-mill (to put it gently) industrial/trailer parks on the other side of this trail from some of the views of the south side:

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Though the trail does come to an inglorious halt at its eastern end, butting right up against a highway and railroad tracks:

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If you’re looking to watch sports as well as engage in them, Reno is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ AAA team. The stadium’s just a couple blocks walk from downtown, and $20 gets you a ticket eight rows back of the dugout. It looked like a good place to see a game, but I didn’t actually see a game here, though I had that ticket, as it got rained out:

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Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.