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Friday, March 30, 2012

Saratoga, CA: From elegant European to rustic Americana

This month's photo tour features Saratoga, CA. While one of the most affluent areas in the Bay Area, anyone can afford to spend a day in Saratoga shopping, dining, wine tasting or enjoying a concert. My photo adventure buddy Carl Mindling and I visited four locations that are great for a day of Northern California tourism and for weddings and special events. We also had a delicious lunch. I'll be writing about the tourist aspect of each location and Carl blogged about how, from informal to elegant, each location is also ideal for hosting weddings. His post includes really beautiful wedding photos, taken by local photographers, from each venue.

We visited a range of venues beginning at the very European Montalvo Arts Center, had lunch at the Bell Tower Bistro, moved on to the zen Japanese gardens at Hakone Gardens, visited The Mountain Winery and concluded our day at the Saratoga Springs camp and picnic grounds. The sky was a dreary grey most of the day but we were happy enough because at least it wasn't raining.

I've written about the Montalvo Arts Center and Villa Montalvo on several occasions in the past. As you drive down Highway 9 just west of downtown Los Gatos you'll see a sign and a pair of stone griffins on the south side of the HWY. Driving between them on Montalvo Road you'll meander through a neighborhood of beautiful homes and estates. You'll pass through a second pair of stone griffins before you turn onto Piedmont Road as you enter the private drive to the Montalvo Arts Center. The centerpiece of the 175 acre property is the gorgeous Mediterranean-styled Historic Villa built in 1912.

There is no charge to tour the grounds or walk the hiking trails on your own. Two hour long docent led tours of the Villa and grounds are available. Reservations must be made ahead. The walking tours are free to members and their guests. Cost to non-members is $10 per person.

The Carriage House theater often hosts performances of many different styles. I once saw Tibeten monks there singing and chanting. It was a really cool cultural experience. There's also a small art gallery called the Project Space Gallery that features contemporary art by current and former artists in residence. The gallery is open Thursday through Sunday from 11:00 AM - 3:00 PM.

Parking is free when no events are taking place. If you're going to visit the grounds or take a hike you'll want to park in lots 3 or 4 to the left of the Villa. If you're attending a concert or event there are a limited number of paid parking passes available as well as an offsite lot that offers free parking and shuttle rides directly to the Villa.

For weddings many couples use the Oval Garden for their ceremony site and the Spanish Courtyard for their cocktail hours. The ballroom inside the Villa is used for formal receptions.

The Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre

Behind the Villa is the outdoor amphitheater. Last year I saw Pete and Sheila Escovedo along with the rest of the "E Family" in concert there. It was the first concert I've attended at Montalvo. It was fantastic. Such a lovely location and we had front row seats. The sculpture pictured above is nestled back at the top of the seating section. It's so different from most concert venues. Once the acts have been announced for the current season you can check them out online by CLICKING HERE.

We even saw one lone banana slug on one of the hiking trails.

Just west of the seating area is an aged stone staircase that leads up into the trees. This is "The Poet's walk" one of the entrances that leads to 2.5 miles of hiking trails, open to the public, behind the villa. Click here to view a map of the trails on the Montalvo Arts website.

The Love Temple and Italianate Garden

After the hiking trail we walked along the Great Lawn in front of the Villa to the Italianate Garden. According to Webster's dictionary Italianate means: Italian in quality or style. Italianate gardens were first developed during the mid to latter part of the 1500's. The gardens would typically include architectural elements as well as sculptures and sometimes water elements. They would often be divided into sections of use. In Montalvo's Italianate Garden the Love Temple is a standing structure with a water feature sculptural element housed within. There is also a seating section of benches partway down the main walkway and to the left of the walkway this beautiful sculpture:

A statue of Adam and Eve. How do I know this is Adam and Eve? Because when I looked behind them I saw this: CLICK HERE.

There are also many other modern sculptural projects displayed around the grounds so if you go visit the Villa be sure to take a peek at their current list so you can get a jump on which pieces you'd like to see while you're there.

The Bell Tower Bistro and Patisserie

After all of that walking we were hungry! I'd read about the Bell Tower online and because it's not on the more well known stretch of Big Basin Way, the heart of Saratoga Village, I wanted to give it a try. Plus its name includes two of my favorite words: Bistro and Patisserie. LOL

As it turned out every location we visited that day has a history that dates back to the 1800's or early 1900's and the Bell Tower was no exception. Built in 1895 the building was first used as a Methodist Episcopal Church in1896. The property also served as a Red Cross facility during World War I, as the city's Town Hall and was once a school. In 1924 the church became an art gallery and was later used as a bridal salon. The Bell Tower restaurant opened in 2010 and I'm surprised it took me until 2012 to discover it!

Since Pure closed in Campbell last year this is my new favorite Panini. 

The Roasted Red Pepper Panini: Roasted red bell pepper, caramelized onions, gruyere cheese and pesto

The Veggie Burger was fantastic!

The Veggie Burger: A house made patty on a sesame seed bun served with butter lettuce a tomato slice, red onion rings, crunchy pickles and house made potato chips fried fresh each morning.

My Delicious Soy Mocha

Go up the driveway when you see this sign

Onward to Hakone Gardens. Not only is this my favorite Japanese garden I've ever been to, it's also the oldest Japanese garden in the western hemisphere established in 1915. You may recall I've blogged about it in the past.

It's located on Big Basin Way just west of the downtown shopping district. The driveway and sign appear rather quickly as you follow the curving road so don't speed or you'll roll right past it and have to double back. It will be on your left very shortly after passing downtown. If you make it to The Mountain Winery you've gone too far. I did the on my first two visits.

There is a nominal fee to visit the garden but parking and visiting the gift shop there is free. You purchase tokens at the gift shop at the entrance of the parking lot. Once inside you have access to several areas. This is the main entry. I love how the open entrance way creates a framed picture that you pass through.

Once you step through the entryway there is a koi and turtle filled pond and a moon viewing house that faces east perched on the hillside overlooking the pond. In March the flowering cherry trees are blooming. They're so lovely!

Hoping for food the large and colorful koi will flock towards the edge of the pond as you approach creating a great photo op! Along the south end of the pond is a foot path that leads you to a small waterfall. There is also a short hiking trail that cuts up into the hillside and a path that leads to bamboo gardens (at the top of the parking lot) that also create great backdrops for touristy photos. Be sure to walk up to them from inside the park. Access is restricted once you exit. Next month I plan to return to see the wisteria arbor in bloom just below and behind the moon viewing house.

This is my favorite photo I took that day. I don't know if that pudgy little bird is a sparrow, finch or chikadee but it made for a beautiful image sitting atop the pink, blooming, weeping, cherry blossom branches.

Hobby and tourist photography is allowed at no charge. A permit and fee is required for professional or commercial photography.

It is so peaceful and serene I could easily spend a couple of hours here each time I visit.

Left: March after a storm - Right: During the month of June

A Tourist Tip: If the weather has been particularly stormy the pond may be clouded with mud. When we went last March it was after a storm and the pond looked like a mocha coffee drink with fish swimming in it. By contrast during a visit in June the water was pretty clear but very green from algae.

Our next stop is two things: An internationally renowned winery and my favorite concert venue in the Bay Area. The Mountain Winey was formerly known as the Paul Masson Mountain Winery. I've blogged about it once before. It's just down the road from Hakone Gardens on Big Basin Way. It also kind of sneaks up on you so when you see the sign above immediately turn north onto Pierce Road.

If you're a Paul Masson fan there are many wonderful, touristy, photo ops here. The rolling vineyards, large oak barrels scattered around the property (both on your walk in and around the amphitheater), sweeping views of Silicon Valley and pieces of history like The Chateau all make perfect backdrops for photos.

The Chateau, built in 1905, sits atop the property with an amazing view of Silicon Valley below. After purchasing the property in 1901 Masson used this location to produce his sparkling champagne. According to the the Mountain Winery website:

"The prestigious Paris Award, which he won at the Paris Expo of 1900, did not go unnoticed by the French press. Suddenly the whole world knew about Paul Masson Champagne of California."

In the mid 1950's the winery stopped producing wine and in 1958 hosted its first summer concert series. The series has endured to this day with world class musicians performing at the winery each year. The first concert I saw there was Willie Nelson back in the late 80's. As I can best recall, the seating was long wooden bleachers and the ground was dirt. With recent upgrades the current amphitheater is an absolute gem. The South Bay is very fortunate to have The Mountain Winery summer concert series right here in our own backyard.

Some of my favorite shows I've seen there were Styx, INXS and Don Henley. Some, not all, performers allow photography during their shows. The only restriction is that your camera has to be either a phone or point and shoot camera. Detachable lens cameras are not allowed. These photos were all taken with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 point and shoot.

Backstage with INXS at the Mountain Winery: The Original Sin Tour, 2011

If you've never been to a concert there I highly recommend going to one. The space is so beautiful and intimate with the stage literally a stones throw (well, if you have a good throwing arm) from wherever you're sitting. Three course dinner packages are available as are light meals, snacks and beverages including wine and beer at the concession stands. Car poolers are rewarded with a discounted event parking rate so try to drive up with at least three people in your car and go early so you can enjoy a glass of wine and the views of the valley before taking your seat.

This is a favorite photo backdrop for tourists who visit The Mountain Winery.

There are multiple locations to have a wedding, party or corporate event including the Historic Winery Building, and Chateau, Winery and Vista "Decks." Wine tastings are offered in the lower level of the Historic Winery Building Thursday-Sunday.

Last year we took out of town guests for a tasting. That's them in the bottom left with bartender and site historian Jesse Montegnegro 

The tasting room has a comfortable, rustic, swanky feel. Chatting with bartender Jesse Montenegro we learned there is more history to the winery than I'd ever imagined. As he began telling us stories about the origins of the portal you see center stage during concerts, photos by Ansel Adams in the tasting room, and more, I realized there is far too much history to properly share in this post so I'm planning to revisit the winery again just to hear more of Jesse's stories.

Our final stop was Saratoga Springs, just a bit further down Big Basin Way

One of the things I really loved about this day was that every location was so different beginning with the very formal Mediterranean villa, moving to a Japanese garden, followed by a French chateau-winery-concert venue and ending at Saratoga Springs, a location that has specialized in picnic-style gatherings for over 150 years. While not a tourists destination per say it is a place for travelers and party goers.

There'e an RV park, tents, a small General Store and two creeks, Booker and Saratoga, that run through and around the property. For the most part the space is used for organized small and large gatherings as the picnic areas must be reserved in advance. All picnic food is provided through the venue.

I once attended a large corporate picnic at Longbridge picnic area.

It was great fun and there was a plentiful supply of BBQ meats and salads. I had fruit salad, Cesar salad, potato salad and pasta salad. This is definitely a family friendly venue where kids can be kids and adults can act like kids too!

In or around the seven picnic areas there are many activities that can be provided for events including; volleyball, swimming, bocce ball, inflatable jump houses, an inflatable obstacle course, basketball, kids swings and a slide, a dunk tank.

This wall is a remanent of the original William Campbell Sawmill

Just across from the General Store is a piece of history. The plaque says:

"Built 1848
This water powered mill marked the beginning of the lumber industry in these
mountains that led to the founding of the village that became Saratoga."

This is all that remains. While reading more about the history of Saratoga online it was funny to learn that back in the 1800's town lots in sold for between $10 and $50 and farming land sold for between $10 to $40 per acre. Now? My guess is you can't get an acre of land there for less than a million dollars. Can you even imagine?

If you follow our route you'll drive smack through "The Village." Saratoga's historic downtown shopping district is full of restaurants, shops, beauty salons and the Preston Wynn Day Spa. Restaurants I would visit again include La Fondue, Masu Japanese BistroThe Basin and the Blue Rock Shoot coffee house. A restaurant on my list to try is Mint Leaf Cuisine, which offers an asian fusion menu.

So if  you've never been to Saratoga and live in the Bay Area a day trip might be in order! If you have out of town guests Saratoga is a great place to take them to spend a relaxing day especially if you can attend a concert that same evening at The Mountain Winery or Villa Montalvo. I've always loved Saratoga though I must admit I've always saved it for visitors. This year I think I'll be spending more time there for my own enjoyment and think you should too :)

Here is the route we took that day:

Villa Montalvo
15400 Montalvo Road
Saratoga, CA 95070

Hakone Estate and Gardens
21000 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070

Bell Tower Bistro
2490 Saratoga-Los Gatos Road
Saratoga, CA 95070

The Mountain Winery
14831 Pierce Road
Saratoga, CA 95070

Saratoga Springs
22801 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070

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