PAUL'S PICKS: B-day by the Bay

Editor's Note: This article is part of a new series by writer-photographer Paul Ross featuring field-tested reviews of places, products and services that enhance the travel experience. All are evaluated honestly. If something is just bad, he won’t write about it. If it's really bad, or darn right dangerous, he will warn you. 

Story and photos by Paul Ross

This year I decided to celebrate my birthday early in San Francisco. 

As an AARP-certified senior, it’s years since I’ve been festive about my natal day and even longer since I’ve visited “Baghdad-by-the-bay” (coined in the 1940’s by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen). Growing up in Southern California, I osmotically acquired a slight sense of residual rivalry toward Frisco. We had sun, surf, sand, and they had fog, cold, and business. As an adult, I figured it was time to explore what many locals call “the City” had to offer.

The Golden Gate Bridge. (The only ways to get this particular view are swim, jump or take a bay cruise. I recommend the last.)


I decided to start out with a Bay Area classic: the venerated Mark Hopkins hotel atop elegant Nob Hill via cable-car-carrying California Street. The hotel features a museum of the hotel’s colorful history from its Victorian era founding through its heyday housing of celebrity guests; their favorite watering hole was the Top of the Mark with its almost 360 degree view.

I was fascinated by nostalgia-laced mementos and exhibits, like a video interview with a nonagenarian who was once a nude model and photos of the big bands that had played there. “The City” preserves her majesty in ornate buildings and cable cars, one of which I rode down to Chinatown, while vowing to hike back up the really steep slope to work off Sum of my Dim dumplings. 

When, on a family vacation, I first went to Chinatown as a kid, my grandfather took us all to a restaurant frequented by Danny Kaye, so of course I had a yen to go back. Located on heavily touristic Grant Avenue, the food is so tired that it could’ve been leftovers from Kaye’s days. But when I walked a few blocks from Grant to Jackson Street, I discovered Z & Y, which, despite its bland name, featured hot and spicy Szechuan delights I never dreamed of as an L.A. boy. Z&Y is on the same block as the P&R and the ABC restaurants and is as easy to find as 1,2,3.

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Portugal: Pack Your Appetite

by Ellen Barone

[this is the final article in our SPOTLIGHT ON PORTUGAL series this week... ]

When the only vices of a place involve food and wine, booking a flight is a no-brainer according to my travel rules. Throw in sandy beaches, cultural riches, mild climate, a lost-in-time pace of life, and an inexpensive cost of living, and you won me over, Portugal.

On a recent visit to the northern wine country, I spent four delicious days table-hopping from hearty lunches, rustic meals featuring unpretentious fare and artisanal feasts prepared by innovative young chefs who bring a creative flare to traditional specialties. Each meal was paired with the region’s fresh, light, aromatic wines known collectively as Vinho Verdes.

In Porto, the Confeitaria do Bolháo (Rua Formosa 339) proves it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. I’d wandered into the café for an espresso and to sit out an afternoon rain shower. But I quickly upgraded my order to the meal of choice among the elderly patrons in wool caps and sturdy shoes who packed the place. “Yes, it’s fantastic”, said the waiter, when I asked to have what the couple at the table beside me were so obviously enjoying – a plentiful plate of crispy sardines, crusty bread, a delicious stew of red beans and rice and a carafe of robust red wine. Total bill: 7-euros. Nice.


A perfect example of the region’s rustic fare is Restaurante Páteo das Figueiras (Rua do Além 257), a homey establishment near Braga which serves exquisite local cuisine family-style in a simple and cozy room. The caldierada, a stew consisting of a variety of fish and shellfish with potatoes, tomato and onion, scooped up with a garlicky bread, was delicious.

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The Spirit and Spirits of Portugal

by Judith Fein

[more from our SPOTLIGHT ON PORTUGAL series this week... ]

photo by erin-thérèse via flickr (common license)Do you believe in miracles? How else can you account for what happened in a field in central Portugal on May 13, 1917, when three shepherd children saw a vision of the Virgin Mary? Purportedly, she told the awe-struck kids that she would appear at the same spot on the l3th of the five following consecutive months. According to believers, up to 70,000 witnesses beheld a miraculous apparition on the 13th day of the last month. Go to Fatima yourself to see if you are uplifted, transported, or merely interested. It’s about one and a half hours from Lisbon by train. The three children are buried in the sanctuary, and in one outdoor area the faithful light long beeswax candles that intertwine as they melt and carry prayers to heaven. Be sure to visit the museum, where Marians from around the world—including Pope John Paul—have left objects that are precious and significant to them.  The latter even donated the bullet that was used by the man who tried to assassinate him. He believed that the Virgin of Fatima saved him.

Perhaps, while you’re in Portugal, you’ll want to find out about the secret Jews in the mountains of central Portugal who were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition.  After half a millennium of hiding their identity, they finally came out. In Belmonte, where a museum tells the story and shows the artifacts, you’ll be swept into a world where people clung to their religion in the face of great danger and, in the end, faith triumphed over oppression. There is also a synagogue, and you may be fortunate enough to meet some of the Belmonte Jews. When they decided to publicly claim their heritage and faith—about twenty years ago-- the story captivated people round the world, and now Belmonte is one of the top stops in the region for visitors of all religions.

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Portuguese Royalty and My American Family


[more from our SPOTLIGHT ON PORTUGAL series this week... ]

When I was a little boy, stories were told around the fireplace about ancestors who were Barons to the monarchy in Portugal and high magistrates to the Tudor monarchy. I always found this exciting and special.  I was also a bit skeptical as there were no documents to this effect --only antique photos that could have been gathered at any antique store. Over the years, I made some cursory searches on the web and obtained information about my father and his parents' origin, but nothing was certain, and I had a fair amount of doubt because we are a family known for telling good yarns or, to put it more bluntly, having a proclivity for embellishment. 

Night in Porto

In September 2009, I decided to do further research on the Portuguese family story to determine where legend and fact intersected. I contacted the Portuguese diplomatic office in Providence, RI and was directed to the Portuguese Consulate in New York. After explaining my intent, I began to correspond with the most important contributor to this story, Miguel Carvalho. He was enthusiastic about my personal Portuguese project and we began to work with the scant information I had-- the surname Soares, the City of Porto and the legend of a family connection to the wine trade. Soon afterwards, I received an email from a history professor from Porto named Gaspar Pereira. He was generous with his research finding that, in 1780, there was a business concern called Soares & Irmao (brother) LLC, and that the business was comprised of two brothers-- Jacquin Manoel Soares and Jose Henrique Soares. Jose Henrique Soares was awarded peerage as the Baron of Ancede by Queen Maria II da Gloria in 1842.  

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Portugal In Pictures

by Paul Ross

[more from our SPOTLIGHT ON PORTUGAL series this week... ]

Discover Portugal with writer/photographer Paul Ross. Taste the wine. See the sites. Meet the people. Experience the history. (All virtual, of course) It's the next best thing to being there!

Click the play button to begin viewing.

Video may take time to buffer. Please be patient, it's worth it!


 Paul Ross is a Santa Fe-based photographer and writer. See more of his work at

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from the editors of

As professional travelers, we spend much of our time on the road. We go near. We go far. We go very very far. And sometimes we fall in love with a country and want to go back again and again. Our latest serious crush is on Portugal. We're recently back from our third trip.

Nowhere we visited was overrun with tourists.There wasn’t price gouging. For four or five Euros you can get a superlative bottle of wine.The landscape was serene, dramatic and colorful. People were extremely hospitable, open, savvy, modest and friendly.The food was fresh, varied and excellent.

There are mountains, rivers, lagoons, cities, villages, galleries, vineyards, museums, palaces, forests, ecoresorts, petroglyphs,  wine tastings, monasteries, Catholic pilgrimage sites, secret Jews who have been in hiding since the Inquisition. Authentic antiquity exists side-by-side with drop-dead-gorgeous design. History shimmers all around you, and you can still hear the whispers of explorers, navigators, scientists and artists who are long gone. There is a site where you can walk the path of an initiate in an ancient mystery school, medieval art where the subjects are so real you think they will pop off the canvas and speak to you, puppet shows, world-class theatre, narrow warrens of streets in old quarters, riverside and Oceanside walks, trendy bars and restaurants, star chefs, kids in costumes for parades and religious observances, students who wear black capes, high fashion, low hype, and the sense of discovery.

In the first of a new SPOTLIGHT ON series, we're turning the spotlight on this delightful country. For the next few days we will feature a series of articles about some very cool places to eat and drink, stay, visit and explore, focusing our lens on the “undiscovered” nature of the country.

It is our Portugal. You can make it your Portugal.

We like Portugal so much that we are even contemplating taking people on a historical, hysterical, experiential, soulful, mystical, soothing and very special trip to the little-known side of Portugal next year on an exclusive YOURLIFEISATRIP adventure. If you are interested, shoot us an email  or let us know by posting a comment below.  Life IS a trip, and maybe we’ll see you in Portugal. 

Stay tuned for more...

Judie and Ellen

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