Sarah Amador

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To Save A Thousand Souls

Posted by Sarah Amador on October 22, 2018 at 6:55 PM Comments comments (39)

(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit http

By Sarah Amador

On Sunday night, October 8, 2017, a fire ignited in northwest Napa County near the town of Calistoga. Spurred by 30 mph winds, the Tubbs Fire quickly spun out of control. It raged across the foothills of Sonoma County, destroying vineyards, homes, ranches and at least one retreat center. Traveling three miles per hour, it soon headed directly for Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve—home to cheetahs, rhinoceroses, giraffes, buffalo, antelope, zebras, flamingos and 80 other species. This fire would become the most destructive in all of California history, destroying more than 5,600 structures.

Faced with the incoming inferno, Safari West owner Peter Lang knew he had no choice but to stay and fight for his animals’ lives.

“I’ve got a thousand souls I’m responsible for,” Lang said. He knew that without help, the animals would not be able to escape the flames. And it was because of him that these animals were there in the first place.

At around 10:00 pm, Lang and his wife Nancy were awakened by a call from his ranch manager. A wildfire was headed their way. Safari West and the surrounding area were under mandatory evacuation.

“They woke us up,” Lang said. “The sky was orange.”

According to Lang, the ranch manager didn’t think the Langs really understood how close and dangerous the fire was. He drove up one mile to the their ranch, urging them to leave immediately. Peter and Nancy only had minutes to gather important paperwork. Nancy grabbed their passports and a few other documents. (Later, she would realize that she had only taken Peter’s and their son’s passports.) There wasn’t any time to pack clothes, save collectibles of a lifetime of world traveling, their keepsakes or art, their history. They jumped in the truck and drove a mile down from their home to Safari West, without even a change of clothes.

“My wife left her purse,” Lang said. “And you know how ladies are with their purses.”

When Lang and Nancy arrived, sheriff deputies were ordering the staff to leave. Guests who had been staying the night—“glamping” in the preserve’s luxurious tents—had been evacuated to another hotel in Santa Rosa. Keepers had released the birds that could be released, such as the three southern ground horn bills. The flamingos and crested screamers were given access to a larger enclosure. Lang’s wife Nancy had climbed in one of the vehicles, and was waiting for him.

The fire was bearing down, nearly there. Winds had increased, driving the fire horizontally, moving so fast that the tops of the trees were still green. Everything else in the path of the firestorm turned black. In the neighborhood, heat from the fire was so hot it was twisting and burning the metal of the cars that had been left behind. Winds increased to 40 mph. Top wind speed during the firestorm was recorded at 70 mph, close to hurricane strength.

But Lang couldn’t leave. If left alone, the animals would be trapped in their enclosures, and would burn alive.

His Story.

All his life, Peter Lang has cared for animals. All his life, he’s protected them. He feels we have a responsibility to wildlife, because we are often the reason they are in the straits in which they find themselves.

As a child, he interacted with wild animals on his father’s TV show sets, with dolphins in Flipper and Judy the Chimp in Daktari. When he was a boy, he helped raise lion cubs during his summer vacations. When he was a young man and owned a cattle ranch in Beverly Hills, he nursed an injured red-tailed hawk back to health.

This is his passion, caring for animals. This is why he opened the 400-acre wildlife preserve Safari West in 1993, seven miles from downtown Santa Rosa in the foothills of Wine Country. Often referred to as the Sonoma Serengeti, Safari West is also a zoo, accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. More than ever, zoos play an important role in conservation, raising awareness and providing children with their first experience of wildlife.

Soon after Safari West was established, Lang and wife Nancy (a raptor specialist and previous curator at the San Francisco Zoo) created the Safari West Wildlife Foundation. The foundation supports the breeding of critically endangered animals, with the goal of introducing them back into the wild. The preserve has known conservation success, such as the breeding of critically endangered dama gazelle and the scimitar-horned oryx. These oryx were successfully introduced back into the wild in Chad. The foundation has raised over a hundred thousand dollars towards conservation in the United States and abroad. Additionally, the foundation funds grants for school field trips.

Safari West also serves as a breeding facility. Nearly 40 giraffes have been born there! Almost every day, there is a birth at Safari West. Just a month and a half before the Tubbs Fire, the 37th giraffe was born. Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, she was named Onya. In Swahilli, this means “the blazing.”

The name was chosen because of the calf’s spirit and energy. In fact, it took the concentrated efforts of Hoofstock Supervisor Erika Middlemen, Keeper Katie, and Small Mammal, Bird and Carnivore Supervisor Jen Bates to assist mother Jamala in the birthing process and create enough weight to pull Onya out. If not for them, little Onya may not have survived. Fortunately, Baby Onya had enough spirit to persevere a difficult birth. (To watch Onya’s spectacular birth, click on the video below)

The Hoodie.

Instead of climbing in a car and evacuating the property, Lang slipped away and headed back into the preserve. He picked up a garden hose and began to douse embers that had fallen and were igniting the dry grass. His employees and his wife left, thinking he had gone ahead in another car.

The winds continued to rage, causing torched trees to spew more embers. These embers, or firebrands, ignited the dry grass in the animals’ free range enclosures. Lang started dousing small fires immediately. If one branch or one patch of dried grass caught on fire, it could start a fire that he might not be able to put out.

“You don’t have time to sit and worry,” he said. He just kept doing one task after another. That’s when he realized he was very much alone. Well, him, and a thousand animals. The moon was up, and bright. The sky was red. The air was thick with smoke. In the next few hours, he would defy one of the biggest infernos in California history.

He drove around Safari West, driving the truck over spot fires. He spotted flames racing down a slope and toward him, so he got out and stomped out flames with his boots.

“Sometimes adventure gets in your way,” Lang says. “I was lucky. Very lucky.”

It was getting really hot. Lang grabbed a hoodie that one of his employees had left and put it on. He doused the hoodie and his jeans with water. He continued dousing hot spots. He added more and more hoses as extensions to the one garden hose in his hand.

He kept his hoodie on, keeping his head and arms covered. He had to use the hose to douse himself again and again, to avoid being burned. Every 15 minutes, his hoodie would be completely dry. Then he’d have to douse his clothes and hoodie again.

“Thank God for that hoodie,” Lang said. “I never wear hoodies.”

The Animals.

In the barn, Baby Onya was huddling with the other baby giraffes and her mother. All the giraffes had retreated to the barn. In the free range and multi-species enclosures, animals were staying in clusters and moving off to the side when small fires began.

Later, Middlemen commented on the animals’ behavior. “They know what to do. They are incredibly resilient. They know how to handle the emergencies.”

The cheetahs had also retreated to the back of their barn, even as the perimeter of their enclosure burned. Flames were climbing up the side of the cheetah barn. Lang knew he had to put out that fire. He began to drag the chain of hoses, and wondered why it was so hard to move them. It was then he realized he had connected 10 hoses together, and was dragging around 400 pounds.

But he was determined. He was able to put out the cheetah enclosure fire, and continued to work furiously—sometimes the only thing that separated the rhinos, hyenas and other animals from an encroaching fire was a small stream of water from his garden hose.

“I was busy, busy,” Lang said. He didn’t have time to reflect or think; he just had to work hard and work fast.

At one point, the winds died down. But still the fire was creeping close. Dense smoke enveloped the pens and other buildings

Bad Ass Coffee.

In the meantime, Nancy Lang and the evacuated Safari West employees had driven to Bad Ass Coffee in Larkfield, Santa Rosa, right on the border of the evacuation zone. It was 13 miles away. It was considered safe.

The employees regrouped, and that’s when Nancy Lang realized Peter wasn’t there. The two had been married for a long time, for 24 years, living at Safari West with the animals they love. Their romance began when they met in Africa on a safari. Understandably, Nancy was beside herself with worry. According to Safari West’s spokeswoman Aphrodite Caserta, Nancy tried to hire a helicopter, just so she could get back to Peter. Luckily, soon they received a text from Peter, saying he was okay.

But then Peter’s cell phone battery ran out. He wasn’t able to communicate any more. And then, almost without warning, a wall of fire rushed toward the coffee shop, less than a mile away. The air was so thick it was hard to breathe. Firefighters told them they had to evacuate immediately, again.

Caserta recounts how devastating it was for Nancy, having lost contact with Peter and then to be pushed even further away. She was so close to him, just miles from Safari West, but she couldn’t get back to help him.

In just a few hours, the wildfire had traveled 12 miles.

“Peter stayed behind,” Caserta recounted. “He felt he needed to. It was his responsibility. He still feels that way.”

Before sunrise the next morning, the firestorm would obliterate Santa Rosa’s historic Round Barn, along with hundreds of homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood. K-Mart and the private school Redwood Adventist Academy were burned to the ground. The mobile home park “Journey’s End” in Santa Rosa was engulfed in flames and reduced to rubble. The fire advanced so fast that patients at Kaiser Permanente Hospital and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital had to be evacuated. At Kaiser, staff had to wheel patients down the road to escape. Some patients were in wheelchairs; some were still in their beds, still attached to intravenous drips. More than 200 Kaiser employees lost their homes.

And nearly all the homes—north, south, east and west of Safari West—were burned to the ground, only chimneys left standing.

The Nyala Antelope.

Meanwhile, Lang continued to work hard, driving around the preserve in the golf cart, double-checking areas. Then he would go back to arming himself with the hose, and put out any fires that ignited.

He saw his neighbor’s house catch fire, but there wasn’t anything he could do. Several Safari west vehicles burned, but he decided that saving the animals was more important. Tour buses were replaceable; souls were not. The vehicles and trailers melted in the fire, charred black and shriveled as if a huge hand had crushed them. The osteology bone lab burned. The wildfire came to the perimeter of the safari tents, but didn’t burn them.

On one of his rounds, he discovered that a grass fire had started in the Nyala enclosure. A group of spiral-horned antelope were trapped in the corner. However, the only access to get to them quickly would be to scale an eight-foot smooth wooden fence. Lang is tall, but at 76 years old, he is no longer a young man. Even so, he managed to climb that fence.

A ring of fire was nearly surrounding the antelope, as they were pushed up into a corner of their enclosure. However, once inside, he was able to coax the animals to jump over the flames to safety. 

According to Middlemen, the animals would not have jumped over fire for just anyone. “You’ve got to have a relationship with them,” she said. “That’s what the antelope did, for Peter Lang. We were lucky it was him, he has such an incredible amount of knowledge; he knew what to do.”

Instead of some enclosures which are multi-species, these antelope were the only animals in the large enclosure. That meant that there was a lot more dry grass that hadn’t been eaten, which meant more fires could ignite. After he coaxed the antelope over the flames, he put the fire out. Then he had to climb that fence again.

Late that night, the fire surged forward. Lang continued using the long string of garden hoses, aiming streams at fires that threatened rhinos, hyenas, zebras and more. 

“I had a lot of luck,” Lang repeated. A stream of garden hose shouldn’t have been able to put out the fire. But it did.


His Home.

When his own home went up in flames, he could see it. A lifetime of collectibles and artwork he had created literally went up in smoke. He had planned to donate them to a museum—now there was nothing. A lifetime of traveling the world—gone. Everything he’d ever owned. And still, he never left his animals. 

The night was bright with the light of the fire and the full moon, and Lang continued to work alone. He didn’t know it, but Google My Maps would show that Safari West was nearly encircled by the inferno. Without Lang’s efforts, the entire preserve would have gone up in flames. Most likely, all the animals would have perished.

Day 2—Employees Return to Safari West.

Early Monday morning, day two of the Tubbs Fire, Nancy Lang and Safari West’s executive director Keo Hornbostel met at Sutter Hospital’s parking lot. Hornbostel had arranged a caravan to attempt the trek back to the preserve. Safari West employees who worked with the animals and in maintenance also met him there.

The California Highway Patrol drove the group directly to Safari West. The caravan made its way through what looked like a war-torn country, downed wires, rubble where homes had stood just the night before, blackened and melted cars, blackened forests, yellow skies. By the time his wife and employees returned to the preserve, Lang had worked alone for 10 hours, from 10:30 p.m. to around 8:30 a.m.

Nancy and the staff were ecstatic to discover a healthy Peter Lang—who was happy to see them, and very tired. The staff was overjoyed to find that every single animal was safe—bird, mammal and reptile. Not one animal was lost.

When the employees and Nancy Lang returned to Safari West, Caserta was sure that she would hear the news that her house—situated near Safari West—had burned to the ground. But Nancy Lang told her surprising news. Her home was fine.

“No, it can’t be!” Caserta had exclaimed. But thankfully, it was.

However, not all employees were so fortunate. Almost all were impacted by the fire. Many lost their homes. (A GoFundMe recovery fund was able to raise over $55,000 for the employees who had lost their homes.) It was then that Peter Lang learned that three barns were gone. It was confirmed that his home—and everything in it—was entirely burned to the ground.

Peter Lang joined with his employees to save two homes in the vicinity. A neighbor came up to them, telling them that he had a fire engine, but not enough help. The back of his house was burning.

“Embers had ignited,” Lang recounted. “Our veterinarian and his son drove the fire engine. Our employees helped.”

Also on Monday, keepers were able to tend to all the animals. According to Middlemen, for the most part the animals had stayed put where they were. Surprisingly, most animals did not appear to show many negative effects. Talking with the other keepers on the property, it was confirmed.

However, Middlemen added, “Our hand-raised animals were more needy than usual.”

“You just move forward,” Guide Manager and Safety Officer Leslie Thalman said. “It was a real show of solidarity, around 10 employees who returned to help.”

“There was lots of rebuilding,” Middlemen said.

The employees began the very long process of clearing fallen branches and debris, as well as repairing what had been damaged in the fire. They continued to battle the fire by putting out any spot fires that ignited. The crew worked the whole day, bolstering defenses in case the fire surged again. There still wasn’t any phone service or electricity. They had to operate on generators—for three weeks!

“We had to prioritize where we needed the generators,” Middlemen said. “Some of the animals, like the tortoises, need light or else they won’t get the vitamins they ­need. Others needed heat.”

The next morning, Hornbostel met employees again at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital’s parking lot, to lead the caravan again back to Safari West. He continued to do this every morning, for two weeks.

Day 6—Employees Fight to Save Safari West.

By Friday, October 13, the Tubbs fire was still only 25 percent contained. All through the week, the employees and the Langs worked, combating winds that continued to carry embers, caring for the animals, and cleaning debris. Because of the smoke, the employees had to wear masks to protect their lungs.

During this time, another homecoming occurred. The birds that had been released flew back. According to Middlemen, the birds know their territory, that there is free food and no predators. They know that they given great care. “They came right back to the enclosure,” Middlemen reported. 

That day Lang also reached out to his long-time friend in Southern California, who was headed their way to help and stopping by Costco for supplies. It was then Lang asked him to do something for him and his wife, a request he never thought he’d have to ask a buddy to do. Lang was still dressed in the Levi’s and shirt he wore Sunday night, rushing away from his house. He asked his friend to buy him and Nancy a set of clothes, underwear too. His friend was happy to help—even though he said that was the first time he was asked to buy underwear for a friend’s wife.

Also on Friday, a baby Nile lechwe, an endangered species of aquatic antelope, was born. He was named Tubbs. However, soon it became apparent that the baby wasn’t doing well. Middlemen took the baby home for a while, and then the veterinarian took Tubbs home too. But still the antelope floundered. Four days later, Baby Tubbs died.

Conservation and support.

The preserve has had many successful births since the Tubbs Fire. At least three addax and four roan antelope babies have been born. They are doing well, and their moms are doing well too. For a look at a heart-warming video of Peter Lang talking about the firestorm, see below.

Safari West reopened for safari tours on November 20, 2017. As of March 1, 2018, it reopens for overnight lodging. Safari West was rated by AAA as a must experience location in California, second only to Disney Land! Sunset Magazine has listed it as one of the top 300 destinations in the western United States and proclaims it as “best luxury camping.”

Peter and Nancy Lang continue their messages of conservation, exploration and education. Every year, they refine their breeding programs and educational outreach. It is Safari West’s belief that the more children know about animals, the more they will appreciate and want animals to be around in the future.

On Safari West’s website, Lang was once quoted as saying, “By teaching conservation through education, we create awareness. If you leave here with only one realization ­­– that what we have on earth is perishable and we are what is making it perishable – that’s good enough for me.”

Want to support Safari West? Is there a holiday or someone’s special birthday coming up? Make a reservation to take a tour of the preserve or even spend the night. As of March 1, 2018, the gift store (full of stuffed animals, games, gift cards, jewelry and more) is open seven days a week from approximately 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. For reservations or more information, contact Safari West at 800-616-2695 or visit their website at

And of course, donations to the Safari West Wildlife Foundation are always welcome. For more information, visit

When asked about his experience, Lang doesn’t like to be referred to as a hero. However, according to Christopher Reeve’s definition of a hero, he is one.

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.

—Christopher Reeve

Up & Away in Sonoma County!

Posted by Sarah Amador on December 21, 2016 at 1:05 PM Comments comments (2)

(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit


By Sarah Amador

We’ve all seen them—those enormous colorful bubbles floating over Sonoma and Napa. If you’re like me, you’ve thought, what would it be like to float like that? What would it be like to be a bubble, just part of the air mass?

Last week I got to find out. My husband and I booked a flight with Up and Away Ballooning, and had the time of our life. What is it like? Imagine resting in your hammock, but up at 1,200 feet. Imagine floating underwater, remember that feeling of weightlessness, now take away the water, and put yourself way high up.


My husband and I left in the dark in order to meet our pilot and fellow adventurers at 5:30 a.m. in Healdsburg. For hot air ballooning, flights are scheduled early in order to cut down on wind. When the sun heats the ground, it creates wind. Hot air balloon pilots don’t like to take off in wind because it can create dangerous situations, such as the basket being dragged too quickly when trying to take off. We walked inside Healdsburg Shed Café and were welcomed by our pilot, Armand Oconnor. There was also delicious banana bread and coffee waiting. We chatted with our other adventurers; we were all very excited. We were about to take part in the oldest form of human flight! No one was taking motion sickness pills, since people don’t get airsick on hot air balloon flights. Passengers experience no sense of motion because the balloon moves at the same speed and direction as the wind.


“You’re part of the air mass,” our pilot Oconnor said. “You feel nothing except when you land.”


Oconnor experienced his first hot air balloon ride just seven years ago. He was hooked and went on to obtain his pilot’s license. After 1,000 hours piloting hot air balloons, he is expert in his field.


Soon it was time to go, and we climbed into the company’s van. Our destination was Sonoma County Airport. We arrived at sunrise. A crew was already there, setting up our basket. Sectioned in five compartments, the basket (or gondola) can take up to 16 passengers; there were 12 of us that day. The basket is made of rattan, reinforced with a huge cable weaved throughout it. The average hot air balloon has the ability to lift about 1,400 pounds, depending on the outside air temperature. The cooler it is outside, the more the balloon will lift. The heated air inside makes the envelope buoyant since it has a lower density than the cold air outside.

The crew released helium balloons to ascertain the wind direction and speed. We watched the two small balloons float up, up and away, and then disappear. The crew decided that the conditions were still good, and they continued flight preparations. Today we would be using 40 gallons of propane. We would be firing 45 million BTU’s (units of energy). We’ve come a long way from how the first flight was conducted in 1783. On that historic date in France, the Montgolfier brothers filled their basket with damp straw and manure, shredded wool, old shoes and spoiled meat. Then they set it on fire, doused the balloon with water so it wouldn’t catch fire, and watched it take off. Apparently, the soot also helped the fabric of the balloon hold in heat.


While we waited on the airstrip, the crew unfurled the balloon from the back of a moving truck. Next, three giant fans were brought out. It was time to inflate the balloon, or “envelope.” The average hot air balloon is 80 feet tall and at the widest point, 50 feet in diameter. It was spectacular to watch the enormous balloon fill with air and rise. Flames of propane were fired, and the balloon rose even more, until it was about eight stories tall.


Now the balloon was ready. Oconnor called us over, and we all quickly climbed in. Once we were inside the gondola and holding onto the hand grips, Oconnor gave a few blasts of flame into the center of the balloon, and the entire gondola gently lifted off the ground. And that was it. We began moving gently along the airfield, lifting higher and higher.

It was strange to be in an aircraft that the pilot isn’t able to steer.


“I can’t steer, but I can orient. I can change altitude,” Oconnor said, pulling on lines connected to valves in the balloon, opening and closing them in order to release hot air.


This helped him utilize the varying directions of wind. The average balloon flight covers about two miles distance at about five miles per hour. We floated above homes, vineyards and countryside. We rose to a total height of 1,200 feet. (The world record for altitude in a hot air balloon is 64,997 feet.)


That morning I saw Sonoma Valley as I’ve never seen it before. The valley floor spread out beneath us, the surrounding hills studded with trees and vineyards. Soon we saw the blue sparkling waters of Riverfront Regional Park. We saw a hawk, a couple of rabbits and a large buck. We watched our balloon shadow make its way across the golden fields. It was a good day to be in a balloon.


When it came time to land, I was grateful I did not live in a time when farmers rushed out with pitchforks and attacked the balloons. (This used to happen, as farmers thought the balloons were demonic!) Oconnor landed our balloon expertly although there was already seven miles per hour of wind. The balloon made contact with the earth with a bump. Then it was time to quickly climb out, before the wind moved the balloon again.


Afterwards, we were driven back to the Shed. There we toasted to a successful journey with mimosas and champagne. (This tradition was first made in France in order to appease farmers who didn’t like balloons setting down on their land and crushing crops.) Then we feasted on fresh farm to table vegetable frittatas, small potatoes, sausage and bacon, yogurt with granola, and some of the tastiest strawberries I have ever had. The strawberries came from the Shed’s farm.


It was a wonderful way to end a flight of a lifetime. To book your adventure in the sky, visit or call (707) 836-0171 for Up & Away Ballooning. Another great company for hot air ballooning is Calistoga Balloons. You can contact them at or call (707) 942-5758.

Spreckels' Little Mermaid Enchants and Delights

Posted by Sarah Amador on May 13, 2016 at 11:40 AM Comments comments (0)

(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit

By Sarah Amador

photo by Eric Chazankin

If you are mesmerized by mermaids, the sea or a good love story, then you will truly treasure Spreckels Theatre Company’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (April 29 – May 22).


I took my nine-year-old friend Hannah, and it wasn’t long before I understood how timeless this tale is. We can all identify with a yearning heart, a dream of something unknown, a wish for adventure.


Based on Hans Christian Andersen story, this story is nearly 200 years old. However, where the Andersen story turns gruesome, the Disney script picks up and spins towards a happy-ending. I didn’t think I could ever feel caught inside a Disney story, but immersed I was, from the first scene to the finale. Everything shimmers, glides, glows and bobs. The birds fly and tap dance. The special effects all but drown you in another reality. All of your favorite songs from Disney’s Little Mermaid come to marvelously to life, such as “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”

photo by Eric Chazankin

Ariel, played by Julianne Bretan, is lovable—her face continually lit with a sweet yet earnest smile, her singing clear as a bell. She is also a look alike for actress Sierra Boggess who played first played Ariel in the 2007 Broadway show. The entire cast’s singing was excellent. Jacob Bronson is perfectly cast as gallant Prince Eric, his voice strong and deep. Ursula, played by Mary Gannon Graham, is evil but charming, coquettish and vindictive. I saw Graham last year in Mary Poppins, when she superbly portrayed the bad nanny, Mrs. Andrews. Her voice, like last year, was strong and rich. I said then that I would gladly see anything Graham was in, just to hear her sing, and I stand by that statement. One of the more powerful songs in the play is the quartet, “If only,” sung with gusto by Ariel, Prince Eric, Sebastian, and Triton.


Similar to Broadway, the Spreckel’s production includes the ingenious footwear that includes wheels developed for this play. Dubbed “merblades,” this invention creates a gliding motion for the undersea characters, so they appear to swim or dart across the stage. However, this production goes further than the Broadway play. Not only do they use wires to portray flying birds or princes falling into depths of the sea, but they utilize the Paradyne projection system uniquely developed by Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Combining still images and animations, this system creates multiple backdrop effects. Picture Ariel singing below the sea while great googly-eyed fish swim behind her; a giant moon rising and dancing over shimmering waves while Prince Eric sings longingly of love; a palace’s great columns and vaulted ceilings arcing overhead as Ariel experiences being human for the first time.

photo by Eric Chazankin

With the very first scene, Eric’s Ship, I was engulfed by another reality. The ship is at sea, dwarfed by rolling waves behind it and around it. A storm descends, the waves crash and surge. The effects are so good that I found myself looking carefully to see if, in fact, the ship was actually moving. I even felt a little seasick. I found myself thinking that for another laugh, the company could have added a gag prop of motion sickness bags placed on the armrests of the seats.


Projection engineer and green screen tech Morgan Hamilton-Lee did a fantastic job. In one of the last scenes, we watch Ariel fall from stage onto projection screen, seemingly falling far below into the belly of the sea. This could only be created with a green screen. In one of the Prince’s solos, Her Voice, there is an actual shimmering effect of moonlight overlaid upon an animated projection of rising and falling water. For a spell, I actually felt like I was at one of my favorite seaside coves on the Sonoma Coast.

 photo by Eric Chazankin

The talented award-winning team of directors has done it once again. The audience is provided with an adventure of the highest order with ultra-creative Director Gene Abravaya (also responsible for the projection design), choreographer Michella Snider, costume designer Pamela Enz, music director Tina Lloyd Meals, and set designers Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen. It’s easy to see why they have won awards from San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle for Best Stage Direction of a Musical (Gene Abravaya), Best Lighting Design (Eddy Hansen), and Best Set Design (Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano).


Choreographer Michella Snider showed originality by replacing dancers in place of backdrops. For example, instead of having a painted backdrop of Ariel’s collection of human belongings in her cave (as in the Broadway play), the items were sewed onto suits worn by actors. Later, these same actors donned seaweed suits, and then moved to simulate flowing seaweed. During Kiss the Girl, the actors were in suits of white lily pads, and spun around Eric and Ariel’s boat in a ballet performance complete with splits and pirouettes. The choreographed scene of Chef Grimsby trying to catch Sebastian for dinner was also a favorite, and had the audience laughing from beginning to end.


Costume designer Pamela Enz went overboard with creativity (just as she did in Mary Poppins). How do you make an umbrella into a jellyfish? With lights, translucent flowing fabric—really, I don’t know. You’ll just have to go to the show. She artfully created an undersea world, animals, and period pieces.


And of course the live music was fantastic.

At the finale, when the love story culminates in “boy finding mermaid-turned-girl” and at last they kiss, a shiver ran through me. I glanced at my young friend, Hannah.


“Are you crying?” she whispered.


“No,” I said. “Are you?”


She nodded, her eyes tearing. “I’m really emotional.”


I leaned closer and confided, “I’m not crying, but the hair on my arm is standing up on end!”


As we walked out of the theater, I asked Hannah what she thought of the play.


“Verrry creative,” she reflected, going on to talk about how cool the “merblades” were.


“Anything else?” I prompted.


“When boys can sing,” she said, “they’re amazing.”


To buy tickets for The Little Mermaid or for upcoming Spreckels’ productions at Spreckle’s Performing Acrts Center in Rohnert Park, visit or call (707) 588-2226.

Bodega Bay Fisherman's Festival--Blessings & Bounty

Posted by Sarah Amador on April 18, 2016 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)


(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit

By Sarah Amador


Almost anywhere there are fishermen, you can find a four-hundred-year-old tradition that occurs each year when fishing season begins. Whether in Sicily, Australia, South Carolina, or California—as long as you are in a coastal town, you’ll have a chance to witness it. It’s the Blessing of the Fleet, and last weekend it occurred in Bodega Bay.


Twenty years ago, I witnessed the Sagra del Pesce in Camogli, Italy. I joined thousands in making a prayer not only for the boats and fishermen but also for personal wishes. I lit a floating candle, placed it in the water and watched it join hundreds of others, slowly pulled from the harbor to the sea. The wish was for my son; I was pregnant at the time. It might have done some good—my son is a young man now, happy, healthy and pursuing his goals.

Last Sunday, I attended in the 43rd celebration of the Bodega Bay Fisherman’s Festival (April 9th and 10th). A celebration of the start of the salmon fishing season, the festival includes a blessing of the fleet and the fishermen, a wooden boat race, wine tasting from 25 Sonoma County wineries, delicious seafood, live music and much more. The festival is packed with fun for all ages, with a Touch Tank Tide Pool, Jubilee Jumps, face painting, and the CHP Helicopter Rescue and Display. Craft booths offer excellent and eclectic art—I bought a beautiful blue agate pendant. Nonprofit and environmental organizations were also present to educate, like Stewards of the Coast & Redwoods, Russian Riverkeeper and the Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory.


Like many Sonoma County events, well-behaved dogs are welcome. There was even a pet parade, with llamas no less. Sipping an award-winning Sonoma County Pinot Noir, I relished the atmosphere. This was the Sonoma County I love—people sitting on hay bales, listening to live local music while feeding each other oysters, snuggled up comfortably with their dogs. Within 30 minutes of being there, my husband and I bumped into four people we knew. The festival is a place of community, a place to reconnect with friends.


My husband and I tasted nearly all the food, and it was excellent. Starting with garlic and buttered oysters, we proceeded to sample the fish and chips, along with the clam chowder from Fisheterian. Then we sampled more oysters, barbecued this time. After a while of walking and listening to music, we decided it was time for dessert. Three Twins Ice Cream hit the spot with the chocolate brownie fudge.

Run entirely by volunteers from the community, the festival supports Bodega Bay Area community services, from schools to fire departments to nonprofit groups. This year, due to the economic hardships suffered by fishermen’s families from the crab “hold,” the festival donated $10,00 from reserve funds to fishermen and their families.

For more information, visit Make sure to mark your calendars for next April and be part of a blessed event!

Sunce Winery Opens Sonoma Valley Tasting Room

Posted by Sarah Amador on February 24, 2016 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (2)

(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit


by Sarah Amador

This Thanksgiving, my family and I talked about all the things we are grateful for. Like many families, we named blessings like family, friends, health, jobs, beautiful spots we either lived in or visited. We poured a rosé wine from Sunce winery that perfectly matched the flavors of the turkey, and I realized here was yet another reason to be thankful. The wines of Sonoma and Napa valley are renown throughout the world, and Sunce winery is one winery that helps make this claim to fame come true.



With the grand opening of a tasting room in Kenwood, now you can enjoy the gold medal artisanal wines of Sunce winery in more than one location. Their new tasting room is perfectly situated in Kenwood at 9580 Sonoma Highway, on the corner of Highway 12 and Warm Springs Road. In Santa Rosa, you can taste wines and play bocce ball at the estate Pinot Noir vineyard at 1839 Olivet Road.

At the San Francisco Wine Competition this year, Sunce won gold medals for their 2012 Montepulciano and 2012 Alicante Bouschet. Last year, at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Sunce won gold medals for their 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Merlot. The list of medals goes on and on, too numerous for a single page. Only 4 to16 barrels of each wine is made, equal to 100 to 400 cases per release. The list of varietals and classic wines goes on and on as well, with more than 30 different kinds produced by the family-operated winery.

There’s something for everyone,” Sunce wine club member Mark LaFranchi said.

I had the pleasure of attending their grand opening last weekend with my husband and friends. The drive to Kenwood along Highway 12 boasted scenic views of vineyards in their perfect fall state, full of liquid amber, golden yellow and fiery red hues. The new site provided views of vineyards, framed by the hills of Sonoma Valley.

Along with the sampling of small lot award-winning wines and new releases, the grand opening also offered barrel tastings of 2014 Zemija Blend (named after the owners’ youngest daughter), Pinot Noir, Tannat and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Agave Restaurant catered the event, offering delicious tacos and ceviche tostadas. If the wine and the award-winning Oaxaca-inspired food didn’t relax you enough, massage tables and chairs were scattered through the tasting room and deck, with expert masseuses ready to smooth away any lingering stress.

Fall colors, community and celebration. Friendship and food. And of course, we were all gathered there to sample Sunce’s delicious award-winning wines. I was delighted to discover that even though I had traveled over an hour from my Duncans Mills’ home, I was still surrounded by community. At the barrel tasting, I met one neighbor of three years that I had never met before. When a friend brought along a date, I met the younger brother of someone I’ve known for 12 years.

The 2012 Montepulciano offered a hearty, rich bouquet. The 2013 Nebbiolo glowed like an orange sunset in the glass, matching the colors of the vineyards across the road. It was full-bodied, and also slightly tart. The 2013 Bruenllo (a Sangiovese Grosso) was fruity and sweet, but not cloying. The Dolcetto (which means little sweet one) was tasty but not too sweet. There was quite a variety, and all the wines were smooth and full-bodied. After sampling classic wines and several varietals that were new to me, all with a rich velvety bouquet (just like I like my wines), I knew I had to talk to the winemaker.

It was a luminous experience. Winemaker and owner Frané Franicevic is a descendent of Croatian winemakers specializing in Zinfandel. In fact, winemaking has been a part of Franicevic’s family tradition for hundreds of years. The result is a winemaker that truly knows his craft. Talking with him, it is almost as if he knows the nature of the grapes themselves, and knows what they need to transform into great wine.

“You have to be patient with each step,” Franicevic ruminated. “You need good fruit, patience, and to be present in the moment, to the task at hand.” Franicevic continued to explain that it is impossible to remove the human element of winemaking, and to infer that this is what makes good wine, bringing awareness to the winemaking process.


And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Being aware of our blessings, doing our best to be present in every moment with a thankful, grateful heart? This is what I tried to do, as I played piano later in the week, sipping the excellent Sunce winery Merlot Port. The present moment was perfect.

To taste Sunce wines, visit their new tasting room at 9580 Sonoma Highway. Tasting hours are daily from 10:30 to 5:30. In Santa Rosa, you can visit the estate Pinot Noir vineyard and play bocce ball at 1839 Olivet Road. Tasting hours are daily from 10:30 to 5:00. For more information, visit their website at or call 707-526-WINE (9463).

Fun in the Sun with Marin Shakespeare

Posted by Sarah Amador on February 24, 2016 at 7:35 PM Comments comments (0)


(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit

by Sarah Amador

Aidan O’Reilly as Richard III at Marin Shakespeare Theater

There is still time to enjoy the summer—even if the trees have changed their color before summer is officially over. We live in a place where it’s easy to feed your mind and feed your soul. Here’s what I’ve done recently, and which I whole-heartedly recommend:

Feed your mind. . .with outdoor Shakespeare theater. It was only 75 degrees when the doors opened at dusk for Richard III at Forest Meadows Amphitheater in San Rafael. In the setting sun, Mount Tamalpais was rosy in the distance, and the trees surrounding the stage glowed. Everybody loves to hate a bad guy, and there’s no better bad guy than Richard III. Interestingly enough, just this year the king’s bones were moved from a parking lot (which was once a battlefield) and buried in the royal cemetery at Leicester Cathedral. There still exists a heated debate as to whether Richard III was bad or not, since his enemies, the Tudors, were the victors and wrote the history the way they saw fit.


The cast did a fantastic job, fully exploring the woe and terror experienced at the hands of a tyrant king. This play reminded me of how encapsulated we often are from the true horrors of this world, and of what it would be like to live in other counties where tyranny and war rule. Aidan O’Reilly was mesmerizing as Richard III, fully exploring the horror experienced at the hands of a tyrant murderer. However, along with the heartlessness, O’Reilly deftly delivered the dry wit of his character. He had us often laughing in the midst of his nefarious acts, exactly as Shakespeare intended. What’s more, because O’Reilly is blind in one eye, he had to memorize every step of the intricate fighting scenes. Kudos is due to fight director Richard Pallaziol. Robert Currier also did a terrific job directing this play. Elena Wright shone as Queen Elizabeth, especially during the lamenting of her sons’ murders. Her confusion in response to Richard III’s inhumanity was exceedingly believable. Richard III runs through September 27, 2015. Make sure to catch it before this villain slips away!


For more information or to book tickets, visit or call 415-499-4485. Forest Meadows Amphitheater is located at 890 Belle Avenue, Dominican University of California, in San Rafael. Parking is free.


Feed your soul. . .with a visit to the Sonoma Coast. The golden allure of our dramatic and romantic coast is what made me first fall in love with this area.


Enjoy a sunset with a glass of wine or with your dog. I did this recently, and the experience brought back to mind all the other times I’ve watched the sunset at the estuary. One time my husband and I saw the setting sun turn into a rectangle as it slipped down the horizon. Our county boasts some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. Some of my favorite dog-friendly beaches are Blind Beach, Portuguese Beach and Wright’s Beach. Go to Gourmet au Bay to enjoy award-winning wines, as well as to sample excellent local artisan cheese. For fresh seafood, visit the Tides Wharf Restaurant, Fisherman’s Cove, Fishetarian Fish Market or Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay. All are situated near the water. Fisherman’s Cove, the Fishetarian and Spud Point Crab Company are dog-friendly. You can even kayak with your dog with WaterTreks EcoTours at the estuary. If you are like most Sonoma County adventurers, a dog is most always at your side. And just think of this, if your dog is by your side, and your soul is being nourished, then most likely, your dog’s soul is being nourished too.


Have fun, and enjoy the warm evenings while they are still here!

Don Quixote--Poignant, Poetic and Playful

Posted by Sarah Amador on February 24, 2016 at 7:20 PM Comments comments (0)


(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit


by Sarah Amador


How can a story be hailed as the first modern novel—and then be so ahead of its time it becomes the first postmodern novel? Well, Cervantes did it in1605. This month I traveled back in time 400 years, to a time when the curtain was closing on knights, chivalry and quests, into the mind of Cervantes. My husband and I were lucky to see the U.S. premiere of a new adaptation of Don Quixote, performed by the Marin Shakespeare Company of San Rafael. There’s still time to catch this premiere, as it runs through August 30th.


photo by Lori Cheung


Interestingly enough, Cervantes’ views don’t seem much different than the prevailing concerns of today. Our search for love, meaning, friendship, our desire to be understood—it never seems to change. Our human experience, it turns out, is timeless still, even with the advent of space stations and email.

Philip and Sarah at Marin Shakespeare’s production of “Don Quixote”


As we sat at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater, the sun began to set behind the oak trees. I was grateful for the pleasant summer weather and the cushioned seat we purchased (only $1!). The play began, and nearly at once I understood that there was going to be a golden nugget of truth for everyone in the audience. Poignant, poetic and playful, the play covered it all.


When asked to adapt Don Quixote, playwrights Peter Anderson and Colin Heath might have thought they were engaging upon a task as futile as Quixote’s quest for love, but they did it! Perhaps visited by a muse, perhaps privy to some ancient writer’s spell, but somehow they took what is hailed as the best literary work of all time (a work that also helped cement the modern Spanish language and inspire Shakespeare), reduced it by 1300 or so pages, and turned it into a play.


The originality of this new adaptation was also achieved by mask maker David Poznanter, who studied with internationally renown mask maker Matteo Destro in Italy. After making a positive mold of each actor’s face, Poznanter hand-crafted 25 theatrical half-masks out of paper mache. The magic of masks enabled five actors to play 15 characters!


“The actor’s face should disappear so that the character is able to emerge—that’s the magic,” said Poznanter about his masks.


photo by Lori Cheung


The masks, whimsical, comical, and sometimes tragic, greatly contributed to the theme, “What is fantasy, and what is reality?” The director also had them reacting to situations like puppets would—with exaggerated expected responses of “ooh,” “aah,” and “oh.” At times, I imagined them puppets on a stage, just like Shakespeare described life in Macbeth. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Shakespeare was undoubtedly influenced by Cervantes, as Don Quixote was widely read and reprinted in Italian due to its popularity. Both writers wrote during the same time and died within a month of each other.)


The minimalism approach to props also left me questioning reality. Was the horse supposed to be real or was it simply a pole with an inverting watering can balancing on its tip? Had Quixote already lost his mind that far? Were the sheep pillows or were they really sheep? Were the windmills merely ladders or really windmills? Hmmm.


Poznanter also has a background of working with Cirque de Soleil as a circus artist and performer. In fact, the circus may have inspired the Don Quixote performance on many levels, since both playwright Colin Heath and award-winning actor Ron Campbell have played clowns in Cirque de Soleil Kooza productions.


Campbell was excellent in his portrayal of Quixote, providing a great sense of timing and stage presence. We were able to sympathize with Quixote, and even “see” into his imaginative visions. Campbell delivered the beautiful poetry of Cervantes equally as well as he did the bawdy, earthy humor. Special mention should also be made to Sonoma county native actor Rick Eldridge. Eldridge played many roles—and played all of them well!


Perhaps the truest magic for me was when sidekick Sancho Paza lamented for the death of Quixote’s dreams, dreams that Paza steadfastly supported until he believed in them too. John Lewis played Paza, and gave a poignant portrayal of true friendship. It was heart-felt and sweet to watch Paza’s dedication to someone else’s dream, and the depth of his compassion.


If you can’t make the premiere of this new adaptation of Don Quixote, be sure to catch Richard III, from September 5th to the 27th. I hope to see you there!


This year marks the 26th year of the theater company performing under the summer stars. But that’s not all they do. The Marin Shakespeare Company has an extensive outreach program, offering acting classes to public elementary schools and at risk teenagers. Their Social Justice program provides acting classes to incarcerated men, culminating in a Shakespeare performance.


When you visit, be sure to plan a fabulous picnic, as picnics are encourage one hour before the show. Snacks can also be purchased at the Theatre Cafe. Warm clothing and blankets are recommended for evening performances. Padded seats for the wooden pews can be purchased at the Theatre Cafe for just $1.

photo by Lori Cheung




For more information or to book tickets, visit or call 415-499-4485. Forest Meadows Amphitheater is located at 890 Belle Avenue, Dominican University of California, in San Rafael.


ts, visit or call 415-499-4485. Forest Meadows Amphitheater is located at 890 Belle Avenue, Dominican University of California, in San Rafael.

Experience the Ahhhh at Osmosis Day Spa

Posted by Sarah Amador on February 16, 2016 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (0)

(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit

by Sarah Amador


Be sure to catch the next Sonoma County gem on August 19th—an evening of wine, foot baths, music and dinner at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. From 6 pm to 9 pm, guests will be serenaded by the Latin-soul-jazz inspired music of Rupa Marya in the meditation garden and enjoy a farm-to-table dinner catered by Fork Roadhouse Restaurant. For only $35, it’s an zen-loving and foodie’s dream come true. This event is only one of many, so be sure to check their website ( for upcoming events.

For those of you who haven’t been to Osmosis, you’re in for a treat. After visiting the day spa last Sunday, it’s my opinion that Osmosis should be written “Ahhh-smosis.” At least, that’s how I was pronouncing it by the end of my visit. Instead of taking your breath away, it brings it back to you. Suddenly, time stretches, an hour seems like three hours, your mindfulness seeming to expand with each deep, restful breath.

In our crazy, hectic world, a sanctuary like Osmosis is most needed. Osmosis claims it offers a “pathway to peacefulness.” However he did it, founder Michael Stusser created that pathway, and I walked on it for a while. It was easy to connect with nature as I sat in the Kyoto-style meditation pagoda overlooking the koi fish pond, lured further into peacefulness by the sounds of bubbling waterfalls and chirping birds. For a long time, I watched the red dragonflies zip across the ponds and drink. I watched the golden and red koi fish dart around the white lilies and wiggle up the sides of the pond to nibble algae.

My treatment was the unique Cedar Enzyme Bath, a bath actually made up of soft ground cedar, rice bran, and living enzymes. If you’re like me, you love trees. Love to climb them, meditate in them, read books under them. But how often can you say you’ve been encased by a tree? This fermentation bathing ritual originates from Japan, and Osmosis is the only spa on our continent that offers the treatment. It’s the strangest, softest feeling—imagine stepping into a sauna that has been turned into soft fluff, then imagine the fluff pillowed all around you. When you move, it heats up because you are activating the enzymes which then stimulate metabolic activity inside and out. The Cedar Enzyme Bath is known for improving circulation, relieving muscle pain, and deeply cleaning your skin. During the treatment, my attendant Ariel was most attentive, placing cold towels on my face and serving me water with electrolytes to help restore the toxins leaving my body.

Before I began the process, I was served a tea made up of nettle, herbs and digestive enzymes, meant to begin the process of cleansing from the inside out (in simple terms, designed to make you sweat). I was served the tea in a room overlooking my very own private Japanese tea garden—which I promptly walked into, exploring the tiny arcing bridge and the shape of the rocks, the tranquil waterfall, the sculpted bonsai trees.

After my Cedar Enzyme bath, I received a brain-balancing Hemi-sync sound therapy session on a wide, padded hammock. As I laid there, listening to a soundtrack titled, “Wind Over Water,” I watch the wind move the trees, and then felt it move me, slowly, back and forth. I don’t think I ever have watched the willow trees of Salmon Creek quite as intensely as I did last Sunday. Cabbage butterflies flitted together; an occasional hawkcircled overhead. I wasn’t really sure when the 30-minute soundtrack ended and the real nature sounds began, since there was still the sound of wind, birds, and an occasional chime. The smile that had been forced to my lips at the beginning of the day now floated permanently, effortlessly across my face.

It’s now been less than 24 hours since I left Osmosis’ perfectly manicured gardens and ponds, but I’ve called to mind the peaceful scenes I witnessed many times. Already, it’s helped me through the beginning of a fast-paced week. I can’t help but think of Wordsworth’s poem, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” specifically the references of how memories of harmonious nature can get us through anything, of how even in the din of towns and cities, our memories can fill us with sensations sweet.

When you visit, be sure to check out their membership club. One club option is a 75-minute Swedish massage once a month and unlimited access to the tranquil gardens—all for only $99 per month. An organic lunch (catered by Fork Roadhouse) can be savored while you sit overlooking Salmon Creek. Meat-loving and vegan options are available.

For tickets to the August 19th outdoor concert and dinner, or to schedule your next spa treatment, contact Osmosis at or call 707-823-8231. The day spa sanctuary is located at 209 Bohemian Highway in Freestone.


Though absent long,

These forms of beauty have not been to me,

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration.

— William Wordsworth

“Lines Composed a Few Miles

above Tintern Abbey”

The Magic of Mary Poppins Returns

Posted by Sarah Amador on February 16, 2016 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit


By Sarah Amador

photo by Eric Chazankin

Did you grow up believing in the magic of Mary Poppins? I did. Most of us have grown up with the story. I still know most of the movie songs; my son knows them too. My mother and I liked Mary Poppins so much that we went to see Saving Mr. Banks, the movie about the Disney movie. Even my teaching style is patterned after Mary’s carpet bag of tricks. For most of us, young and old, she’s in our hearts.

Recently, my son and I went to see the Broadway musical Mary Poppins at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. I would say the play was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but that’s the word you use when you don’t have the words to describe something, and I do—it was brilliant! If you didn’t get to see this musical based on the children’s books by P. L. Travers and the 1964 Disney film, then don’t fret. Audiences loved it so much that Spreckels is bringing it back for six encore performances, from August 21st through August 30th. If you go, you’re in for an additional treat because the summer youth camp students will join the big dance numbers of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Step in Time, and Jolly Holiday.


photo by Eric Chazankin

From the moment we entered the sold out performance, my son and I could feel electricity in the air. I kept wondering, how on earth would they create the marvel of Mary Poppins on stage? Soon the live orchestra began playing the familiar score, the curtain went up, and the play began. The Banks’ children, played by Andi Luekens and Nicholas Sevier, delivered their lines admirably, not overdone, as can happen often with child actors. Their singing was beautiful, and they kept their accents going throughout the play. Plus, they looked just like the kids in the movie! I don’t know why this made me happy, but it did. 

When Mary Poppins arrived on stage, the real magic began. Heather Buck played Mary Poppins, and was truly “perfect in every way,” including having perfect pitch and singing like a songbird. I recognized this actor from the recent production of Bonnie and Clyde at 6th Street Playhouse. She had stood out for her spot-on acting and singing.

photo by Eric Chazankin

The magic of Mary Poppins was further brought to life by intricate stage effects. Spreckel’s Technical Director, Eddy Hansen, did an amazing job, making full use of a Paradyne projection system that combines still images and animations. For instance, when Mary arrived, we watched her slide sideways along the bannister. When she took out a toy-size bureau, the screen transformed it into a full-size one. During Feed the Birds, several fake birds on the stage seemed to walk into a nearby projection screen. Soon the birds were flying from one screen to another, gaining in number till they filled the sky. The audience seemed taken up with them; I could hear lots of children’s “oohs” and “ahhs” all around me. During the bank scene, the sun glowed through an immense golden dome, the rays of sunshine so real I could almost feel them.


The mechanical effects were impressive as well. When Mary set her carpet bag on the bed, she pulled out a real hat stand and tall potted plant. During the Spoonful of Sugar song, dishes fell, the cake slipped off the plate—and Mary magically fixed all of it, sending the objects back where they were. Toys became as big as humans and walked up out of a toy box. With the help of cables, Mary Poppins, Michael, and Jane flew.

I tried to stop comparing the movie with the musical, but it was difficult. I felt relieved when Mary still spoke to birds and dogs. When the song Jolly Holiday began, I kept waiting for the penguins to appear. Statues were coming to life, but where were the delightful dancing tuxedos? Finally, I whispered to my son, “What happened to the penguins?”

“That’s from the movie, mom,” he said. If there had been more light, I’m sure I would have seen him rolling his eyes from my obvious lack of knowledge. “The scene with statues is from the book.”

Another surprise was the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious number. Never having read the books, I had no idea that the word came from an “inbetween world” shop that sold conversations and letters. As an English teacher, it makes me happy to think of a shop like this.

photo by Eric Chazankin

For me, the only thing that the movie did better was by making Mrs. Winifred Banks a suffragette. In the musical she is a wife who gives up a career on the stage. Nowadays, Mrs. Banks would be able to find a way to be on the stage and be a wife and mother. Maybe Mr. Banks would work part-time. Perhaps Mary Poppins would stay on, and still see the children, say during rehearsal times.

The familiar numbers A Spoonful of Sugar, Let’s Go Fly a Kite, and Feed the Birds were just as delightful as the movie. I have to admit that during the song, “Feed the Birds,” it was impossible not to hum along. Choreographer, Michella Snider, did a fantastic job. At least 20 actors danced on stage during Supercalifragilisticexpia-lidocious and Step in Time.

Dominic Williams gave a top-notch performance as Bert, and Mary Gannon Graham was superb in her comedic portrayal of the “Holy Terror” nanny, Miss Andrew. The Brimstone and Treacle vs. Spoonful of Sugar number with Graham and Buck was lovely. I’d gladly go anywhere to hear Graham sing!

Near the end of the play, Mary flew again. When her umbrella-and-hat shadow was reflected in the light of a full moon, chills ran up and down my arms. The curtain came down, and I’m pretty sure I watched some children take part in their first standing ovations, hooting and hollering. They loved it! The cast returned to the stage, and sang Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with the audience. Finally, I got to sing without being shushed by my son. Director Gene Abravaya also joined the cast and sang. Afterwards, he spoke about the age of tunnel vision (into three-inch phone screens), and how necessary it is to keep performance art alive.

Be sure to check out Spreckel’s 2015-2016 Season that includes A Little Princess, Treasure Island, Little Women, Wait Until Dark, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The theater will continue using their Paradyne projection system for many shows. For more information visit Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s website,, or call 707-588-3400. Parents can also call the box office to enroll their children/aspiring actors in the summer youth acting program. The theater is located at 5409 Snyder Lane in Rohnert Park.

Tasting Wine at Fritz Underground Winery

Posted by Sarah Amador on February 16, 2016 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

(To read this on my 101 Things To Do Travel Blog, visit

By Sarah Amador


It was going to be the perfect date, a gorgeous Sonoma County wine country day. All around us the sun glowed, nothing but blue skies did we see. Ahead was the promise of superb wine, a cave exploration, and a Lake Sonoma visit. I had planned this date with my husband, and it was going to be fabulous!

We began our trip in Duncans Mills, winding our way east through the Russian River Valley vineyards of Westside Road. Our destination was Fritz Underground Winery, nestled in northeast in Dry Creek Valley. A picnic basket was packed with brie, apples, dried fruit, salami, nuts, bread, and chocolate—all we needed now was the wine. The hills shone like emeralds; the flowers bloomed in every color; the birds cavorted and flirted with each other. Soon we would enter a wine cave, sample hand-crafted delicious award-winning wines, and eat our picnic. I was especially looking forward to tasting the wines created by winemaker Brad Langton, who has won many gold medals for his alchemy. I could hardly wait!

When we arrived, I knew my perfect date plans were working. Built into the side of a hill, the winery itself is picturesque. With the the view of vineyards, sloping hills, and a natural spring, I almost felt as I had been transported to Italy. Upon entered the wine tasting room, we immediately enjoyed the relaxed, inviting atmosphere. Our wine tasting began with the 2013 Estate Sauvignon Blanc, rated 92 points. This gold medal winner offered aromas of white peach and orange blossoms. Next came the Russian River 2012 Pinot Noir, a double gold medal winner that tasted of black cherries and pomegranate.

All the grapes for Fritz’s wines are grown in Sonoma County, mostly from the winery’s 112 acre estate. For Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the grapes primarily come from the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys. One of my favorites was the 2010 Reserve Zinfandel, created from 30-year-old vines. The flavors of red cherry, black currant, and cocoa swirling in my mouth was delightful.

One of the oldest wineries in Dry Creek Valley, Fritz Underground Winery was also one of the first to be energy-efficient. In 1979 founder Jay Fritz had the foresight to utilize gravity as well as the cool temperatures created by a wine cave. The gravity-flow production system is constructed on three levels. The crush pad is situated on the roof, and the fermentation tanks are below ground. When the juice is ready, it is sent from the tanks to the second underground tier (the cave) for barrel aging. This process allows the winery to handle the grapes as little as possible, allowing for natural flavors. The winery maintains it is this use of natural elements and forces that keeps the delicate nuances of their terroir present in their Pinot Noir and other prized estate fruit.

Now it was time for a tour to see the winemaking process for ourselves. As we stepped into the cave, I couldn’t help but think, just how primordial is it to enter a cave? From the beginning of time, the cave has set the scene for our self-discovery, the subconscious, or just plain protection. The smell of wine and oak mingled as we passed the wine-stained barrels, our voices echoing off the rough–hewn walls, our shadows stretching. As we went further into the wine cave, the temperature became decidedly chilly. We learned from our guide that the cave allows them to utilize the naturally even, cool underground temperature for optimal processing and barrel aging of the wines. The use of gravity instead of pumps also enables the winery to save electricity. A natural spring supplies simple irrigation.

Afterwards, we took our wine and lingered over our picnic, soaking up the views of the spring and oak-studded hills. When it was time to go, we drove to our last destination, Lake Sonoma. After only about five minutes, we arrived at a picnic table overlooking the lake. The sunset had just begun. It was that golden hour when everything seems illuminated from the inside out. The birds were still serenading each other; the flowers continued showing off their colors. My husband and I held hands, watched the sun slip down behind the mountains and shimmering lake, and I gave a deep satisfied sigh. It had been the perfect date.

For more information about Fritz Underground Winery, visit or contact them at (707) 894-3389. Be sure to check out their newly remodeled wine tasting room, particularly the bar topped with white-washed elm. The winery is located at 24691 Dutcher Creek Road, Cloverdale.