Escapes: Is San Francisco’s North Beach at low tide?

Caffe Trieste in North Beach in San Francisco claims it became the first espresso coffee house on the West Coast when it opened in 1956.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

That headline question is the one Christopher Reynolds poses in his fascinating look at a neighborhood — the only one left in San Francisco, one resident asserts — that once was the Little Italy to end all Little Italys. Is change the only constant? And if so, what’s next?

I’m Catharine Hamm, the travel editor for the Los Angeles Times, and what’s next in this newsletter is how you can win a stay at the real-life Downton Abbey; where you can stay at its polar opposite in Texas; the first snow up north; a flower field in Paso Robles that’s rarely affected by weather; learning to cook French on a cruise ship; and ways around the traffic in Las Vegas. All of that plus the End paper, which offers a look at airfare prices in the wake of oil supply concerns.

Some questions, some answers and some ideas on how to travel differently in this week’s newsletter, which, for subscribers, is on their electronic doorstep every Thursday morning. So let’s greet the day.


Is San Francisco’s Little Italy fading?

Several longtime restaurants are gone. “Beach Blanket Babylon,” the revue that’s been playing for almost half a century, is closing in December. The retail vacancy rate has skyrocketed. Is North Beach on its last legs? No, Christopher Reynolds writes, but change has come, and more is coming. “I do think the Italian influence will continue to gradually fade,” Reynolds said in an email, “and Chinatown next door will continue to grow. … But I bet the next big chapter for North Beach will be something we don’t suspect yet. I picture Herb Caen in 1949 lamenting how few bohemians were left, never imagining the invasion of Beat writers that was coming in just a few years.”

Downton Abbey as an Airbnb? Yes, my lord

It’s true, but only for Nov. 26 — one night only. Mary Forgione writes about the chance of a lifetime, touring Highclere Castle, how you can stay on the grounds where two places have been renovated and more. The debut of the “Downton Abbey” movie on Friday is bound to fan the flames of what has become, for many of us, an obsession.

Not Downton Abbey, but lots of fun

If you’ve taken a cruise, you know that cabins can be charitably called snug. At sea, it doesn’t matter quite so much because you probably won’t spend that much time in your cabin. But what if you chose to stay in a land-based version of a cruise cabin? That’s what Barbara Noe Kennedy did in Fredericksburg, Texas, where the tiny houses are relics not of a current trend but of a fascinating history. She fell in love with the mini-houses and stayed in one. Did she feel claustrophobic? Never, she said, because the place was airy and opened to a patio. At night, stars from the big Texas sky shone down on this German-influenced town, she said. Check out these houses that were the solution to a long-ago commuter’s nightmare.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful

Not here, but in the greater Lake Tahoe area, which got either the first snow dump of the season or the last snow of the summer, depending on your point of view. What does this mean for the season ahead on the slopes? Our crystal ball was mostly cloudy when we asked it, but we can say this: The opening of the winter downhill season isn’t happening quite this early.

In Santa Cruz County, small towns, big trees

And we mean really big trees. Alison Shore writes a weekend escape that put her and her husband among the redwoods of Ben Lomond and among the vines in nearby Davenport, and she fills in readers on pies, pastries and a divine artichoke soup.

Andrew Walsh of Ben Lomond explores a hollow tree with son Philip, 2, along a trail in Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Carefree and car-free in Las Vegas

Vegas has the power to vex, at least when it comes to traffic. The Strip on a Saturday night reminds me of the 405 any time of day. Jay Jones, who lives in Vegas and has been reporting on his city for us for more than a decade, developed this no-drive guide to our favorite adult playground in Nevada. He outlines the options and costs.

They only come out at night

Not zombies. Solar-powered flowers. Bruce Munro’s “Field of Light at Sensorio” in Paso Robles, about 200 miles northwest of downtown L.A., is sensational, Rachel Schnalzer writes in an article that tells you how to optimize your experience in this art installation.

What you’re reading

Here’s one of those sweet mysteries of life, solved: Not everything that appears in the Sunday Travel print section appears online, and not everything that appears online at appears in print.

There’s one way to see it all, and that’s by subscribing to the Los Angeles Times. You have a menu of subscription options that give you access to this window into the world viewed through the Southern California prism.

If travel is your passion, you might want to subscribe to this newsletter, which is free. It’s one of many that can be delivered to your inbox. You can check them out at our newsletters member center.

Travel, of course, is our passion, but that doesn’t mean we might not overlook something that is vitally important. Let us know what that is by emailing We will try our best to respond.

What we’re reading

You’ve taken this flight plenty of times, but now it feels longer. Are you losing your mind? Maybe, but you also can blame an increase in airline traffic that’s causing airport congestion, Amy Zipkin writes in the New York Times. Schedules tend to get padded in anticipation of the numerous factors that can delay a flight, which means, Zipkin writes, that flights arrive early and then … sit there.

Rental cars can be vexing. Not the cars themselves, but the process of finding the best rate. For Smarter Travel, Sara Schlichter writes about strategies that can save you big bucks, including maybe getting a one-way rental for free — or nearly so — through a site called Transfercar.

When Blenheim Palace has plumbing problems, you know there’s a problem. When it involves the disappearance of a solid gold toilet worth millions? Even worse, Jenny Gathright writes for NPR. (Blenheim, about 65 miles northwest of London, was the birthplace of Winston Churchill and in his family for about 300 years.) The commode is both a work of art (called “America”) and an actual working toilet. Two people have been arrested in connection with the heist, the BBC reports; the toilet remained at large as of this writing.

"America," a working solid gold toilet and a work of art, was stolen from Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, England, and remains missing.
(Leon Neal / TNS)

End paper

Summer officially slips away on Monday, and that can mean only two things: You’ll put away your summer wear only to drag it back out when the mercury unexpectedly hits 100, and you’ll start fretting about holiday plans that involve air travel.

Those plans may be complicated by an attack on an oil facility in Saudi Arabia that raised the risk of serious disruptions to global oil supply. Samantha Masunaga, writing for The Times’ Business section, said gasoline prices would begin to creep up within a couple of weeks. Despite signs Wednesday that the supply had improved, travelers may feel the ripple at some point.

I asked airline and transportation analyst Seth Kaplan when that might be. “The short answer is months, maybe four to six months, before we see a noticeable change in airfares, if airlines believe the higher fuel prices are more than fleeting,” he said in an email Wednesday.

“The reason: Airlines can’t really adjust prices per se based on fuel price movements. (If they could, why wouldn’t they always just charge more?)”

That said, holiday fares may be slightly higher if airlines — United, American and Southwest, in particular — continue to have to compensate for the grounding of the 737 Max, which is not expected to return until at least December.

Then there’s the question of what the booking sweet spot is for holiday travel. You’ll hear October and sometimes a specific date (usually in the second week of October) as the last best time to buy holiday airfares.

As with all airfares, the best time to buy is when you see one that doesn’t make you faint. Sign up for fare alerts; follow airlines on Twitter, keep checking fares. But in the end, can you put a price on knowing you can be there?

If that sounds like a cheap shot, it sort of is. On the other hand, can you put a price on memories? If you can, email me at with this in the subject line: “Hamm, you’re such a sap.”

And remember, wherever you are, travel safely and well, and we’ll be here to welcome you home.