Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Expect oak trees, rolling hills and 1600 acres of open space dedicated to environmental education. The center includes an organic farm, a youth hostel, hiking trails and a conference center. Unless you’ve heard about it, Hidden Villa is indeed very hidden.
It’s one of three educational farms open to the public in the direct vicinity of San Francisco, the other ones being Slide Ranch in Marin – a wonderful ocean view place that I visited last year in May – and Ardenwood Historic Farm – that I visit in October for their fantastic Harvest Festival.
Sure there are other farms in the Bay Area, but they usually fall into one of two off limits categories: working farms with no public access or educational farms for schools. Very few are open for drop-ins.
I first visited Hidden Villa in 2003 when volunteering for the Hostel Adventure Program, an environmental education program for inner city youth run by the Northern California Youth Hostels.
I remember the tree-hugging staff knitting scarves with wool they carded from sheep they sheared themselves, as well as a discussion on the softness of the farm’s respective animals (hey, you wouldn’t want to wear a doormat). The place hasn’t changed much. Last Saturday, the scarf-knitting tree-huggers were there, guiding groups through the organic garden or around the farm.
Overheard by the garden: “Here is the pizza box, the place where we plant herbs for pizza such as oregano, basil or thyme.” As our visit collided with several private parties, we took a self-guided tour of the premises instead of a regular farm tour. Map in hand, we proceeded along the parking lot towards the pasture for sheep and goats. Picnic tables covered in food and colorful presents testified of a child’s birthday party.
Right behind the Wolken Education Center, the Education Garden is the local schools’ main haunt as they come to help with garden chores regularly. It could be a nicer organic garden without chicken wire all around but racoons, deer and other local wildlife have to be kept at bay and can be devastating.
I wonder why I remember Slide Ranch’s organic garden as so much greener and prettier. Oh wait, I went there in late spring on a glorious day – not in late winter on a chilly day. Silly me.
Our girls went through a black plastic tunnel to enter the garden while we grown-ups boringly pushed a gate open – should suggest a climbing wall to get in to make it more exciting.
For our preschoolers, exploration began right away, including going from bed to bed, smelling, touching, watching and on the rare occasion, identifying plants. “Mom, look, they grow arugula!” I heard. The Aha moment. Now I know my backyard planter box serves a purpose.
Two natural “tree” (or rather bush) houses await warmer spring days to cover them with green leaves, which will make them quite interesting as they house short tree stumps that children use as rustic stools.
After we walked around the whole garden, I took my junior explorers to the compost pile and asked with a smile, “Say girls, can you tell me what’s in here?”
Note to self: it’s a compost pile, not a Barbie store. What was I expecting? As they recognized egg shells, tea bags, half-eaten slices of toast and orange peel, they became squirmy and let out an honest and loud “Eeeuw, it stinks!” There.
No love story between the compost pile and my delicate children’s nostrils who think that hay stacks and cow dung stink too. Sheesh… urban girls. Fortunately, the poultry palace left a much better impression on them.
Located next to a Stick-Eastlake Victorian house whose gingerbread could use some fresh paint, the poultry palace is a big open space with crazy chickens cuckling around, apple trees blossoming on bare branches and roosters tending their harem.
There’s even a lonely tired mamma pig dozing off in the Piggery (her five piglets are in a pen further next to the blacksmith forge). Even if they were intimated by the roaming and royal feathery company, my girls enjoyed this a lot.
My youngest one looked for shiny feathers on the ground while the oldest one tried to spot unusual color hues on the neck of hens. Last, we went to see the baby pigs a.k.a. The Three Little Pigs.
I had been told on the phone that there were baby pigs and they were sort of the attraction of our trip, even if we had seen baby sheep in the pasture earlier.
Pink and black, cute enough but not so small, these baby pigs were doodling around. Really too bad farms can’t do without the chicken wire fence.
I also wish there were more animals to occupy the space Hidden Villa has. What I guess I mean is that I would love Hidden Villa to look like a working farm with big herds of grazing and browsing cows and sheep, not large grass enclosures with a few animals peppered randomly. Good for them though, they have plenty of place to roam around and must be the happiest free-range animals of the Silicon Valley.
By piglet time, our stomachs were hinting that it was lunch time too (no, we didn’t want to eat the piglets).
We walked back, picked up some sticks, put them down and got back on 280.
We had lunch at Buck’s of Woodside, a weird breakfast/lunch place with the kitchiest decorations around the dining room. From a stuffed monkey flying in a space shuttle to cased miniature everything or a flea circus, they have an impressive collection of dust magnets. Too bad the food doesn’t level with the family appeal of the place.