Wednesday, June 5, 2013

San Francisco Trip Recap

Day 1+ - The night before we left didn't give us any good omens. There was a bad storm that partially knocked out our power. We knew that the battery backup for our FiOs was dead, but we thought we had disabled the low battery alarm. When the power went out, we could not stop the low battery alarm from beeping. We would stop it for a little while and as soon as we were asleep for a while, it would go off and beep incessantly again. We finally called Verizon and begged for help. Somehow they managed to tell us how to remove the battery. It was not the best night's sleep.

The worst seemed to be over in the morning. We made it to the airport in good time and there were no issues with our flight. We flew Virgin America for the first time. I had hoped Virgin America would be a domestic version of Virgin Atlantic. Sadly it's not. On Virgin Atlantic the food, booze, and entertainment are free in coach. Not so with Virgin America. Only non-alcoholic beverages and a few cheap snacks are free and there are no free movies. One cool option they have though is you can order food from your seat and pay with a credit card and they will come and deliver it to your seat even if it's not service time.

We made it to San Francisco in good time and got a taxi to our hotel. Our driver made sure to tell us all of the ways San Francisco is superior to New York. We stayed at the Omni in the Financial District. It was a charming place and a bit more high end than the kind of hotels we usually stay in. We had doormen letting us in instead of automatic doors for example. Kevin was a little disappointed in our room. He had booked a room on the 14th floor hoping it would have a good view, but the view was just the backs of buildings. It was too early to check in when we arrived, but I had made lunch reservations at a nearby dim sum restaurant, so we secured our bags and went to go pig out.

We had quite a view uphill outside the hotel.

After lunch we checked in and went for a walk. We walked through the Embarcadero Center. The stores were all closed, but it was nice to walk through all of the charming courtyards and gardens on the roof. On the other side there was a flea market going on, so we browsed that a bit before heading to the Ferry Building. We took some pictures of the bay and headed back. I went to the gym for a badly-needed workout and headed back to our room and lay down. Jet lag had taken its toll at this point and we could not stay awake. We went to bed really early that night.

Day 2 - I was wide awake and refreshed at 4:30 AM.  Darn that jet lag! There was not a whole lot to do with my morning. As soon as it seemed like a decent hour, we went out in search of breakfast. This was easier said than done. San Francisco is a city that, unlike New York, sleeps. I had noticed on Sunday afternoon most businesses were closed. The theme continued on Memorial Day Monday. We had no desire to eat in the hotel restaurant because the cost was ridiculously expensive. The concierge managed to locate an open cafe for us.

Later that morning we set out on the Embarcadero for Fisherman's Wharf, making sure to behave like tourists and constantly stop for pictures. We started out at Pier 39. We bought a city pass and used it to view the aquarium. As aquariums go, it was kind of mediocre, although the jellyfish were cool and so was the underwater tunnel. We also made sure to drop in on the sea lions.

Our city passes had tickets for a sightseeing ferry that also departed from Pier 39. We had some lovely views from the water of the local sights such as Alcatraz, Ghiradelli Square, the Jeremiah O'Brien, and the Golden Gate Bridge. It was too bad it was foggy out. It was also kind of cold and rainy. It wasn't a great day to be out on the water.

We had lunch at a restaurant at Pier 39 and continued our way to Fisherman's Wharf. One of the best parts of the walk was a stop at Rodney Lough's photo gallery. He is a brilliant photographer who shoots gorgeous landscape photos, many of which are in national parks. This was right up Kevin's alley.

Once we arrived at Fisherman's Wharf, we considered touring the Jeremiah O'Brien and the submarine, but the admission was really more than we wanted to pay. We checked out the Musee' Mechanique, which is a museum containing arcade games and amusements from several eras. They are all still in operation too. I was a little freaked out by Laughing Sal but I had to take her picture anyway. It's fun to step back in time when amusements were simpler.

We really couldn't stand the crowds at Fisherman's Wharf anymore, so we decided to hop a cable car back to our hotel. We picked it up at the turnaround where it goes on to a rotating platform and is manually turned in the other direction.

After a brief rest at the hotel, we set out for a walk through Chinatown. We browsed some of the cheesy shops for a while and decided to call it a day.

When we felt hungry later on we had the same problem with dinner that we had with breakfast. Nothing was open. We ended up at a Thai restaurant with mediocre food and a strong desire to get all customers out the door quickly.

Day 3 - The holiday was over so we could finally find plenty of places for breakfast. That was a relief. We had booked the boat to Alcatraz that morning. We decided not to walk and used our Muni pass to take the bus to the pier. We had to pick the bus up at the Ferry Building. The big farmer's market was going on and I wished I could browse it, but I didn't know how long it would be until the bus arrived. I had no worries there. It was a very long and drawn out wait.  What made it even more fun was that while I was standing there at the bus stop when I smelled something...interesting. I wondered where the smell came from and if it might be residual from some activity from the night before. I turned around to trace the source and to my surprise I saw a guy openly smoking a joint right there. I decided to stand elsewhere, but the damage had already been done. Pot smoke tends to make me feel like someone is tickling my lungs with a feather dipped in ashes. I spent the next few minutes having a dandy coughing fit. Another auspicious start to a day. (Yes, you are supposed to read sarcasm in there.)

The bus took so long to arrive that I think we would have arrived sooner if we had walked. I have to say after this week I am thoroughly unimpressed with the SF transportation system. It's incredibly slow and inefficient. I never thought I would come to appreciate the NYC subways so much.

We finally reached the pier, boarded the ferry and we were on our way. We enjoyed the audio tour and the walk around the gardens. It is such an interesting little island. It has the beautiful bay views, the lush gardens, and abundant wildlife (seagulls nest everywhere) and it is all juxtaposed with the unpleasant and now deserted prison and the ruined buildings.

Walking through there is fascinating. The audio tour is narrate by actual former guards and inmates, which makes it feel very authentic. They take you through all aspects of the prison and prison life from what it was like for the inmates to what life was like for the guards to what life was like for the families of employees.

After a very cold ride back to the shore, we took a taxi to the Coit Tower. It was a nice clear day so we thought the views would be great for photos. Unfortunately the window openings are covered in smudgy glass so the photos we took were a little hazy. We walked back to our hotel from there. It was all downhill so it was an easy walk. We strolled through North Beach on our way down, checking out some interesting shops. Once we were back to our room I headed back to Chinatown for a little while to find some gifts for the folks back home.

We booked our first high-end restaurant that night. We had a lovely dinner at Perbacco. We had to make it an early night since we were leaving early the next day for Yosemite.

Day 4 - Yosemite Day! This was the reason we came to San Francisco in the first place. I had booked a tour two months before with a small group van tour company. The night before I received a rather distressing phone call attempting to bump us and put us on a tour with another company. I would have gladly done it if the tour were comparable, but the other tour was on a large motor coach. I had specifically booked the original tour because it wasn't a large motor coach. I raised a stink and they honored my original reservation. At 7AM we were on our way.

Our guide Mitch was quite a character. When I first got on the van he exclaimed, "Rachel!" As if I were an old friend he hasn't seen in a while. He drove like a maniac. He narrated through the city as he picked up the other group members. It was helpful to see and experience a bit more of the city. Mitch didn't do too much to get us all interacting with each other unfortunately. I like these small group tours for the camaraderie they tend to foster. We didn't have too much of that.

After stopping at a lovely farmer's market for snacks and a grocery store to pick up a picnic lunch, we arrived in Yosemite around midday. Mitch drove us to some beautiful viewing spots and then we had three hours to explore on our own. Yosemite is beautiful, but it's not the easiest park to navigate. The trails are very long and not always well marked and the maps are not easy to read.

Kevin and I did the best we could with the time we had. We started by viewing the lower falls. I tried to climb as close as I could to the water's edge before the rocks became too wet and slick.

We hiked a bit around the Merced River loop from there. We had views of Half Dome, but we were too far from El Capitan. We were still able to take some good shots of the river, meadows, and rock formations. At one point we came to a calm part of the river where several children were wading. You know me. I can't resist water and I was quite warm in my hiking boots and heavy socks. I could not resist taking them off and cooling off a bit. I couldn't do it for very long though. It was a warm day, but it was still early in the season. Wading in the Merced River in May is like walking barefoot in the snow.

At the end of the day Mitch collected us and took us to some viewing spots for El Capitan and Cathedral Rock. We were able to spot climbers going up the rock face.

We returned to the city in one piece despite Mitch's driving. It was pretty late as the entire day was over twelve hours round trip. We had a late dinner and went straight to bed. We had another long day ahead of us.

Day 5 - Today we had scheduled a wine country tour. I was lucky that I hadn't scheduled it with the same tour company as the one we used for Yosemite. The group was a little bigger (they used a mini bus instead of a van) but at least our driver drove sanely.

We started our tour in Muir Woods. It was our only chance to see the redwoods this week. I wish I could have had more time there as the trails are beautiful and quite extensive. The trees block out much of the sunlight, making the paths rather cold, but the is something so stunning about the way sunlight filters through. I could not take enough pictures.

After the woods we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway and ended up at our first winery, a very small operation called Mayo. We sampled three wines there: sparkling, white, and red. I found them all to be rather interesting, particularly the Chardonnay we sampled. Kevin wasn't fond of any of them, so we didn't buy. They partially age the Chardonnay in oak and while I normally am not fond of oaky wines, I liked the distinctive flavor and texture of this one. Kevin thought the oak was way too much.

We stopped in the Sonoma town square for a lovely lunch. Then it was on to the next winery.

We crossed the border into Napa for the Madonna Winery. This is one of the oldest wineries in the area and had been family owned since 1922. We had another tour and then tried at least another five wines. This time we purchased a Pinot noir rose and had a little fun browsing the gift shop.

The final winery was Cline, which was also the largest. They set out a tent in the garden for our tasting. I had my first Viognier along with several other wines that I was becoming far too tipsy to remember. What really impressed us was a red dessert wine. They gave us some chocolate to taste alongside it. Not only did we purchase it, but I'm already planning my next dinner party where I plan to make an intensely chocolate dessert to serve with that wine.

On the way back we drove through Sausalito. We didn't stop, but we had the option of getting off the bus and taking the ferry back to the city. It might have be interesting as we could have had a little time to walk around, but it was getting late in the day and I think we had our fill of touring. We were rewarded for staying with the bus by driving to a viewing spot with a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Day 6 - Kevin and I were on our own once more. We headed to Golden Gate Park. We wanted to see the DeYoung Museum and the Academy of Science and anything else the park could offer us in a single day. We were fed up with the public transportation, so we took a taxi. It seemed like a very long taxi ride. The route from the hotel to the museum seems pretty direct on a map, but didn't feel too direct on the drive. We think the driver was taking advantage of us. On the good side, he went through Pacific Heights, so it was nice to view that neighborhood with all of that beautiful Victorian architecture.

We started at the DeYoung. We were very lucky to be there when we were. They had a special exhibit from the era of the Dutch masters. There were rooms full of interesting engravings and then finally into the gallery of paintings, which included The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Sadly we could not take pictures. We explored the museum a bit more after that and headed across the courtyard for the Academy of Science.

We had lunch in the museum restaurant and then checked out the rooftop garden, the planetarium, the rainforest rooms, and of course, the African penguins. We browsed the aquariums a bit, but we had had enough of those earlier in the week. The afternoon was winding down and we wanted to see the Tea Garden.

We had a pleasant walk around the Tea Garden, but I managed to fill my memory card while taking pictures of it. I found myself frantically trying to cull my photos so I would have more room. I was able to throw a few more photos in there. The Tea Garden was fitting counterpart to the crowded and noisy Science Academy. I would have liked to have seen the Botanical Gardens, but it was rather late. With no taxis in site, we had to tough it out on the bus to go back to our hotel. I will say that this time we didn't have to wait forever.

Most of the early evening was spent packing. It's the second worst part of travel (worst is unpacking and doing the vacation laundry) but it has to be done. We had a late dinner reservation at one more fine dining place so we could end our trip with a bang. A glass of wine, some live music, and a good steak is a fitting send off.

Day 7 - It was an early morning departure. We said goodbye to our beautiful hotel with its friendly and helpful staff and took a taxi to the airport. Our plane departed on time and soon we were home.

Then it was time for that vacation laundry!

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