San Francisco, Yosemite, and Napa—All in one week! (Not in that order)

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Pictures and stories from our trip to San Francisco and area, from September 26 to October 4, 2009.

After doing a couple of trips with the help of travel agents and tour companies, this one, we arranged all on our own. We picked out the exact flights we wanted (had to be direct, had to be at OK hours), then called to see if we could actually use travel points for them. We could! So we were travelling Air Canada (the United Airways partnership didn’t seem to mean much) and saving some money.

We booked the hotels and a car rental, for the first part of the trip, through a combination of Expedia and Hotwired, and managed to get reasonable prices there, too. And, we booked our Alcatraz Tour in advance, through their website, as everyone warned us that could sell out in advance. And that it was worth going on. And we booked airport parking.

Golden Gate bridge

Saturday, September 26 — Getting there isn’t really half the fun

Despite all the construction, we got to the airport in good time for our flight departing at noonish. Checking in and going through security were also pretty smooth, so we had plenty of time for a proper breakfast at an airport sports bar.

Due to mechanical issues, though, the flight was delayed—by about 2 hours, in the end. That’s not a comforting reason for delay, but what can you do? We got a bit more food at one point, since the only food offered on this flight was for purchase. Which we ended up doing also, so the first day of travel was nothing but airline and airport food.

But the flight was fine, and it was cool seeing views of San Francisco as we got closer. The airport seemed really well organized, and we got through pretty quickly and on to the car rental company area. Where we ran into our first problem: We couldn’t remember which car rental company we had booked with, and we didn’t seem to have written it down.

Jean took a guess at Hertz, but they had no record of us. Perhaps feeling bad that they might have lost our reservation, the clerk was helpful in directing us to Avis, which had better prices. So that’s where we went, ending up with a similar car that we had reserved, at a somewhat cheaper price, actually. Though we still felt a bit bad about whoever we had stiffed, there. (We later discovered it was Thrifty.)

The GPS, while not the best GPS service ever, still proved really useful on this trip. Its first order of business was getting us to Jamestown, in the vicinity of Yosemite. The drive there was nice—it was sunny, as it would be the whole vacation—but nothing spectacular. Most interesting was seeing a (live) deer by the side of the road.

We got to Jamestown maybe around 8:30 pm? It was sort of quaint-looking, like a Western movie set, with saloons and antique shops. Our room was fairly basic, but certainly adequate. We settled in and didn’t stay up too late.

Sunday, September 27 — Yoo hoo, Yosemite

With the time change and all, it wasn’t that difficult to get up early, but we did run into a food problem: the breakfast at our hotel consisted only of a cheap pastry plus coffee, which we didn’t feel would be adequate for hiking Yosemite. But we couldn’t find anything else open that hour in sleepy Jamestown on a Sunday. So we made do with the pastry, plus an apple each, as they did have that available.

The drive to Yosemite is something of an adventure in itself. The road is very twisty. Though we didn’t have a very sporty car—it wasn’t overly fond of all the uphills—Jean had fun with the curves. There’s no getting there all that fast, though, and it took nearly 2 hours.

We decided to stop at Yosemite Village first, leaving our car in the parking lot there. (Shuttles are available for moving around different parts of the park.) We soon passed the Adam Ansel Gallery and dropped in there. Very expensive photos! And interestingly, some of the hand-made jewelry on display was from an Ontario artisan, who used butterfly wings (from butterflies who died naturally) as her medium. But we didn’t buy anything.

Taking a break from admiring the view, we stopped at the Visitor’s Center to get a map and an overview of the park. Normally you can see an overview movie here, but today the space was taken for a Catholic mass.

View of Yosemite

It was already pretty warm and sunny. The day was destined to get to about 37C—so rather hotter than we had been used to this rainy and cool summer in Ontario. Thank goodness it’s a dry heat. (And you know, we weren’t about to complain about it, regardless.)

We walked through the restored Indian village and into the related gallery, with some good exhibits on the history of the natives in the area and some native art works.

And although we were getting a bit hungry by this point, we did want to get one hike in before lunch, so we choose the Lower Yosemite Falls trail. We knew the falls would be dry at this point—they dry up at some point in August—but it was a still a lovely and, for an “easy” trail, fairly arduous. And where the falls would have been was still quite impressive to look at.

Dried up falls

Our next stop was at Yosemite Lodge, mainly because it had a few dining options. But the cafe was closed, and while the restaurant sounded like it had a great menu, it was open only for dinner. That left the Food Court, which just wasn’t inspiring. So we took the shuttle to the famous Awanee Inn (along with many others who had the same idea). There we were thrilled by a sighting of a small black bear.

Awanee Inn

The Awanee is beautiful. For some big bucks, you can stay. For relatively big bucks, you can eat dinner. This day, we could have brunch. Expensivish brunch, but there you go. We did save some money when the waiters (who were pretty casual and quite friendly despite their very formal wear) declined to make any interesting drink suggestions, so we just had coffee and tea. The brunch was done buffet style, with omelet and carving stations. But we were mostly about the cold stuff—the oysters, the smoke salmon and trout, the marinated asparagus spears, the sushi rolls. The cheese blintzes with fruit compote were also nice.

And the desserts were spectacular: an amazing fruit soup, a divine tiny creme brulee, a cool melon shooter, beautiful lemon meringue tarts, chocolate-covered strawberries. We ended up pretty full.

Us in the dining room

From there, we decided to walk to Curry Village, kind of the “camping” part of Yosemite. It took us a little while to get oriented right, but it’s really not a bad place or day to be walking around. But Curry Village itself isn’t all that terribly charming, relatively speaking. We spent a bit of time in a store there, as I didn’t have a sun hat, but I couldn’t find one my size.

So we decided to go on another hike. We were going to do another, longer falls hike, but while waiting for the shuttle, a man we started talking to pointed out that it gets dark earlier here because of the mountains (it was about 3:30 pm), and that it was a fairly long hike. So we decided on another that had been recommended—a little shorter, a little easier: the Mirror Lake trail.

I’m not sure how we did this, but while on this trail, we somehow ended up on the part used by horses. At first we thought, and got a bit worried about, there being a heck of a lot of bear poop around, but then it seemed odd that the bear ate so much hay… And realized it was from horses. Anyway. It was still a pretty nice trail, but it got better once we landed on the “people” part and could stop dodging horse poo and slapping away flies. And it was actually arduous enough, too, despite being easier than the fall trails, so was probably a better choice. The “meadow” part we walked back through was particularly beautiful.

Meadow

Now we were thirsty, so it was back to Yosemite Village to buy some water and other drinks. Many things were starting to close for the day. We had been planning to dine at the Mountain Restaurant at Yosemite Lodge, but finally concluded we were just too full, still. So we headed back toward Jamestown, stopping at some points for more photos of the famous half Dome and such.

We arrived back at Jamestown shortly after 8:00. We had been hoping to eat at the cool-looking California restaurant across the street, but its kitchen was closing. (Sunday!) So we went to a Steakhouse they suggested. And that was actually fine. Jean had a small steak, I had chicken piccata. And we each had a glass of California wine, our first of the trip.

Monday, September 28 — Red and white and drunk all over Napa (not really)

The original plan had been for us to go back to Yosemite for a second day. We were interested in driving up to Glacier Point, then doing the Sentinel trail, which would have given us great views. However, when we calculated in two hours there, then two hours back, and four hours to Napa—that was just too much driving for one day. And we were already booked in a hotel that night in the Napa area, so we decided to just head there.

That meant we could be more relaxed about our getaway time, and able to take a longer but more scenic route (especially since we had GPS help). This morning we had better luck with restaurants being open, and ate a little coffee shop. It was not a fancy place, and Jean was impressed with my bravery in trying the Belgian waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. But they were actually quite good. Jean stuck to the safer choice of bacon and eggs, and those were fine, too.

Our scenic route did present some nice countryside—a lot of burnt grass (so dried out it looked nearly dead) hills, with all these green puffy trees growing among it. A different look. And we discovered there was another California wine region besides Napa and Sonoma, though we didn’t actually stop at any of those wineries as we drove by them.

The drive did take about 3 to 4 hours. As we got closer, we were hungry, so we decided to head toward a restaurant destination (per our Frommer’s book) rather than our hotel. We found the place listed, called Don Giovanni’s, and had lunch there. We had a good, friendly waiter who suggested some interesting things. For example, when we ordered some olives to start (olives grow here), he asked if we meant the marinated or the fried. Of course, we meant marinated—that was the only option on the menu—but he explained they used to do them fried as well. And we could still get them that way if we wanted. So we did, and that was pretty good. Everything is better deep fried!

Jean also had a couple cheeses to start—a goat and sheep’s milk. As a main course, I had the “trenne” pasta with lamb and (more) olives, while Jean went with the linguine and clams. I had a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon—very big and fruity—while Jean had a couple glasses of a sparkling “blanc de noir”: sparkling wine from Pinot Noir grapes. Then we were too full for dessert.

There was no big rush to get to our hotel, so we decided to visit the Mumm Estates winery, as it wasn’t too far and sounded interesting. It specializes in sparkling wines and has an art gallery on-site. We visited that first. It featured an exhibit of photographs on an environmental theme. Some really interesting and beautiful photographs. We then went for a tasting, which they do on a sunny patio, with table service. You can choose among several flights of three sparkling wines. Jean thought he should abstain, so I tried three varieties of their champagne-type, all aged a different amount of time. It did make a difference.

Three glasses of bubbly Patio with champagne glass

We didn’t end up buying any wine here, but Jean did get a cheese reference book that he ended up reading during the rest of the trip. (Really.)

It was getting a bit late in the day (a lot of wineries close at 5:00), but we did get to one more called A Dozen Vintner’s. Here they gather the wines from several smaller wineries that just aren’t big or accessible enough to run their own tasting rooms. Our host was good at sussing out our taste (not necessarily big red fans) and presenting us wines we’d find interesting. We tried several types from various wineries—Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meritage, Cabarnet Franc, Cabarnet Sauvignon. We ended up buying three bottles here: A Viognier, a Pinot Noir, and a red blend.

We then headed to our hotel, in the town of American Canyon. Our GPS kept making us do odd turns and we never seemed to come across the hotel—between that and all the wine tasting, I just got the giggles. Jean held it together and called the hotel for help. We weren’t far; it’s just that the street was new and our GPS wasn’t aware of it. With the directions, we found it. It was a Holiday Inn—very nice, with a spa and pool.

After settling in a bit, we asked the hotel person about dining options. Within walking distance were only fast food places, so that was out. The town of American Canyon had a few somewhat more interesting options, but the best were in the neighbouring town of Napa. Since we were going to drive anyway, we decided to drive into Napa. (Yay! Said the hotel person, clearly living vicariously.)

Again, lunch had been big, so we weren’t super hungry. We walked around and perused our restaurant options, but some places were closed, some were quite pricey, and so somehow, we ended up at this vegetarian restaurant below the yoga studio. Jean was skeptical, and as I perused the menu, I couldn’t help giggling, again. (Even though the wine had definitely worn off!) Shall we have the celtuce leaves or the whipped avocado?

Vegetarian menu

Jean grumpy, me giggly, we somehow got it together enough to order some dishes. We started with the appetizer sampler of lavendar almonds, olives, peppers in lime and salt, and chick peas in tomato sauce. As mains, we did in fact select the avocado and carrot, along with the gnochi with cheese and tomatoes.

And you know what? Everything was actually really delicious. We each had a glass of wine as well. (But that’s not why the food was delicious.) And we were too full for dessert again, but Jean did savor a dessert wine while I sipped on a decaf Americano.

Tuesday, September 29 — Sipping through Sonoma

Breakfast the Holiday Inn proved rather an improvement over the plastic-wrapped Danish of Jamesville: a breakfast bar with decent options like bagels, granola, yogurt, and hard-boiled eggs.

So that was a better start to the day of wine tasting I had prepped for by selecting the most interesting-sounding options from Pauline Frommer’s guidebook. The general plan was to head into Sonoma first, then come back via Napa.

Our first stop was Robledo Family Winery, a small winery developed by Mexican immigrants. But despite the promising signs on the way proclaiming that the winery was open from 10–5, and although we arrived around 10:05, there seemed to be no one around. I suggested we could call, but Jean thought it would be better to move on to the next stop.

That was Bartholomew Park Winery, which the guidebook informed us, didn’t open for tastings until 11:00. Unfortunately, they were right about that. Fortunately, they offered us something to do while waiting: Hike on their grounds. We’d been basically without exercise the day before, and of course the weather was beautiful again, so the walk was quite appealing. Once we figured out their maps, we found the trails well-marked. They were a bit more arduous than we’d expected (we weren’t in hiking boots), but we managed, and did get some nice views of Sonoma.

Sonoma views

Plus, when done, the winery was open for tasting. We tried everything they had on offer and, my goodness, everything was delicious. All organic, and nothing available anywhere but right at this winery. So of course, we couldn’t resist buying more: a zesty Sauvignon and an amazing Cabernet Sauvignon that we’ll try to age a bit.

So that was it for Sonoma—which seemed like a really cute town, as we drove through it. Next we headed to the small village of Glen Ellen, with a target of Benzinger Family Winery, who gave these interesting-sounding tram tours. But we had just missed the start of one (by five minutes), and we were a little hungry, so we decided to drive just down the hill to go for lunch, then come back.

We selected an oyster bar as our destination, and proceeded to have quite a fine meal. We did indeed start with the oyster sampler, which was very good (plus, no food poisoning!). Then we both had the soup of the day, which was squash soup. It was amazing—very rich and sweet, with candied walnuts. I then had one of the daily specials, which was crab cake with salad, while Jean had mussels in cream sauce with prosciutto. Both were very nicely done, the seafood seeming very fresh. To drink, I went with a Viognier/Chenin Blanc blend, while Jean had a Sauvignon Blanc. (In general on this trip, we really appreciated how all the restaurants seemed to have a generous selection of wines by the glass.)

Cabernet grapesSo after that, we headed back to Benzinger, this time timing it better for a tour start. Which was very good. They explained how they converted from traditional, heavy-on-pesticides winery to a mostly organic one. They gave the history of the family, and how the winery currently ran. They let us taste Cabernet Franc grapes, which are delicious and sweet. And apart from the vineyards and press equipment, we got to see the caves that they dug out for wine storage, partly in response the California power outages that made air conditioning unreliable. And, we did do some tasting. And although we had warm feelings about the winery and its philosophy, the wines themselves didn’t really blow us away, so we didn’t buy any. (The tour had been $15 each, so we didn’t have to feel bad about free tasting.)

Vineyard

It was actually getting late in the day again, so we made our way to the big-name Rodney Strong Vineyards, in Healdsburg, which was a bit of hike. And then it was kind of confusing actually finding their tasting room. But when we managed, we went right for the estate tastings, and they were fantastic. (We were also impressed at how they opened a new bottle of estate Pinot Noir for us, though it was late in the day, then threw it out after one taste, and opened another.) So though we we already above the quota of wine we’re allowed to bring back, we bought two of the estate Pinot Noirs, and a Zinfandel. (I would then spend part of the trip fretting about that quantity.)

There was no more time, really, to visit more wineries, so we took a bit of winding route down toward Yountville, which we’d decided was our supper destination. Again, we weren’t truly that hungry, but somehow felt obliged to eat. We definitely took our time walking around before settling on a restaurant, which ended up being the French Jeanty. We had to eat on the patio, as there was no room inside, but that wasn’t much of a hardship. To start, we shared a tomato tarte tatin, which was quite nice. I drank a Pinot Noir, Jean a cabernet sauvignon.

For the mains, I went with the special: risotto with rabbit, morels, and peas. Honestly, morels are like this miracle food, they’re just so delicious. Terribly hungry or not, I ate very bite. (I will say the place did not specialize in enormous servings. That was generally true of where we went, and much appreciated.) Jean had the cassoulet, which is a bean stew with lamb. That was also very tasty. For dessert, Jean ordered an epoisses (a French cheese), which was served with pears and candied walnuts.

Back at the hotel, we tried out the hot tub. It was a cool evening but warm water, and we slept well afterward.

Wednesday, September 30 — Finding our way to San Francisco

After breakfast and a straightforward checkout (we had prepaid), we headed to San Francisco. Jean thought it would be interesting to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, so he programmed the GPS to take us that route—it’s not the most direct way. I had to be the photographer, since Jean was driving, so I did some practicing on the way. I think I managed to get some OK shots of the famous bridge.

Driving on Golden Gate bridge

Then we had to find our way to the airport to return the car. A bit tricky with the Golden Gate detour, but the GPS did get us there, though we then missed the turn-off to car rental return and had to find our way back to it. At the Avis parking lot, many people seemed to be returning their vehicles and it was a bit chaotic. This would prove to be an issue later on.

But the next part was pretty smooth. Right from the car rental place, we took the BART—Bay Area Rapid Transit—pretty much right to our hotel. It was Hotel Whitcomb, in the Arts district, very close to the Orpheum Theatre where Wicked was playing. And it had a much fancier lobby than we were expecting. Our sixth-floor room was on the small side (which was as we were expecting), but nice, with a really big closet. So we unpacked everything.

Hotel lobby

Once again, we were pretty hungry, so we headed into Chinatown. Which meant hiking up some of the famous hills nearly right away. But all Chinatowns are in some ways the same, eh? The crowds, the food stalls, the jewelry stores… Anyway, we did find our way to a dim sum place. It was on the late side though, around 2:00, so dim sum was definitely winding down. We ended up ordering the last few items from a menu as there weren’t enough carts circulating any more. And we overdid it; we were really full by the end.

We then took a walk down Powell Street, and got a look at the famous cable cars.

San Francisco cable cars

Our next stop was Rasputin Records, which sold used and new CDs and DVDs. I was excited; Jean was looking around desperately for someplace else to shop. But there wasn’t too much else around of interest to thim. So we both ended up in Rasputin, and I promised not to take too long.

The first floor was all punk and rap—nothing I was after. A climb up to the second floor brought me to jazz and blues, which wasn’t quite it, either. I eventually found a directory that said rock was on the fourth floor. And with a bit more searching, figured out that there were no stairs up—just access via an old elevator, painted in funky colors.

There was indeed some good selection and decent prices, though it took me a while to locate the used vs. new—used obviously being better priced. I ended up with Who By Numbers, Roger Daltrey Best of Ballads and Rockers, Queen’s A Night at the Opera in remastered CD and DVD DTS versions (only the third format I’ve bought that particular recording in; not so bad :-), and Elvis Costello’s first album, My Aim Is True, in a double-CD release.

Jean, meanwhile, kept himself busy taking some photos of the store posters.

Music poster

Next, we tried to locate some art galleries, guided by the Lonely Planet book. We did find Catherine Clark’s gallery, which was presenting an Afghanistan-related exhibit. One artist took words from the Koran and painted them along with scenes from modern American life. If you had the patience to read the verse, it was really interesting. More charitable to women than you might think, but with much focus on faith and belief in God being key. There was also a movie cobbled together from John Wayne and Ronald Reagan westerns with a more modern movie (no idea which) about Afghanistan.

The next gallery we tried to get into was closed, and it was getting later in the day. But we somehow found our way to Union Square, which is a nice part of San Francisco. Though all the chi-chi stores in that area were closed at this point.

We stopped off at the hotel for a bit, where we realized a couple things:

  1. We were tired of trying to eat dinner when we weren’t really that hungry, so we would just go out for drinks to start.
  2. We didn’t have one of our cameras. Because, we realized, we had left it in the rental car.

Now fortunately, the missing camera was not the main one Jean had been using, so it’s not like we’d lost a bunch of actual photos. But still, it was a camera we both liked and we wanted it back. But a call to Avis only indicated that their Lost and Found was closed for the day. We’d have to resolve it during business hours.

Off, then, to Cave Wine Bar, just down the street from our hotel, a recommendation of our Lonely Planet guide. They offered many different wines by the glass or half-glass, including many not from California. Though this caused some argument at the time (too much wine! I said), we ended up both starting with a set of four half-glasses of white wine: a German 1996 Riesling that was just outstanding; a couple French wines; and an Italian one. All interesting and very different from each other.

Thinking that a moderate amount of food might be OK, we ordered a cheese plate and a side of mini baked potatoes.

And, we tried some reds: A French syrah, and two Italians, one a Gamay. And another cheese plate. It was fairly quiet in there that night so we got quite good service, with recommendations for what to order (and not directing us to all the most expensive ones). All in all, a nice way to spend the first evening in San Francisco.

That night, before bed, we spent a bit of time preparing for our trip to Alcatraz.

Thursday, October 1 — Fisherman’s Wharf

That much wine was not really conducive to deep sleep, but at least it wasn’t so hard to get up at 7:30. We had prebought tickets to an Alcatraz tour leaving at 10:00 am. Breakfast was not included in the hotel package, and the hotel restaurant seemed a little expensive, so we ate in the diner across the street. It was pretty good. I had French toast (I’m so daring! :-), while Jean stuck with eggs. We both took the fruit instead of potatoes option.

Then, we had to deal with the camera business, so we called Avis again. It did take a while on hold, but they were able to confirm that they had our camera. Since we were going back there (to the airport) on Sunday, albeit very early, we got a confirmation that we’d be able to pick it up then from the desk.

That set, we went to catch the tram. The stop was just outside the hotel and it went all the way to Pier 33, where we had to catch the boat to Alcatraz. However… that turned out to be a lot of stops on the way. And we’d been delayed with the Avis. So we kept looking at our watch, and though neither of us fretted out loud, we were both thinking we were literally going to miss the boat. I was hoping they might let us switch our tickets for a later departure.

However… We actually made it! And it meant no waiting. Just arrive and get right on the boat.

Beautiful day again. The boat ride over was shorter than we expected, and gave nice views of Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco shoreline. And Alcatraz Island itself, of course.

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz is now a national park. At our mandatory orientation on the island, we learned that it had started as a military fortress, then became a military prison, then became the notorious federal prison, before being closed and becoming a park. With a little blip whereupon Natives occupied the island for a while.

Once there, we learned we could stay as long as we wanted—up to the last boat of the day, anyway. We started by watching a documentary about the island, by Discovery Channel, which was pretty good. We then went for our included audiotour of the prison itself. It was very well done, taking you through the cells where prisoners were initially brought, the larger solitary cells, the notorious “hole” where misbehaving prisoners were kept in dark, barren cells.

Prison cells

And we saw the kitchen, and the warden’s office, the showers, the visitor’s area, the yard, the gardens, and the regular cells for the longer-term prisoners. There were stories about some of the more notorious inmates, and about incidents such as the escape attempt from the Clint Eastwood movie, and the riots in which two prison guards were killed. Definitely a recommended tour.

Yard at Alcatraz Island

Afterward, we walked through the garden area on our own, then took the boat back to the Wharf area.

Garden at Alcatraz

We were hungry, so we headed toward a restaurant first: the Blue Mermaid, which proved to be a little bit of a hike. They had a nice patio to eat at. We each started with a cup of creamy chowder, then I had the linguine in clam sauce while Jean went with trout and green beans. It wasn’t the best seafood ever, but it was decent. We also each had a glass of white wine.

Then we headed back to Pier 39, the most touristy part of San Francisco. But it’s kind of nice touristy. We’d heard about all these sea lions they had, and wanted to see them. Well, they weren’t hard to find— they’re loud! And so many of them!

Sea lions on rock

Then we paid to go into the Aquarium. It’s interesting in that it’s built into the water, so you have the various fish swimming above and around you.

Aquarium photo

They also had some tanks of non-native species, like tropical fish. The jellyfish made for good photos.

Jellyfish

We got to see them feed the fish, which certainly causes a stir in the tank! On the upper levels, they had some land animals like turtles, snakes, lizards, chinchillas, and miniature hedgehogs.

Once we felt we were done with the Fisherman Wharf area, we went to the cable car stop to take that back. We had to wait in line for a bit, but did get on eventually. And then somehow ended up never paying for the ride, which was a bonus.

We’d read that the SFMOMA (modern art gallery) was half-price on Thursday evenings, so after resting at the hotel a bit, we decided to head there next. But there was a mondo lineup. We concluded it wasn’t worth the savings, so decided to find a restaurant for dinner instead.

We settled on a Thai place. We each started with a cocktail (just seems a Thai thing to do), then shared a couple tuna appetizers. They were good. Jean also had a spicy soup. As mains, we shared honey duck and scallops in coconut sauce. Service was super-fast, though; we couldn’t believe how quickly we were done.

In fact, that kind of left us with a dilemma for what to do, as it was a bit early for bed. We thought of going to see Wicked; unfortunately, that occurred to us a bit too late to actually get tickets. We considered taking the tram to the Castro, but that was kind of far, so we weren’t convinced it was the best idea. Finally, we just walked around Union Square a bit before retiring to some TV and such.

Friday, October 2 — Financial District, SFMOMA, and the Castro

After another breakfast at Sam’s Diner, at which we both had French toast (I knew you were all in suspense about that), we took the tram into the Financial District for a free walking tour called “City Scapes and Public Spaces”. The city of San Francisco offers hundreds of free walking tours, all run by volunteers, and this was one we’d picked out from a fairly bare listing we’d printed from the web.

It turned out to be very interesting. It took us inside a number of lovely bank and financial institution buildings, which you don’t typically get into, as a tourist. And it showed us all these public, park-like spaces tucked into the nooks and crannies of all the tall buildings: on roofs, in inside atriums, in small areas around back. Earlier ones were put in place as a gesture of goodwill on behalf of the companies, in response to concern about more tall buildings dotting the San Francisco landscape. Later on, these spaces were mandated as part of the building code, and they had to be open to the public, not just to the people working there. The idea was that people needed to see fountains, trees, plants, art, and other signs of nature and creativity amidst all this concrete. One downside of the tour, though, is that few pictures were permitted.

Building statues

The tour was 2 hours, from 10:00 to noon, so then we headed into Chinatown again, thinking about lunch. We got distracted by a jewelry store on the way, where I tried on some pearls. I was actually surprised how nice a triple set of good-quality pearls looked on me, but I really hadn’t been planning to buy a $250 necklace on the trip (though maybe that it is a great price—I wouldn’t know). So I ended up with a wire chain of smaller, floating pearls in several colors. Pretty, but certainly not the statement piece the other was.

Pearls in restaurant

And now we decided to try the SFMOMA. They were having a special exhibit of Richard Avedon photographs, and we happened to arrive just in time for a guided tour of that. It was good; Jean in particular was considerably more impressed than he expected to be. (I knew of Avedon before from his celebrity photographs.) The exhibit was somewhat chronological, showing his start in creative, dynamic fashion photography, then moving to his portrait photography of celebrities. One photo, of an assemblage of members of Andy Warhol’s Factory, filled an entire wall. (The naked Candy Darling was certainly the most striking of the subjects.)

Dior photograph
Marilyn Monroe

Another rooms was devoted to the series he did of ordinary people in Texas, perhaps most famously, a bee keeper. After the tour, we spent more time at the exhibit on our own, looking more closely at the photos that hadn’t been highlighted.

Bee keeper

We got a little separated at one point, but when we regrouped, we spent a bit of time watching a five-screen film called Motherhood that assembled scenes from five Hollywood movies: Kramer vs. Kramer, The Good Mother, Terms of Endearment, Mommie Dearest, and a Julia Roberts movie, such that it seemed the lead actresses from each were talking with each other about the nature of motherhood. Pretty interesting.

Our next stop was the permanent collection called “Matisse and beyond”, which gave a nice overview of modern painting and sculpture, with a good balance of works by Pollack, Picasso, Kahlo, Diego, Miron, and so on. Then we went up to the fifth floor where recent acquisitions were on display. Quite a range—some large, kind of bizarre installations of objects, some intricate and lovely paintings.

And then we had a cappuccino on the sunny public space at the top.

We then took advantage of the fact that a tram ticket can be used for up to 50 minutes after you purchase to zip back to the hotel and freshen up before tram-ing back to the Castro, the last stop on the line.

Though this had been a fairly gritty neighborhood before, famous as the main gay district of San Francisco, we’d read that it had gone pretty upscale since then, making it a nice, safe place to walk around in the evening. (Whereas our hotel was actually pretty close to the dodgiest part of town—said part being surprisingly close to some of the main tourist spots—so our walks home typically involved going by homeless people mumbling to themselves and such.) And this was true. There isn’t so much to see from a tourist attraction level—there’s Harvey Milk Plaza, the old (still operating) Castro Theatre, the somewhat famous Different Light bookstore—but it’s just nice to walk around in.

But our first stop was dinner. We had picked out a place called Sumi which was supposed to have a very talented chef producing creative California cuisine at reasonable prices. We found Sumi at the expected location, but the menu was completely unexpected: It was apparently under new ownership now, and was a sushi place! Of course, we like sushi, so once we’d mentally adjusted, all was good. We had lovely trout sashimi to start, and our mains came with miso soup and Japanese salad, both tasting a little better than the usual. Jean had a plate of sushi rolls, while I tried the (cooked) seafood trio of salmon and two types of white fish. The miso-coated fish was particularly delicious. I also had the dessert of the day, which involved cookies and chocolate.

We walked around the neighborhood a bit more before heading back. The main area was a smaller than we’d expected; didn’t take too long to cover the whole thing. It was still pretty early, but we didn’t see anything too wild going on. At one point we had to stop in at another bar, because I simply had to use the facilities. But no stories from that, either.

Saturday, October 3 — Russian Hill and Lovelution

We planned to take another free City Tour today, this time at the Russian Hill area, the hilliest habitated part of San Francisco. It wasn’t the easiest part of town to get to, but we thought we’d figured out which bus we needed to take to get there. But then we were stymied by Sam’s Diner which, for some reason, was really slow for us on this day: slow to take our order, slow to bring the food. When we finally wolfed that down and paid up, we weren’t too sure the bus would get us there on time.

So instead, we flagged down a cab. And boy, did that replace our concern about getting there on time with concern about just surviving the trip. We felt that we were flying through those hills! So in the end, we were there a bit early. We took the time to look at the *“crookedest street in America”*—along with a bunch of other tourists. It certainly is a windy one.

Crooked street in San Francisco

Then we joined the tour, which began with the point that Russian Hill is still not very easy to get to, and that developing it over the years has been a challenge because of the topography. And that this was perhaps the most strenuous of the walks offered, because you do go up and down all these hills and stairways. The focus was generally on the architecture—the few Victorians that had survived the fires of 1911, and the later styles that had come into vogue. One of the bigger thrills was that a flock of wild parrots were sort of following us along for the first hour; we’d read that it was pretty rare to actually get to see these parrots.

Wild parrots

And we also saw some lovely gardens, and of course, got some pretty good views.

Hilly view

After that two-hour tour, we decided to walk into the North Beach area, as we’d heard that was a nice place to hang out. Jean became quite smitten with the place, figuring that might be where we’d try to stay if we came back. It certainly did have a nice, comfortable vibe. After a cappuccino stop at a diner, because we needed to use the facilities, we went for a proper lunch at a restaurant called Trattoria Pinocchio. They had, it has to be remarked, a really beautiful blond hostess who made Jean smile every time she walked by. I suppose some payback for the blonde yoga-looking dude I’d been ogling in Russian Hill.

Food was quite good here. We started just with some marinated olives, then we each had a type of ravioli: pomodoro and aragosta. And some red wine. The pasta was all made in-house, the sauces nicely flavored, and the portions quite reasonable size. Once again we sat outside on the patio; I don’t think we’ve ever done that so much on any other trip. But what weather.

Our next destination was a chocolate shop I’d read about, called Truffles. We bought a box of chocolates there, then had a cappuccino (me) and hot chocolate (Jean), which entitled us to three more samples of chocolate. Which were very good. They were being made right in front of us, so the freshness was apparent. We sat outside that shop and drank our beverages.

Then we decided to walk back to our hotel. As we got closer, we noticed more and more people. Young people. Sparkly people. People wearing not that many clothes, though the wind was really starting to pick up. This might have startled us normally, but we were actually fore-armed with knowledge: Lovelution Festival was on. And headquarters were at the Civic Center, right by our hotel.

So of course, events also spread into our hotel, where some of the kids were staying, and where many others were trying to sneak in and use the facilities. We freshened up a bit and thought we’d go check things a bit closer. You know, for the experience. :-)

It was, mainly, very crowded. (Except around the completely naked, not-quite-so-young guy, who was being given a wide berth.) I wasn’t really sure what we were trying to get to. There were a few stages with bands and DJs, playing techno music. Earlier, there had been a big parade. We took it in for a while, then concluded we were too old, too Canadian, and too clothed to really get it, so we headed back to pack for the trip home.

Lovelution participants

But first… One more dinner. We settled on Cav Wine Bar again, but this time, with an actual meal. We were a little concerned that it might be full due to all the Lovelution people, but that didn’t seem to be their kind of place. It was quite busy, but more with the theatre crowd, who was closer to our age. It was a very nice meal (and we were recognized from our last visit, which was nice). The menu was small but each thing seemed to be well-prepared. I started with salad, Jean with scallops. I then had a dorade (fish) dinner while Jean had the gnocchi. And we shared cheese for dessert. And we had a few glasses of wine, of course.

We were a little concerned that the youthful presence at the hotel and in the neighborhood would prevent us sleeping, but it didn’t turn out to be that bad. There was some very loud organizing going on in the hallway around 10:00, but we weren’t actually trying to sleep that early. And then I think they basically went out dancing all night. As for outside sounds, they were mostly drowned out by the wind, which had really developed in strength starting late afternoon.

Sunday, October 4 — Home, home again. It’s good to be there, in the end.

An 8:00 AM flight doesn’t seem so early until you factor in getting there two hours ahead, plus getting to the airport, and now we had to add stopping at the car rental place for our camera. Sigh. Though the good part was that it kind of put us back on Eastern time, and it actually wasn’t as hard to get up as I’d expected.

We had investigated the night before and learned that the BART didn’t run that early Sunday morning, so we’d asked the hotel to get us a cab. There was a bit of confusion around that in the morning, but ultimately, the cab was there on time. He was a really friendly guy, talking about the insane and all the crazy Lovelution driving he’d done the night before. Though he said that was no comparison to the Folsom Festival (gay leather) the weekend before.

At Avis, they were unable to find our camera at the Lost and Found. Their system showed it was there, but they couldn’t put their hands on it. They said they would send it to us, so we gave all our information. We’ll see. It hasn’t arrived so far, but it can take a while from the States.

Next, Air Canada. Unlike Toronto, where they have tons of agents, there were maybe three counters for at least two flights—one to Toronto, one to Montreal. It actually moved reasonably quickly, but it was quite the lineup.

And then, one of our bags was too heavy. This wasn’t a big surprise, given the wine, but we’d hoped we’d be OK given that the other bag was actually quite light. But that’s not how it works. (So, for future reference, you’re better off buying a second bag to put the extra in, to make sure each individual bag is under the weight limit.) So we had to pay an overweight fee.

Then we had a bit of time to get some breakfast, though the options weren’t too inspiring.

But, the flight did leave on time, and actually ended up arriving early. To while away some time enroute, we watched The Proposal, a fairly diverting romantic comedy.

And we got through customs in what seemed liked record time. We honestly reported that we had 8 bottles of wine, and had carefully recorded how much we’d spent on stuff (well under what we were allowed to spend).

The wait for a luggage seemed a bit long (usually there’s none since customs takes forever) and then it was time to hand in our customs form. He looked at it and waved us through anyway. Yay!

Then no issues getting the car or finding our way home. House was pretty cold when we arrived, though, 16C! We immediately got the heat going… Good thing the cats have fur.

Also see: California Dreamin’ (blog post)

And: San Francisco Smugmug album (these photos and more)

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