Puttin’ It Down for Californ-I-a

The blog recaps of my various adventures always take me forever to write and you forever to read, because they’re so long. I should probably learn to be more succinct, but for one, I write these as much for myself as out of expectation that anyone will care to read it, and I want to be able to relive the memories years from now through my own eyes. Also, for the handful of you who read these faithfully, you always say that you enjoy the details, so who am I to take that away from you? (Haha.)

However, as it happens, my most recent vacation spanned an entire week and two different states, so if I was ever going to recap a trip in two separate blogs, it seemed like the perfect time to take advantage of the natural dividing line. First up: San Francisco, California!

I’ve had San Francisco on my list of “Places to Visit” for years and years. There’s no sure rhyme or reason as to why, but it may just all trace back to my love of this song, which technically has very little to do with the city in its name: The Ballad of San Francisco. While it’s totally plausible that I’d traverse the country over a 13-year-old song (and I’ll one day see Trafalgar Square and think of a different song on that very same album), I’ve certainly also heard enough good things about San Francisco over the years to validate my interest in it.

If anything could have dampened by finally-going-to-San-Francisco spirits, the tedious hours spent trying to figure out their hellish public transportation system would have done the trick. I could sum it up in a word, but that word is not appropriate for all audiences. I was coming to the conclusion that taxis were the more sensible choice when my traveling companion, Jessica, told me that she’d spoken with a friend who used to live in San Francisco, and the first advice out of her mouth had been, “Don’t take public transportation. Just hop in a cab.” This was all decided before a key part of San Francisco’s public transportation system went on strike, which began a few days before our visit, so I suppose we made a wise and nearly-prophetic choice on that score.

After an obscenely-early flight from Lynchburg to Charlotte, an airport breakfast, in-air cat naps on the “Florence-of-Arabia-long” flight across the country, three hours “gained,” and a cab ride later, we were happy to be able to check into our hotel early, just before lunch time. We even got a room with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge!

We didn’t linger at the hotel long before setting off to “start” our day in the Castro district. We saw a lot of rainbow flags all over San Francisco during the course of our visit, but nowhere were they in such high concentration as in Castro, so it made for a very colorful, cheerful welcome as we explored the neighborhood.

We were all very ready for lunch, so we grabbed some amazing sandwiches from Ike’s and took them over to Mission Delores Park for a picnic, which included some great people-watching. (And perhaps a little people-eavesdropping, too. I find a direct correlation between how loudly a person talks about their relationship in public and how dysfunctional it is, but they think they’re impressing everyone in earshot with their fascinating lives, and it’s free entertainment for passersby, soooo…)

I usually find that the best way to discover a city is on foot, so we set out from Mission to walk over to Haight-Ashbury, thinking we’d enjoy some sights along the way. However, even with the map I printed that shaded each street by degree of incline to choose the least challenging route, the primary “sight” we saw was the sidewalk in front of us as we climbed the street-mountains, feet to the pavement and nose to the pavement ahead of us. I’m using hyperbole for effect, of course, but even so, we were all pretty happy to reach Buena Vista Park for a bench respite.

After leaving Buena Vista Park, we were on level ground for a while as we walked through Haight-Ashbury toward Golden Gate Park. This famed neighborhood gave us plenty of sights, from colorful townhomes to audacious storefronts to the historic Amoeba Music building.

Our walk led us directly into Golden Gate Park, which is entirely manmade and modeled after New York’s Central Park, but 20 percent larger. It features several museums and gardens along with a football field that was once home to the San Francisco 49ers. Obviously, there was much more to see than we could have covered on foot, even if we spent all of our time there. However, we did pass by the lovely Conservatory of Flowers…

…and sat by a fountain in the Music Concourse Area…

…before making our way to the Japanese Tea Garden, which we explored in more detail.

We all climbed up and over this bridge. It was a lot easier to get up than it was to get down!

And we saw this Zen garden, but no rakes.

When we walked out of the garden, we were all ready to be off of our feet (and out of the heat) for a while, and we lucked out by finding a cab sitting right outside the garden, as if it was there at our whim. I asked the driver if she’d be willing to drive us to the Full House townhouse and keep the meter running while we got out and took photos before then transporting us to Alamo Square. She agreed to this, and said she give us the “tourist treatment” and point out some things along our way, which included these jeans turned planters on someone’s front porch.

I had found the Full House address online, but our cabby said she always thought the house was in Alamo Square, not on Broderick Street as I had said. I was pretty sure the Broderick address was the correct one, but the two places were not far apart, so I got her to take us down Broderick in spite of her doubts. I knew the house when I saw it. DJ and Stephanie’s window up there is quite unmistakable.

We took some photos and then hopped back in the cab. She wondered why we wanted to go to Alamo Square if that wasn’t the location of the Full House townhouse, and I said we wanted to see the Painted Ladies. She said we could see that from the car, too, so we decided to just have her drive us past there for a photo op, and then we could head back across town.

Here are the so-called “Painted Ladies of Alamo Square” with the San Francisco skyline behind them.

It turns out, the driver thought that the GREEN house on the end was the Full House house. I was giving her the benefit of the doubt before, thinking I could have been mistaken on the location, but NO WAY was their house green, and it looked nothing like that. So, future tourists, Broderick Street is where you need to be.

Given that, by California time, we’d all been up since midnight the night before, and we’d had a full day of travel and done a lot of walking, we were all feeling pretty tired by this point, so our cabby-tour-guide dropped us off at Union Square to look around, and we decided from there to just get some dinner and then retire early to the hotel.

Our walk from Union Square to Sam’s Grill for dinner took us past the Chinatown gate, where we paused for a photo op.

Traveling alone, I probably would have pressed on through my exhaustion and continued to explore, but it was nice to be outnumbered on that, because I was dead on my feet. So, I took a shower, climbed into bed, and was amused that daylight was still peeking through the curtains when I closed my eyes and went to sleep.

After a lengthy and glorious sleep, we awoke to another full day ahead. Plus, Thursday was the 4th of July!

I had read about a great breakfast spot online, and even emailed them in advance to make sure they’d be open that day. They replied in the affirmative and said that we should come early because they tend to get busy.

So, we hopped in a cab outside the hotel and I told the driver where we were going, and then asked him if he’d take us there via Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world,” named for a one block section that consists of eight hairpin turns, necessary because of the hill’s 51% grade.

The driver gave a smirk that said he’d acquiesced to this request on many occasions, which I figured to be the case. Nonetheless, it was fantastic fun, and we all snapped photos on the way down, and then he paused at the bottom to give us a chance to take a picture looking up the block.

He then dropped us off at our breakfast location: Mama’s at Washington Square. The restaurant wasn’t supposed to open for more than a half hour, and there was already a line forming around the block. Jessica exclaimed when she saw all the people lined up as we arrived, and I saw another grin cross the driver’s face – this was nothing new to him, either.

We joined the line that included locals and tourists alike, and took turns stepping out to take photos, because it was a beautiful morning, and the Saints Peter and Paul Church (located at 666 Filbert Street – I kid you not) was right next door.

After filling up with a delicious breakfast that we all agreed was worth the wait, we headed up to Coit Tower (pictured above), which affords a nice 360-degree view of the city.

Even without going up to the top of the tower, the view from the base of the tower on Telegraph Hill is quite nice. We could see Lombard Street, which we had ridden down that morning…

…as well as Alcatraz, which was next on our agenda.

I had read online that there was a long set of stairs leading down from Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill, which wound up down near the pier where the Alcatraz tours set off. The cab driver we had on Wednesday had even mentioned the same thing to us when she checked to make sure we were going to visit Coit Tower and Alcatraz. We weren’t a very long distance from the pier, as the crow flies, but we were just pretty high up, so we gave ourselves close to half an hour to get down the stairs and cross over to the pier.

What we didn’t realize was that there are two sets of stairs going up and down from Telegraph Hill. So, we started down the only staircase we saw, through a wooded area, and when we got out of the cover of trees and onto more level steps (most had been uneven stone), I looked up and ahead and realized I wasn’t seeing any water, which wasn’t a good sign since we were supposed to be walking toward a pier to catch a boat. I consulted my map and confirmed that we had climbed down the wrong side of Coit Tower… and that the most practical way back to the other side was back up and over.

Of course, not only had we just climbed down AT LEAST 100 steps that we’d have to turn around and climb back up, but now we were pressed for time and we had a boat to catch. So we had to HURRIEDLY climb 100+ stairs back up to Coit Tower, find the OTHER set of stairs, and climb all the way down the other side, and do it in 15 minutes.

Were it not for my love of a challenge, and fear of missing our boat, I feel pretty confident that I would have been ready to throw in the towel by the time I climbed back up to the top. I’m sure it was GREATLY appreciated by my cohorts that I kept yelling back how many minutes we had to make it to the boat, too.

We obviously didn’t count the stairs when we were climbing them, so I can’t be sure how many stairs we climbed down before realizing we had to climb back up, but we’d gotten at least halfway to the bottom when the error was realized. However, I was able to look up the number of stairs that we walked down on the other side: 397. Plus, when we got to the bottom, we still had to hoof it another five blocks to the pier. But, you never doubted us, did you? We made it and still had time for me to buy a $3 bottle of water (worth it) before climbing on the boat to Alcatraz.

As we pulled away from the dock, we looked up at Coit Tower, and had a sudden realization of exactly how far we had walked to get down from that hill.

As we pulled up to Alcatraz, we spotted Robert Pattinson’s doppelganger, working his day job.

Alcatraz Island, itself, (also known as “The Rock”) was actually rather scenic. The views of San Francisco, the Bay, and the natural beauty of the island provided an interesting contrast to the building that was once the famous federal penitentiary also known as Alcatraz. That building, though obviously old and run down, was still intact, while other buildings (officer housing and a club) had been burned down during the Native American occupation (1969-1971).

We took an audio tour of the cell house, which was narrated by former inmates and guards. I’m not usually the type to do an audio tour, but it did have a great deal of interesting information as it guided us through the prison.

We were able to enter some of the cells in D block, which housed some of the most notorious prisoners of Alcatraz, including Machine Gun Kelly, Creepy Karpis, the Birdman, Al Capone, and… Jessica Tucker.

We did let Jessica out of her cell so that she could have some exercise time in “The Yard,” which is just lovely at this time of year.

Thai did her best gangsta face for this photo.

The water is too cold and the currents and undertow are too strong around Alcatraz, so we made our escape by boat to head back to the mainland.

San Francisco’s public transit may be a nightmare, but they do have some old-time and endearing transportation systems that are rife with tourists, like us, and we had to try it to make our experience complete. So, first up were the historic streetcars, which had a station right across from the pier. The trouble was, with the transport strike going on and the influx of people milling about for the 4th or the America’s Cup events, the systems that were still running were feeling the pinch… and so were we, after waiting 45 minutes for a streetcar that wasn’t A) going the wrong way, B) out of service, or C) too full to pick up more passengers.

At least we had a bit of entertainment while we were waiting. I am bummed that my serepticious picture-taking meant I cut off this guy’s glasses and hat, but WOW. I have no idea what was in all of those bags and probably do not want to know. Thai, whose age makes her less shy about staring at someone who looks crazy, reported to us later that the photos hanging around his neck were all of himself… shirtless.

Hey, look! I think another Streetcar is coming!

We finally made it on board! The driver was crazy and yelling out the window at everyone, but we were moving, so we were grateful.

We hopped off to get lunch before taking a trolley back downtown, only to discover that the place we were headed was closed for the 4th. Luckily, there were plenty of options around, so we just walked into the next place we saw and did OK.

After our experience getting on a streetcar, I was terrified about our plans to ride the trolley, but I’d have been brokenhearted to leave San Francisco without doing it, so it was going to happen one way or the other. There was a LONG line that wrapped around the trolley station and covered two blocks, and I recalled the words of our cab driver on day 1 who said it often takes 2 hours to get on board. I saw an empty trolley that was stopped, and went over and asked one of the conductors if the trolleys were running as normal or if they were shutting down early for the 4th. He said they were running on schedule, every 10 minutes, and would be until 10pm. He was friendly enough that I pointed at the line and said, “How long do you think this line will take us? An hour? Two?” He said, “Oh no no. This line looks about 45 minutes long.” I thought it looked like eternity, but I’ll take hope where I can get it, so I pretended to believe that assessment and we lined up.

To our surprise, the line was moving pretty well, and the trolleys were loading in faster intervals than every 10 minutes. We were entertained by a crazy man who was standing out on the street yell-singing an odd conglomeration of songs a cappella at passersby, in no key whatsoever and with a very vague sense of the melody. His selection varied from songs I knew from my Vacation Bible School days to “Killing Me Softly.” We were actually disappointed when the line moved us up so far that we couldn’t hear him anymore. In addition to the “musical” entertainment, it was pretty fascinating watching the trolleys pull up, then get spun around and redirected onto the track heading back in the other direction. Thus, in less than 45 minutes, which didn’t feel like much time at all, we were clambering on board the trolley like some jubilant extras in a Rice-a-Roni commercial.

Riding the trolley was every bit as fun as anticipated, compounded by the fact that I was happy I wasn’t going up and down those hills on foot. We rode along, grinning like fools, taking in the scenery, and at one point, I pulled the person hanging on to the outside of the trolley in closer to me as a huge van passed by us so closely that the side mirror nearly took her out. Hence, I advise finding a SEAT on the trolley, because people can’t drive.

The trolley let us off near the downtown Fisherman’s Wharf area, which is always crawling with tourists, but was even more packed as people crowded in to partake in the Fourth of July festivities and claim a spot for the fireworks that night. I am not a fan of crowds, especially crowds that swirl around with no sense of purpose or order, so I mostly just barreled through until I found a place that wasn’t so people-dense.

Pier 39 was one such place, and while there were no sea lions hanging around at the end of the pier as they apparently often do, there was still a nice view and breeze off the water. And once again, we looked back at Coit Tower, standing up above everything.

There were street performers and music all along the waterfront – one big Independence Day bash. We were planning to walk over to the Golden Gate Bridge and watch the fireworks from nearby, but when Jessica and Thai stopped at Ghirardelli Square to get something to eat, I walked down into Aquatic Park by the beach and talked to some locals who said we should watch the fireworks from there.

I was (understandably) alone in my desire to hike 3 miles to the bridge only to turn around and hike 3 miles back for fireworks, so we decided to postpone our trip to the Golden Gate until the morning, when we could take a cab. Still, that left us with several hours before the fireworks, so I did walk a bit of the path along the water just to check out the views. The bridge itself was still obstructed by haze, so I turned back after taking a few photos so we could secure a seat by the water to wait for the fireworks.

We ended up sitting at the top of some stone stairs along the water, with Thai sitting a few steps down, as close to the water as she could get without being in it. We sat listening to the (terrible) cover band from far off, and watching the boats buzzing about, preparing for the fireworks. As the sky started to darken, I noticed the Ghirardelli sign lighting up, so I stood up and started walking toward it to take a picture. No sooner had I walked away when a wave came in and splashed the rocks *just so,* and I heard a commotion and turned back to see Jessica and Thai, plus several others, jumping up and running back from the water, drenched and taken quite by surprise. So, thanks, Ghirardelli lights.

This also meant that we had to find another place to sit, which was a more difficult task than it had been when we arrived. Thai got a San Francisco hoodie and San Francisco socks to replace the ones she’d been wearing that were soaked. It was chilly for me by the water, and I was dry, so it wouldn’t have been much fun wet. We found a new seat, safely out of the reach of waves, and waited with the excited crowd for the show to begin.

It turned out that there were two fireworks displays visible from the water, which were mirror images of each other, one on our immediate left, and one slightly further off to the right. When the show began, it was natural to watch the ones that seemed to be going off right in front of our faces, but it was kind of neat to feel surrounded by fireworks. And, while I’ll grant that I haven’t really seen many fireworks shows outside my own town, but it was the most magnificent display I have ever seen. My point-and-shoot camera on the auto setting wasn’t really equipped to capture any of it, but that won’t stop me from posting far too many mediocre photos here:

I was grateful for my choice in hotel location once the fireworks were done. There were thousands of people all trying to leave the same place, no cabs to be had, and a bunch of “out of service” striking buses blocking up the street everywhere. We had an uphill climb for about 5 blocks, but then we were back at the hotel, which was a fairly painless experience, comparatively speaking.

Friday was our last day in California, and we weren’t spending it in San Francisco, but we still had not been to the Golden Gate Bridge, so we got up earlier than planned so we could fit that in before starting our drive down the coast, which we wanted to begin as soon as the rental car company opened at 8am.

We grabbed a cab outside of our hotel again, and I rattled off our long and somewhat ridiculous list of requests as we were climbing in, which included a pass through the nearest McDonald’s drive thru so that Thai could function, then driving us to the Golden Gate Bridge, parking and waiting for us to sight-see, and then driving us back across town to the rental place. About the time I finished this list and we were all situated in the car, the driver looked back with a familiar grin and said he remembered us from the day before. Seeing his face, I laughed – we managed to get the same cab driver two days in a row. AND he happily acquiesced to our requests two days in a row as well.

Friday was less hazy than the previous two days had been, so we had a better view of the bridge to enjoy.

I was clearly pretty excited to be there, because I must’ve kept handing my camera to Jessica to document that I was, in fact, at the Golden Gate Bridge. I had to laugh when I got home and looked at photos and saw I had quite a selection of poses at the bridge.

Our cab dropped us off at the rental car company about 60 seconds before they opened for business, so we were first through the door to get our car and get on the road. Heading out of San Francisco, we ran into rain and fog, and I was hoping that wasn’t going to be the order of the day, since we were supposed to be taking a scenic drive down the coastline. The fog and rain persisted for the first hour, but that was just highway and a back road, and then we stopped at a diner for breakfast. By the time we got back on the road, the rain had mostly dissipated, but the fog was holding steady. I considered crossing off the first stop on our list, thinking it would be a waste, but it was just a mile or so off of Hwy 1, so I figured we wouldn’t be losing much even if we couldn’t see anything. That mile off the highway was a bumpy dirt road, but when we got to the end of it, we were looking out over the cliffs of Redondo Beach, which were breathtakingly beautiful, even in the fog and mist. Unfortunately, I don’t think the photos did justice to the sight at all, so I’ll have to be careful to hang onto the picture in my mind.

As we continued down the coast, we kept pulling off every few miles to hop out and admire the view, even though the fog was hanging around. It would be ridiculous for me to post all of those photos here, but suffice it to say that there’s a reason the Pacific Coastal Highway is one of the most famous scenic drives in the country.

We did eventually stop pulling off randomly long enough to get to our second intended stop, Pigeon Point Lighthouse. It opened in 1972, and at 115 feet, it’s one of the tallest lighthouses in America.

As if the lighthouse and grounds didn’t already have that feeling of a place out of time, Thai found irrefutable proof:

The further south we drove, the more the weather improved. As soon as we caught the first glimpse of blue sky, we dove off the road at the next opportunity to document the moment.

Though we had been riding along miles and miles of beach all morning, there’s always a different and obvious vibe when you’re pulling into a beach town, and Santa Cruz is definitely that! We stopped for a while to walk along the Boardwalk, and I decided to ride the sky lift across the park so I could take in all the scenes from higher up!

About ten miles outside of Santa Cruz, Roaring Camp Railroad offered steam train rides through the Redwoods, leaving out from a kitschy village that looked like the set of an old western. We chugged along through the tall, tall trees, with light streaking in from above and steam rising from our train.

It was a nice change of pace to ride along in no particular hurry, and it was perhaps a bit too relaxing – the rhythm of the train had us all ready for a nap by the time we pulled back into the camp. Our conductor alerted us to the photo op before he blew all the extra water out of the side of our train (which I think had something to do with cleaning out the cylinders). It was a crazy sight.

Highway 1 is not particularly scenic from Santa Cruz to Monterey, so I had two snoozing passengers in the car and I was wishing for an afternoon nap, myself. Don’t worry – I didn’t take one, but I was happy when we finally pulled into Monterey so I could perk up and stretch my legs. This was accomplished with a walk around the much-ballyhooed Monterey Bay Aquarium. I am not generally taken with such places, but I can’t remember the last time I went to an aquarium, and theirs is one of the best in the country.

My favorite part, I think, was the jellyfish exhibit. It’s weird to look at these glowing blobs and know that they’re living creatures, but they are definitely pretty to photograph.

I was also pretty excited to see the penguins, but it wasn’t the same without Morgan Freeman narrating.

I searched for a while to locate the seahorses, which are such bizarre-looking creatures. It had never occurred to me that there were several different types of seahorses, either. They’re equal parts fascinating and totally creepy.

Of course, the best place to be in any aquarium is there the sea otters are. They don’t look like creepy sea creatures; they look like cuddly land creatures! I watched them play for a while, but most of them were hiding out where I couldn’t see them, and the one that wasn’t was so active that he was nearly impossible to track as he dove down into the water and then swam around the surface. I did get one picture of him after he swam over to my side of the case, turned a flip, and shot backwards to the other side of the tank on his back.

Having sufficiently covered the aquarium, we left and walked to dinner at Hula’s Island Grill. We sat out on their patio and enjoyed a fantastic dinner. We were all stealing off of each other’s plates to make sure we got to try everything. Additionally, it probably shouldn’t be worth noting, but it is – I went in their restroom, and not only was it clean, but they had a pop-up dispenser for disposable hand towels, and after washing my hands, I pulled one out (slightly larger than tissue-size) and that one towel, being of an actual decent quality, was sufficient to dry my hands fully without a need to grab another one (or another five, like most crappy public bathroom towels). I could insert a whole rant here about the environment-conscious movement creating a lot of impractical things that are of such low quality that they end up being more wasteful than what we started with, but instead of doing that, I suppose I’ll just say… man, those towels were delightful.

After dinner, there was one more place on our coastline itinerary that had been fairly tentative in my mind, but remembering the stunning sight we’d almost skipped that morning at Redondo Beach, I thought it was worth the few short miles to Pacific Grove’s Lovers’ Point Park, just to see if it was worth the stop. When I drove around the curve and saw it, I had a burst of energy to hop out of the car and explore a while. Jessica said she was staying in the car with the heat, but the allure of the sand and water was enough to tempt Thai to join me.

We even saw some surfers enjoying their last waves of the day before darkness fell.

We took the interstate back to San Francisco, and yet somehow it seemed like a much longer drive than we’d had on the way down, without the pull-offs to break up the monotony of lines on the road. When we finally pulled back into San Fran, it took a few circles around the block, but I managed to find street parking right next to the hotel so we didn’t have to fork over $30 to park in the hotel garage – hurray!

That concludes the California portion of the trip. Stay tuned for part 2, wherein we fly back one time zone and hang out in Colorado for a while!