Archive for May 2011

San Francisco Sea Lions   Leave a comment

San Francisco Sea Lions by cubechick
San Francisco Sea Lions, a photo by cubechick on Flickr.
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Posted May 24, 2011 by cubechick in San Francisco and Sonoma

Last day in San Francisco…   Leave a comment

Our last day proved to be a glorious one.  The weather was absolutely gorgeous!

We foolishly thought we could get tickets to Alcatraz that morning.  It was Thursday, and the next available tix were Sunday.  Doh!  Actually, I had thought to buy them in advance, but as we couldn’t decide exactly when we wanted to go, I never did make the purchase.  We’ll know better next time.  At least it was a lovely day for our walk along the piers.  Alcatraz being scrapped meant “plan B” kicked into gear, which was a harbor cruise.   The forty-five minute ride took us down the bay, past Alcatraz, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and back around the other side of Alcatraz.  At least we got views of both Alcatraz and the bridge that we hadn’t seen before.

After our cruise we began our forced march of San Francisco.  I’m not exaggerating here.  I have no idea of how many miles we covered in this single day, but it was a lot!  From Fisherman’s Wharf, we walked down to Fort Mason.  The weather was so beautiful we found ourselves wishing we’d rented a bike.  Earlier in our travels, we’d seen the signs for the bike tours over the Golden Gate bridge and had mocked them.  I had visions of trying to fight San Francisco traffic on a bike…no thank you!  Instead we found an extensive network of bike paths that clamored to be pedaled on.  Oh well something else for the “next time” list.

We meandered back from Fort Mason, past Ghirardelli Square to In-N-Out Burger.  DH had spotted the iconic sign our first night in the city and knew that we had to have lunch there.  We decided that the name should be changed to In-and-stand-around-and-wait-a-long-time-and out-Burger…but that probably wouldn’t fit on the sign.  🙂 We managed to find a table outside that wasn’t covered in pigeon poo and enjoyed our cheeseburger feast.  After carbo-loading on starchy fries (In-N-Out cuts their potatoes fresh, but doesn’t give them a soak to rinse off the starch which leaves them a bit “gummy”when they come out of the fryer) we decided to walk up Hyde St to Lombard St.

We’d walked past Hyde Street and knew that it was steep.  It wasn’t until we began our hike that we realized it was mountain climbing steep!  OMG!  Thankfully there were a few opportunities to wait for lights to change giving us a chance to catch our breath.  Phew!  Now I understood why so many people took the trolley to the top of the hill!  I felt like we deserved some sort of a certificate for climbing to the top!

Surely we’d burned off our lunch and arrived at the top of the “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard.  I had experienced the street during a brief visit to San Francisco as a teen and thought it the best thing ever!  It didn’t disappoint this adult as we walked down the stairs that ran parallel to the street, while ogling the cars that were making the descent.  That is one street I would definitely not want to live on!! Way too much traffic and way too little parking!

At this point, we pulled out the trusty map and decided to walk to Coit Tower.  It was a straight shot up Lombard Street, so why not?  Wow.  More hills.  How many hills does this city have?  The only city I’ve seen that comes close is Seattle, but I think San Francisco wins the battle of the hills!

The view from the base of the tower was wonderful.  Frankly I’d skip going to the top of the tower.  $5 each meant standing in a very long line to board an antique (read “tiny”) elevator.  At the top you’ll want to spend maybe 5 minutes admiring the view before standing in another long line to go down the same, small, elevator.  Save yourself the $10.

From here we decided to head to Pier 39.  We went the wrong way, but discovered a tree full of parrots, so that was a nice misadventure!  (I thought it was parakeets that were talking over San Francisco?)  Once at Pier 39 we wandered around before deciding to stop in at Bubba Gump Shrimp (so touristy, but I just had to!).  We got a nice bucket of peel n’eat shrimp and a couple of beers to wash them down.  Perfect!  As I watched the (I’m assuming) neverending loop of the movie, Forrest Gump being played, I wondered how the employees tolerated it!  We walked from Pier 39 to Pier 41 and realized that we’d missed the Sea Lions basking in the sun back on Pier 39, so back we went.  I know that we didn’t see a lot of what people recommend in the city…Nob Hill, Chinatown, etc.  But we had a wonderful time just roaming around.

We popped into a bar for a happy hour beer and a few minutes of jazz.  Ended up back at the Irish bar we’d found our first night for a final pint of Fat Tire and caught a little of the Boston Bruins defeating the Montreal Canadians in round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (as I type this a month later, the Bruins are still in it and one win away from the finals!).

Finally we had to make our way back to the hotel.  We had wine to consume, and (sigh) packing to do.  Believe it our not we grabbed In-N-Out Burgers again for dinner (it was easy and cheap after our not-so-cheap shrimp snacks earlier).  After arranging with the hotel bellhops for a taxi to pick us up in the morning, there was nothing left to do but have those last few vacation cocktails and finish packing.

It had been a glorious vacation, but after two and a half weeks away, we were looking forward to going home.  Our own bed beckoned and it would be so nice to stop living out of suitcases!  (Even if clearing out those suitcases meant 4 loads of laundry to be done!)

To stave off post-cruise/vacation depression, I always have the next adventure ready to go.  Now that Hawaii and San Francisco and Sonoma are in my review mirror, it’s time to look ahead to our Panama Canal cruise!  Seven stops (eight if you include San Pedro, CA, where the ship sails from) will keep me busy with research and planning!  Yay!

Posted May 24, 2011 by cubechick in San Francisco and Sonoma

Armstrong Woods   Leave a comment

Armstrong Woods by cubechick
Armstrong Woods, a photo by cubechick on Flickr.

Posted May 21, 2011 by cubechick in San Francisco and Sonoma

So many redwoods, so little time…   Leave a comment

A dreary day greeted us but our plans would not be thwarted.  After checking out of our hotel, we bade a fond farewell to Sonoma and drove north to the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve.   The information at the Armstrong website instructed you to park outside the park entrance to avoid having to pay the entrance fee.  I was concerned about finding the parking lot, but needn’t have been.  The parking lot is literally just outside the park.  You can’t miss it!  There was no one taking the entrance fee anyway.  An honor box was set up for those who felt it necessary to drive into the park, but I can’t imagine why you would (unless the small lot was filled).

The sun kindly came out while we wandered through the majestic redwoods.  We practically had the woods to ourselves and thoroughly enjoyed the hour or so that we spent with these beautiful trees.  The tallest among them is the Parsons Jones tree, estimated to be more than 310 feet tall and the oldest is the Colonel Armstrong tree which is thought to be over 1,400 years old.   Another unique tree was the Icicle tree which had burls growing on the tree that hung downward much like icicles from a roof.  This was a beautiful and very worthwhile stop.

It was our plan to make our way west and drive down to San Francisco via the coastal road, route 1.  This started out well enough, even though it began to rain…then pour!   DH stopped at one of the scenic turnouts to take pictures of the rain battered shore.  Meanwhile I tried to manage some kind of lunch for us.  On the way out of Sonoma that morning we’d stopped at a bakery and picked up a baguette and at a cheese shop for a couple of varieties of cheese.  We’d envisioned parking at a beach somewhere, having a little picnic for ourselves.  With the rain pummeling the car, that wasn’t going to happen.  I settled for tearing off chunks of bread and pairing the pieces with slices of cheese (the woman at the cheese shop had been kind enough to slice the cheese for us).  I tried to complete this operation without shooting breadcrumbs all over the car, as we’d be turning the vehicle in to Hertz later that afternoon.

Well, we’re driving along and we realize that we somehow lost the coast road.  It happened at some point after Bodega Bay, but for the life of me I don’t know what happened.  We never took a left or veered to the left, but found ourselves driving through farmland and eventually coming to the city of Petaluma.  Ultimately not a big deal, as we were able to continue our journey on 101 S, but mystifying nevertheless!

I don’t know if it made sense to go to two redwood forests in one day, but we stopped at Muir Woods before returning to San Francisco.  This was just not as satisfying a stop as Armstrong was.  Sure, part of that could have been that the weather was damp and chilly (although, thankfully, the rain did stop while we were there!).  Part of it could have been the fact that the place was PACKED!  I can only guess that it was so crowded on a rainy Wednesday afternoon because of its proximity to San Francisco.  It was crazy busy…to the point where we had to park a good mile from the entrance to the woods.  The good news was that the park was free during the month of April (another reason for the hoards of people?).

I think the main reason that we liked the Armstrong Redwoods better though was that the trails through the woods, while marked, were the forest floor, not the wooden boardwalk constructed throughout Muir Woods.  The pine-strewn paths of Armstrong just made you feel like a part of nature.  Also Armstrong had the specific trees to see (Parson Jones, Colonel Armstrong, the Icicle tree) whereas Muir Woods was more a meandering experience.  Don’t get me wrong, the trees were of course lovely and if you’re in San Francisco, Muir Woods is much, much closer and convenient.  But if you have the time to drive up to the Armstrong State Reserve, it’s definitely worthwhile.

Of course we hit San Francisco in time for rush hour and inched our way back to our hotel.  We were on Lombard Street and noticed that street after street didn’t allow left hand turns onto them during rush hour.  We, naturally, need to make a left onto Van Ness and began to become concerned.  Thankfully, Van Ness was one of the streets where left hand turns were allowed and we were able to drive the planned route to the hotel.

We were checking back into the Marriott Fisherman’s Wharf.  The valet was kind enough to let us park the car for the ten minutes we needed to check into the hotel and drag our luggage to our room.  It was around the block from there to the parking garage that Hertz uses and a quick good-bye to the Camry that had served us flawlessly.

From there we took our first walk around Fisherman’s Wharf (kind of funny since we’d spent two nights in San Francisco earlier in the week!).  I’d read some critical remarks about Fisherman’s Wharf that made me wonder if we were going to be exploring an area that was terribly tacky if not downright seedy.  However Fisherman’s Wharf was fine!  Granted I’m pretty much happy as long as I have a view of the water, but I found the bars, restaurants and shops worth a look.  Although it was only 5:30 we found that we were hungry (the little bit of bread and cheese we’d managed in the car just wasn’t holding us).  We decided to go ahead and have an early dinner at Scoma’s.  We’d received numerous recommendations for this restaurant and had been warned to go early, as they don’t take reservations.  Being hungry early made this night a perfect time to go!

I found the atmosphere of Scoma’s to be a little contradictory.  Walking up to the restaurant, it looked like any casual seafood joint that I’d find on the east coast.  However, once inside, the tables were decked out with white linen and the waiters wore vests and ties.  Not at all what I expected from our first impression.  We had the mixed shellfish platter for two as an appetizer.  This was perfect for us as it had oysters and clams on the half shell, which DH loves, and shrimp and Dungeness crab which I love.  For dinner I had the seafood cannelloni, which was scrumptious and DH the cioppino, which he happily plowed through.  It was a very satisfying meal to round off a long day.  We were glad that we went early.  By 6:00 the restaurant was packed and they had a waiting list in full swing.

Tomorrow would be our last day of vacation and our day to check out San Francisco.  Hopefully the weather would cooperate just a bit!

Posted May 21, 2011 by cubechick in San Francisco and Sonoma

Benziger Winery   Leave a comment

Benziger Winery by cubechick
Benziger Winery, a photo by cubechick on Flickr.

Posted May 18, 2011 by cubechick in San Francisco and Sonoma

Two days in Sonoma   Leave a comment

San Francisco greeted us with drizzle and a bay socked in by fog.  Well, we couldn’t visit San Francisco and not have some fog could we?

            We checked out of our room, jumped in the car to head to Sonoma.  We pulled off the road at the turn off right before the Golden Gate bridge so we could take some photos of the icon before we drove over her. 

            Sonoma is only a little over an hour from San Francisco and it did occur to me that we could have visited with a day trip, but we decided we’d like to spend a little time there.  We arrived before noon and found parking at Sonoma Plaza and walked around.  There are a ton of little shops and restaurants to check out.  We stopped in at the tourist information center and a lady there gave us a lot of information on vineyards and wineries in the area plus a lot of “two-for-one” coupons for wine tastings.  We also picked up a couple of maps while we were there which would prove helpful over the next couple of days.

            I’d read rave reviews for the Girl and Fig restaurant.  Although a very pricey stop for lunch, we didn’t find another restaurant that really jumped out at us, so we ended up dining there.  We both had the white asparagus soup and DH had a veal stew which was part of the Prix Fixe menu, but they allowed him to order it a la carte.  I had a croque monsieur which was tasty, although more a regular ham and cheese sandwich than a “croque monsieur” (no sauce), it was on wonderful fresh bread.

            After lunch we drove to Benziger Winery, which was one of the places recommended by the tourist information center because they did a tour through their vineyards on a tram.  It was a neat tour, giving us the opportunity to learn a lot about wine.  This vineyard was particularly interesting as it’s all organic (they call it “Biodynamics”), using no chemicals of any kind.  After the tour, which lasted about 45 minutes (and included taking us into their wine caves), we tasted a few wines with our guide, and then went into the tasting room where we could taste a few more.   I was glad to be inside as the weather continued to be raw and overcast.  Brrrr!

           When we bought the tickets for the tour, we were given a coupon for two free tastings at their sister winery, Imagery.  We had enough time before they closed, and they were on our way back to the hotel, so we figured, why not? Realizing that taste is subjective, I have to say none of the wine we tasted was appealing.  Imagery is run by a couple of the adult kids of the Benziger family and perhaps it’s a matter of just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I don’t mean to be harsh, but it really just wasn’t good.

            When I had been looking for a hotel to book in this area, I had a very difficult time.  DH doesn’t like bed and breakfasts or “inns”.  He wants a straight forward, full-service hotel and there were none to be found in the area of Sonoma I wanted to be in (near the Sonoma Plaza).  I had wanted to book the MacArthur Place Hotel (which was really an inn, but had great reviews) but the prices were crazy (a minimum of $279 a night).  I finally settled on the Renaissance Spa as it at least was a Marriott property and more affordable (over $100 a night more affordable).

            We arrived at the hotel and had a bit of a snafu checking in.  They didn’t have the room we requested available.  So after some back and forth, we ended up in an upgraded room.  However this meant we were in one of their cabanas instead of the main building.  It was a bit of a pain wheeling our luggage through the maze of buildings, THEN hauling those bags up the stairs to our room, but the room was very nice with a fireplace in the sitting area and a huge tub in the bath.  One thing I couldn’t figure out was that they kept trying to “sell” me on a room overlooking the pool as though it were some kind of perk.  We walked by the pool on the way to the restaurant, past all of the screaming, splashing kids, and couldn’t figure out for the life of me why being on top of all of that noise would be an upgrade!

            The Renaissance has a wine tasting room that is leased by a co-op.  We’d received vouchers for the wine tasting when we checked in.  There were two people from small vineyards (we’re talking 1,000 cases a year) offering up samples of their wine.  It was interesting talking to them about what they did and the wine was pretty good too!

            After our final tasting of the day, DH just wanted a beer (no more wine!), so we went to the bar at the hotel’s restaurant.  While sipping beer, we caught some NHL playoff action and just relaxed.  We decided to forgo a big dinner and got appetizer-sized pizza at the bar (which was made fresh right in front of us as the pizza oven is behind the bar!).  It was very good and one of our cheaper meals in California despite being at a hotel!

            The next morning we went to Sonoma Valley Bikes (a mile from our hotel, which is why I wanted to be in this area) for our “Cycling IN the Vineyard Tour”.  They gave us very nice Specialized mountain bikes (they hadn’t asked for our heights beforehand so my bike was on the shrimpy side for me).  The tour took place in the Los Carneros region of Napa and began at the Bouchaine vineyard, where we were able to bike amongst the vines.  We rode for about an hour and a half, through the vineyard, down to a marshland area and back up again.  The weather cooperated (yay!) and it was in the 60’s and sunny.  Perfect biking weather.  We arrived at the winery around 11:30 and would have a wine tasting while our guide went to pick up our lunch.  This wine was VERY good!  So much better than what we’d sampled yesterday.  In fact we purchased two bottles…a very nice “silver” (non-oaked) chardonnay and a rose. 

            Lunch was robust sandwiches and salads that we dined on while sitting outside on available picnic tables.  The rest of the ride would predominately be on the road, but there was a bike lane for most of the trip and not much traffic.  We’d stop at two more winerys, but the best was at the end, McKenzie-Mueller.  They too allowed us to ride through their vineyard (the first time they’d given permission) and we were given a private tasting amid their casks.  It was very cool just talking wine, while trying 8 or so different wines, and watching the family’s dogs wrestling outside.  The wine was delicious!  They intentionally make wines that they ship 3-5 years after they’ve been harvested.  They don’t want you to open a bottle of their wine and think “Oh, this might mature into something more drinkable.”  We had a cabernet sauvignon that was bottled in 1998 and was fantastic (and I usually don’t care for red wine!).  We purchased a lovely pinot noir, wishing we could buy more.  Massachusetts doesn’t allow you to ship alcohol from other states, so we were limited to buying what we could drink in our last three nights in California!

            After all of that exercise and two weeks of eating very fresh seafood in Hawaii and San Francisco, I thought we might be in the mood for some red meat, so I’d made dinner reservations at Saddles, the steakhouse at MacArthur Place.  The food was very good and a nice change of pace.  The atmosphere was a little strange…there was a large room that looked like banquet space that had tables set in it.  While we dined one couple was seated in there.  It must have been disconcerting to be in that big room all by yourself.  The bar area was very tiny and decorated (no surprise!) with saddles everywhere.  After seeing the public area of the hotel, I’m sure DH liked where we stayed much better!  The appearance made me glad that I wasn’t able to book our hotel room there after all!  Not to say that it wasn’t fine, it was just a bit hokey for us.

           Tomorrow we would drive back to San Francisco…after a detour to the north!

Posted May 18, 2011 by cubechick in San Francisco and Sonoma

Sea Otter Classic   Leave a comment

Sea Otter Classic by cubechick
Sea Otter Classic, a photo by cubechick on Flickr.

Posted May 15, 2011 by cubechick in San Francisco and Sonoma

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