Monday, May 30, 2011

San Francisco Weekend Getaway

After several months of recovery after my knee surgery Emily and I decided that for the long Memorial Day weekend that we needed a vacation. We left Corvallis on Thursday evening after getting out of work a little early and headed south down I-5 towards San Francisco. We made it across the border and past Redding but my eyes were getting tired and it was approaching 1am so we turned off the highway at Exit 595 into the Sacremento National Wildlife Refuge to look for a pullout to park in and sleep for the night in the back of the Prius. After driving about a mile or two down the road we found a trailhead with a convenient outhouse as well to stop at for the night.

The area was obviously a bird sanctuary as we woke up to a chorus of songbirds in the morning. We got an early start in the morning and made it to the outskirts of San Fran at about 9 or 10 in the morning but as we were about to jump onto the Bay Bridge to enter the city we realized we had no cash for the bridge toll and had to make a quick but sketchy drive through the city of Oakland to find an ATM that Emily jumped out at to get some cash while I kept the car idling.... We drove over the very cool Bay Bridge and through a tunnel on Treasure Island in the Bay and then through downtown San Francisco on Geary Blvd to the Lands End Trail at Point Lobos. We had originally planned to head over the Golden Gate and check out the Marin Headlands but it was too fogged in.  

The Lands End trail around the rocky point was gorgeous and had wonderful views out over the Bay and towards the Golden Gate Bridge. There was a very cool helipad out at Seal Rocks that used to be a lighthouse and we could hear the lighthouse horn of Point Bonita on the opposite side of the Bay. The trail descended to a point of land with spectacular views as well as a meditation maze of rocks that Emily and I took the time to explore for a little while. We continued on down the path past palm trees and flowers with hummingbirds and bees buzzing about to the intersection with El Camino Del Mar Street where we hooked a right and walked back along the road past the very impressive California Palace of the Legion of Honor which is a fine art museum. We also passed some interesting Chinese memorials along the path before returning to the car.

From there we drove down Point Lobos Ave past the Cliff House and the beach to John F. Kennedy Drive and the entrance to the Golden Gate Park which we drove through, past a field of Buffalo, to get to the California Academy of Sciences which had been highly recommended to us by our friend Lindsay who had done her Masters Research in San Francisco. It was 2pm and we had to wait a few minutes to get our City Passes we had bought printed for us to use before we were allowed in. Both of us were blown away at how amazing this place was. There was a rainforest dome with 4 different levels spiraling up in with wild birds and butterflies that flutter past you when in it. There were a myriad of really interesting exhibits including one about the Galapagos Islands where Kevin and Alexa actually were at that moment. 

 One of my favorite exhibits was the huge living reef exhibit that you could look down into from above and also walk through via a huge glass tunnel below. There were tons of fish species and many sharks. Emily and I rushed about the building checking out everything we could and taking a ton of pictures in the limited time we had before it closed for the day. Before we left we were able to check out the “living roof” which looked like rolling grass-covered hills and were able to see a planetarium show about the evolution and dynamic nature of our planet. The courtyard outside the Academy was equally impressive and the structure of the De Young Museum of Art opposite us was very impressive. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to check out the museum or the Japanese Tea Garden area.

From the Academy we drove to the Hotel Adagio where we would stay over the weekend on Geary Street near Union Park. Parking is always expensive at city hotels so I found a cheaper option a couple blocks down the road on Jones Street across from the Father Alfred E. Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin district of downtown which I later found out was a dangerous part of town. I just dropped off Emily at the hotel with our stuff, dropped the car off inside the secure garage and ran back down the sidewalk back to the hotel. After dropping our stuff off in the room and taking showers we planned on heading downtown to check out AT&T park and watch a Giants baseball game. Unfortunately, I turned out to be an idiot and read the wrong month schedule resulting in us arriving at the park after a very long walk to find it closed with all the lights off and fans watching the away game in nearby bars. By this point it was about 8pm and we were both starving. After taking ride on the MUNI around the Embarcadero on the Waterfront and talking to a local we were able to jump on a bus and head back towards Union Square where we wandered about for a bit until finally ending up at the 24-hour Café Mason on nearby Mason Street where I ordered the yummy Linguini Pecatori. We were pleasantly surprised and the good food, reasonable prices and great service at the all-hours restaurant. From there it was a quick stop at a convenience store for some very overpriced wine and chocolate and a relaxing night in a real bed at the hotel.

On Saturday we slept in a bit and then headed north to the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero for the Saturday Market. We had wanted to ride a cable car but the lines at Union Square were several hours long so we just took the MUNI instead from Union Square Park. The Ferry Building itself was very impressive but because it was Memorial Day weekend the crowds were out of control becoming so thick that it was actually hard to walk through the building. Emily and I were both starving so she got a corn beef sandwich and I stopped at the Miette Cupcake bakery for an ice cream sandwich and a lemon cupcake with strawberry frosting… yup, I was definitely in line with a lot of girls who gave me funny looks when I bought it. We ate our breakfast/lunch by the water which had great views of passing tour boats and the Bay Bridge.

We tried to catch a street car along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf but they were all packed and the drivers just gave us pathetic apologetic looks as they drove by us so we decided to walk along the piers instead. There was a quick, very light, sun shower to clear out the rest of the morning fog as we walked. We had great views of Coit Tower from some of the less popular as we walked towards busy Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Fisherman’s Wharf area was absolutely packed with people and was clearly a HUGE tourist trap. We decided to quickly get on a jet boat tour of the Bay with the Blue & Gold Fleet before it got too busy. Thankfully everyone else seemed to want to take the slower tour boat cruise under the Golden Gate. We were both super happy we chose the jet boat as the driver and deck hand were great, there was awesome music and… come on’ we were in a freakin’ jet boat! 

 The ride was about 30-40 minutes in length and took us out into the bay underneath the Bay Bridge and to McCovey Cove behind AT&T Park where we got some great photos of the Ball Park. It would be super cool to sit out in the cove in a kayak during a ball game. We took some tight turns and both Emily (who was wrapped in plastic bag) and I got splashed a few good times. On the way back into the docks we got a close up view of the famous sea lions at Pier 39 with a throng of people watching them from the pier.

Just as our City Passes got us a free Jet Boat ride, they also got us into the Aquarium of the Bay which was much smaller than the California Academy of Sciences but had a super cool glass tunnel that was quite long throughout the entire bottom of the aquarium that also had a conveyer belt you could stand on (caught Em by surprise). The Aquarium mostly had species you would find in the Bay Area but also had some exotics. I got a great photo of a tornado of fish in the tunnel just above Emily’s head and we both signed a petition to ban shark fin harvesting as well before leaving.

It was late afternoon by the time we left the aquarium so we checked out the bike rental shops for our planned ride for tomorrow and headed along the waterfront through the crowds stopping to watch some ripped street performers along the way (Emily like this of course..). We got a couple sodas and I got a shrimp cocktail from Sabella & LaTorre’s outside seafood cart along Taylor Street as we were both hungry from not eating much at the overpriced Saturday Market. As we walked along the waterfront we unfortunately saw a lot of homeless people, whether in that manner by choice or not it was hard to tell. One had a really good racket of hiding behind a fake bush next to a garbage can and jumping out to scare people. If he got ya he would ask for change or if you took a photo of his gig would ask for change. I thought it was creative so I gave the guy a buck before continuing down the street into a surprise heavy rain storm.

During the rain we both jumped into the first bar that looked like they had good drink specials which happened to be The Cannery on Jefferson Street. We got a couple cold beers and had a half dozen oyster shooters while waiting out the rain. 

 When the rain finally stopped about an hour later we walked up Hyde Street past Russian Hill Park where we got some great photos of Alcatraz in the distance as well as the Golden Gate in the post-rain sun as we ascended the incredibly steep hill towards the famous twisty Lombard Street, the “crookedest” road in San Francisco. We wanted to take the cable car up Hyde Street but found that it was broken but seeing the beautiful flower-lined Lombard Street and then walking down it towards Coit Tower in the distance was worth the climb by foot. There were many tourists checking out the street along with us and a line of cars twisting down the cobblestone and brick road towards Leavenworth Street. There was a nice walkway down both sides that Emily and I took while also snapping some great photos of the area in the dusk sunlight.

Taking a chance we continued down Lombard Street all 8 full blocks to Coit Tower which I assumed would be closed but was surprised to find was still open on the busy weekend. We bought tickets and took the tight elevator to the top of the 210 foot tower for sweeping views of the city in the setting sun and of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Unfortunately there was plexiglass covering all the window holes which was scratched up and covered with rain drops still from the previous rain a couple hours ago so taking clear photos was not an option although I tried anyway to get some cool HDR shots of the setting sun through the clouds over the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the Bay bridge which we took the previous day into the city.

 Before leaving the area I explored the trails around the tower looking for the rumored parrots of Telegraph Hill, unfortunately finding none, although I was really impressed by the beautiful neighborhood and thick forest surrounding the steep hill. From the tower we walked down Greenwich Street to Stockton Street which we followed past beautiful Washington Square Park where I got some great photos of St. Peter & Paul Church and Coit Tower in the light of the sunset over Filbert Street.

We soon found ourselves in North Beach which is the “Little Italy” of San Francisco and also is the border between the Chinese and Italian districts of downtown. After wandering around past Club Fugazi and onto Columbus Ave we bumped into an older guy in a tweed suit who convinced me his cell phone had died and talked, very knowledgeably, about the area and how he knew the restaurant owners, etc, etc. Well, I got taken and I ended up giving the guy $5 for a cab and the MUNI to get home because he had also “lost” his wallet. I was clued in by Emily, and the fact that he shuffled off pretty quickly out of site… Yup, I’m an idiot. He told us a couple places to go that sounded good but after a quick search on Yelp we decided to go to the Trattoria Pinocchio which was featured in the app for some real Italian food. We were very pleased with our dinner, both getting the Linguine del Pescatore and a bottle of red wine. Our server was definitely Italian with a thick accent and we both thoroughly enjoyed the service and the food.

After dinner we found that it was late enough in the evening to FINALLY find a cable car we could get a ride on Mason Street. This was great as it was dark, I was a little tipsy after a half bottle of wine, and I could hang out a little on the side of the rickety car as we climbed and then descended the super steep San Francisco hills back towards Union Square Park and our hotel for a good long cable car experience in the city. Back in Union Square park we spent a little time walking around and taking photos of the city and park at night before returning to our room for a night after a very full day!

Sunday was truly an amazing day for the two of us. We woke up to perfect weather and after eating some cereal and snacks we picked up the night before we headed via bus down to Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up our rental bikes from Blazing Saddles for the day. We tried to catch a cable car but after literally 45min of waiting watching full ones pass us by we eventually hopped on the 8X bus route from Union Square Park to Fisherman’s Wharf which was much easier. By the time we got our bikes it was almost 11am and I didn’t think we’d be able to have much of a day but to my surprise the bikes didn’t need to be returned until 7pm and they even had a 24-hour drop off location if needed.

Once fitted with our bikes (they were decent but not great) we headed around Fisherman’s Wharf towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park and the huge old ship called the Balclutha. We took the time to walk out on the pier off Van Ness Ave to get a good view back towards the city and out towards Alcatraz before continuing past Fort Mason towards the Exploratorium and the Palace of Fine Arts.

Our City Pass included free entrance to the Exploratorium so we locked our bikes up to check out the inside. As we were told it turned out to be primarily for young children so we didn’t stay long although I did stop at a few of the more interesting hands-on science displays there. Instead, we spent a little while walking through the amazing roman-style architecture of the Palace of Fine Arts taking lots of photos and practicing my fast shutter speed action photos with the seagulls, swans and ducks in the pond surrounding the Palace. It truly is a massive structure.

From there we biked past the beaches of Crissy Field where we had a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge above us to the North. We saw windsurfer and kiteboarders sailing through the air just off the shore and tons of boats and big ships out in the bay. We followed the path down to the water just below the bridge then up a hill, under the south end of the bridge and then up onto the bridge itself. I turned on the video on the camera to get some footage of the ride while the camera hung in front of me following Emily over the bridge. 

There were tons of other bikers on the bridge who took up the western side of the bridge while pedestrians on foot were on the eastern side of the bridge. It only took about 10 minutes or so to bike across the entire length of the bridge at a leisurely pace. We stopped at the northern tower to get some photos of us on the bridge and out towards the Marin Headlands which we would check out the next day on our drive out.

When we got to the north end of the bridge we followed the bike route down the hill and under the north end towards Horseshoe Bay on the way to Sausalito. On the way down I stopped for a terrific photo over an offshore rock up towards the Golden Gate with the city in the background. We biked past Fort Baker and the Bay Area Discovery Museum on the east road around the point to downtown Sausalito which Emily simply fell in love with. It was house upon house on the hillside with each one having a stellar view of Richardson Bay. The town reminded us of Saratoga Springs and I could tell by the multiple $50,000+ vehicles everywhere that both Emily and I would have to triple our salaries to be able to afford a place in this area. It also didn’t seem like there were many places to work nearby, just a lot of upscale stores and classy touristy stuff (not like Lake George Village which has gone downhill).

We continued down the Mid Valley Sausalito Path past the Bothin Marsh Preserve and past a whole series of boat houses on the water. We checked out the bike map we got from Blazing Saddles and it mentioned an Old Mill Park near the Muir Woods that had Redwoods in it. We thought this would be great so we booked a left off of the bike path with some helpful directions from a local to hook up with Miller Ave and see the park. After biking down a bunch of back roads we entered the park and saw some really beautiful neighborhoods under huge Doug Fir and Spruce trees but I don’t recall seeing any true Redwoods unless they were young ones that hadn’t reached their full height yet. 

 Disappointed we turned around and headed back to the bike path to continue on towards Tiburon to catch the ferry back from there across the bay. I took a quick look at the brochure and saw that the ferry left at 4:20pm… it was going to be close! We biked over route 101 on Route 131 (this part was a bit hairy with traffic) and then turned off onto Greenwood Beach Road past the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Wildlife Sanctuary. We followed this road along the shore to join up with the Tiburon Linear Park trail towards the Ferries at Shoreline Park down the road. I led the way in front of Emily to set a fast pace but unfortunately when we got to the dock we watched the ferry pull out leaving behind a decent line of angry young kids behind who didn’t make it on.

Disappointed that we missed the ferry by only a few minutes and would have to hang out for nearly 2 hours until the next one I turned to my phone to find some happy hour specials which took us to the Tiburon Grill just down the road. We locked up our bikes near the ferry and headed to grab some food as we were starving having not eaten anything all day. We were pleasantly surprised to find both food and beer specials. I ended getting the 50% off calamari to share and a great pulled pork sandwich along with a couple $4 pints of good beer. For the area we were in it was really great pricing and a great find. We had a leisurely dinner and then walked back to the docks just in time to catch the Ferry. 

 On the ferry we both grabbed a Corona and enjoyed our trip across the bay with spectacular close up views of both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge with sailboats all around under the late day setting sun.  We watched as a massive cargo ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge as well.  It was really spectacular to see Alcatraz close up.  You could see the run down buildings and get a feel for how remote the island is from the city in the center of the bay.  I know it sounds cheesy but I kept thinking of the movie "The Rock" as we passed around the corner of it...  Over the years there were 14 different attempts to escape and officially it is said that all were unsuccessful, although the bodies of the inmates from the 1937 and 1962 attempts have never been recovered...

After returning our bikes at Blazing Saddles we walked down the waterfront to Tiernan’s Pub just off Hyde Street for a few drinks and to wait until the line for the Hyde Street Cable Car to diminish. We both sat at the bar with a very nice bartender who told us that if we checked in to various social networks we would get free beer. I checked into Facebook, Foursquare and Yelp and we enjoyed our Guiness and cocktails . After a little while karaoke started and I told Emily I would rock out some early 90’s hip-hop but to our dismay the DJ didn’t have any early 90’s hip-hop at all, not even 2pac or B.I.G.! I actually took the time to write on a napkin to the guy that he was going to lose his 25-35yr old crowd and gave it to him as we left. 

We only had to wait about 20 minutes at the cable car northern end to hop on one and it was well worth it because again, after a few beers flying up and down the streets of San Francisco at night hanging on the side of a cable car is as close to a rollercoaster as I’ve ridden on the West Coast. 

 Back in Union Square Park we walked around a little bit to see the city at night again and then headed back to our hotel for our last night in San Francisco to get a good night’s sleep before our final day and drive home.  I always like taking photos of cities at night.  The lighting of the buildings is always spectacular and it was fun getting some shots of Emily in Union Square Park after the sun went down.  Even late at night there were still people milling about waiting to get a ride on the cable cars before they shut down for the night.

On Monday morning we left the hotel around 9am after packing up and drove west down Market Street past Castro street (the center of the historic gay rights movement in San Fran) up to the top of Twin Peaks. From the top we had a different and wonderful view back towards downtown and the Golden Gate Bridge from the south. The road to the top was very twisty and we watched as volunteers laid out a massive pink ribbon on the hillside for breast cancer awareness I think. There was a massive antenna structure on top that we got a good view of by driving around the figure 8 loop near the top and we could clearly see the enormous rainbow flags along Castro Street and the Castro Theatre from the top.

From Twin Peaks we followed the 49 mile scenic drive signs down from the top through some hilly neighborhoods with really cool houses towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving over the bridge wasn’t half as cool as biking over it the day before. On the north side of the bridge we took the Alexander Ave exit and headed west through a tunnel towards the Marin Headland area and Point Bonita to check out the lighthouse there.

When we first got to the lighthouse and walked down the path along the rocky point of land we were disappointed to find the door to the tunnel through the rock out to the lighthouse locked. We hung out for a bit watching seals in Bonita Cove below and pelicans flying around and as we were about to leave a state park worker passed us with keys asking if we wanted to go out to the lighthouse. We were fortunate to have waited and later found out that they only open that area up on certain occasions. 

 We followed them through the tunnel (built by only 3 Chinese workers years ago) out to the lighthouse were the woman explained the history of the lighthouse. Unfortunately, the bridge out to the actual light house building was deemed too dangerous for the public and closed off until repairs next year. We later found out that our friend Lindsay had a research site set up for her Masters Research right where we were standing. The views back towards Bonita Cove towards the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge were definitely worth the extra time we spent at the lighthouse.

From there we drove down the road a bit further to check out the Mendell Battery which was part of Fort Barry at the point. The Battery had foot wide barrel disappearing guns that could be retracted back into hiding after shot. The Battery was functional from 1901 to 1943 but now was covered in trash inside and spray paint which is unfortunate for such a historic place. 

 A little further down the road we came to a viewpoint over Rodeo Beach towards the Yosemite National Institutes and also back along the rocky shore towards Point Bonita Lighthouse. After soaking in the views and taking a few more photos we headed back towards the very twisty Route 1 and instead of heading downhill towards Muir Beach and the coastline we took a right onto Panoramic Highway and drove up Mt. Tamalpais.

After about 20-30 minutes of driving uphill we got to the top of Mt. Tamalpais and found the collection pipe for parking fees completely stuffed so we didn’t pay to park. With the late afternoon approaching quickly we bought a couple snacks at a shack there and headed up the short half mile trail to the top of Mt. Tam where we found a lookout tower. 

 From the top there were fantastic views over San Pablo Bay to the north and San Francisco to the south. Although the Marin Headlands blocked the view of the Golden Gate Bridge we could see everything else very clearly in the great weather from a long distance away (wish I had a telephoto lens). We saw rock climbers on some nearby ledges and were told about the extensive trail network in the area that would be great for recreation if Emily ever gets her wish and we somehow move to Sausalito… (not gonna happen).

We then drove down the Mt. Tam Highway, rejoined 101 towards San Rafael and the REI store there to see if they had the SPD clip-in mountain bike shoes that Emily wanted for her birthday. Unfortunately they did not but we were able to grab a quick wrap for a late lunch at the shopping center there before taking 101 and then Route 37 all the way around San Pablo Bay past the exits for Napa Valley back to I-80 and then eventually I-5 for our trip home. We left San Rafael just after 4pm and made it all the way back to Corvallis by midnight = really fast drive back. Emily drove about half the way back until it got dark allowing me to practice with the camera and even take some great shots of Mt. Shasta as we passed it.

Although both of us actually spent about double what we had planned on spending for the weekend we had a really great time seeing all the sites in San Francisco. You probably noticed that I didn’t write anything about Alcatraz… that’s because it was booked solid for two weeks around the holiday weekend and we weren’t able to check it out. Next time we plan on staying somewhere outside the city (perhaps Sausalito) and taking the ferry’s into the city or driving in for activities. We also want to visit Napa Valley which may let us then drive into the city for a night tour of Alcatraz (those are better than day tours I hear). After months of being restricted to the house after my surgery this was a much needed vacation and we both had a really great time and enjoyed the city immensely.

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