Archive for April, 2011

Those of you who had the stamina and will to follow the daily diary of our recent vacation in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas and San Francisco will recall that we stayed in an apartment in the North of Panhandle (NoPA) in the latter for two weeks.  I made reference on numerous occasions to the comfort and quality of the apartment, and the following slideshow provides a visual accompaniment to that narrative.  If you should be so inspired by it as to enquire about its availability for yourself in the future, you can find the link on the right hand side of the page.  

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Our last day and  the Giants‘ first in San Francisco for this year was greeted once more by clear blue skies and surprising sunshine.  With not having to leave the city for the airport until around 3pm we had considered going to AT & T Park to see the raising of the World Series pennant and possibly even catching an innings or two from the free spot below Levi’s Landing.  But we decided against this for a variety of reasons, including potential problems with parking and the likely size of the crowd around the park.  As it happened, we saw a good deal of the game, including the winning hit, from various locations during the afternoon, so felt that we had been part of the historic event.

We vacated the apartment a little before 10.30am after Janet had virtually done the cleaner’s job for him/her.  We headed for Ocean Beach where we took a short stroll before sitting down to drink in the view one last time.  Having already had breakfast before we left we resisted the temptation to eat at the Cliff House, using the time to drive over to Golden Gate Park to visit the Japanese Tea Garden which was less busy than it had been on our previous visit on Sunday.

Twee though it may be we have always liked the Japanese Tea Garden, and we were surprised to see that it had had a makeover since the same time last year.  Not only had the cafe area been extended physically, but the menu had expanded from the traditional teas and snacks that were ordered at the cash register to table service of more substantial fare.  Mindful that we planned to eat a large meal at the airport we decided to take advantage of the new set up and ordered sushi and Japanese tea sandwiches, both of which were delicious.   This was washed down by Sen-Cha and Jasmine tea.  The shop had also been upgraded from the previous incarnation which sold traditional tourist gifts to an outlet purveying crafts and more up market items. 

After an accidentally convoluted journey we parked up in Haight-Ashbury with around an hour and a half before we needed to set off for the airport.  Although we sauntered up and down Haight Street the only purchase we made was when I added two more to my growing library of books on San Francisco  at The Booksmith.

In need of a drink we found a great spot in Martin Mack’s bar where we watched the first three innings of the Giants game against the St Louis Cardinals over a beer, when they turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead by the time we left, courtesy in no small part of Miguel Tejada‘s homer in his first ever at-bat as a Giant at AT & T Park.

We left for the airport at 3pm, enabling us, after another unintended detour that found us momentarily heading back into the city rather than the car rental return, to drop our bags off (we had already checked in online on the previous day) a full three hours before our flight time.  We settled, as tradition demanded, into the Firewood Grill, where I had a mahi mahi panini and Janet had chicken skewers, both with fries, with a couple of large glasses of wine.  The baseball was now in the ninth innings and Brian Wilson was attempting to finish the game only to concede a tying and leading run for the Cardinals.  Fortunately, the Giants tied it again, taking it into a 10th, 11th and 12th innings before we could not stay in the bar any longer.

As we proceeded to our gate I was fearful that we would leave San Francisco without knowing the outcome of the game.  But the baseball gods were smiling on me – as I went for a last call of nature before being called for the flight I passed a TV set just as Aaron Rowand made the hit to secure the winning run for the Giants, provoking a mighty roar from the assembled throng in the bar in question.

And one final bitter sweet moment – once in the air we flew directly over the city, allowing great views of the “bracelet of bridges”, downtown and Twin Peaks

The rest is silence.

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I need hardly start with an account of the weather.  Despite repeated warnings of rain this was yet another bright, clear day.  Equally predictably, we would have had a long wait for the MUNI bus on Fulton had we not decided to press on by foot.  At Scott we mounted the steps into Alamo Square where, not for the first time, we marvelled at the very San Franciscan dog play area in the park.  One of our guides on Janet’s birthday bus tour had informed us that there were more dogs in the city than children, and we have no reason to dispute that assertion.  Moreover, they are treated royally, not only with their grooming parlours, retail stores and cemeteries but this lush spot of green and glade.  And how they seemed to enjoy the privilege!  There must have been at least 20 cavorting and canoodling whilst their owners caught up on the local gossip.

Cutting back onto Hayes we caught a no.21 bus to Powell and Market where we waited for a cable car.  We mounted a Powell and Hyde car this time, disembarking at the top of “the crookedest street” on Lombard.  With this being our llast full day we were unashamedly being “touristy”, walking, rather than driving, down the street and into North Beach.

Taking one last look at, and photo of, Club Fugazi, home of the wonderful Beach Blanket Babylon, we walked onto Columbus Avenue searching for a lunch venue.  We eventually tried Caffe Puccini, and a good choice it was as both my chicken foccacia and Janet’s eggplant sandwich testified.

We strolled back through Grant Avenue in Chinatown, where Janet committed an uncharacteristic extravagance by buying a lovely set of matching turquoise bracelet, earrings and necklace, though she did balance the books somewhat by purchasing just one pair of shoes at DSW Shoes in Union Square.  Whilst she was drooling over her favourite San Francisco store I slipped into the Rasputin record store a few doors down Powell and bought, after negotiating the bizarre lift from the second to fourth floor, Jefferson Airplane‘s Thirty Seconds over Winterland and a New Riders of the Purple Sage DVD and CD package.

We caught the F Streetcar back from Powell (the one from Milan which has a really interesting interior) to Fisherman’s Wharf in oder to collect the car we had hired from Dollar for our final 24 hours in San Francisco.

But first we were both in need of a cold drink, and not just any cold drink but one from Starbucks.  Now, I am not the company’s greatest fan – I find the coffee too weak and milky – but I love their cold concotions, especially a coffee frappuccino, though, having sampled Janet’s strawberry smoothie on this occasion, I might be converted.

We picked up the car and returned to the apartment to finish packing (Janet) and complete the day’s diary entry (me), before getting ready to go out for our final meal.  Last year, when we stayed in Hayes Valley, we had intended to frequent Hayes Street Grill but never did.  We made up for this time and, arriving after the ballet crowd had left, we found it quiet, well apart from the two couples on the adjoining table who were American equivalents of what we call in Britain “hooray Henrys”.  It was worth the wait, however, and certainly one of the best meals of the vacation. 

Janet had warm goat cheese salad with toasted pecans followed by Mexican sierra, a meaty white fish, with fries and sechzuan peanut sauce, whilst I had wild Half Moon Bay smoked salmon with cucumber salad and creme fraiche followed by grilled local fish (I can’t recall the name of it) with fried and lemon and caper butter.  We were saved the 20 minute walk up the hill by our good friend the no.21 MUNI bus.  Garbage duty was our final act on our last night in the apartment.

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We were greeted this morning by yet another brilliant, clear blue sky, although the temperature was significantly lower than it had been for several days.  MUNI for once served us well as we boarded a no.5 bus to the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market.  Riding a San Francisco cable car, preferably standing in the lead position at the front, is one of my favourite activities, yet this was the first time on this trip that we had boarded one.

The combination of a long line, people pushing in and my desire to nab that lead position meant that we had to wait until the sixth car, a Powell and Mason, before we could leave downtown.  Once we disembarked we headed for the Hollywood Cafe on Taylor and North Point for breakfast.  I would thoroughly recommend this establishment – the service was outstanding and my Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon and shrimp was excellent.

Such a meal may not in retrospect have been the best thing to have done immediately prior to tackling the Greenwich Steps up to Coit Tower, but we managed it, if rather slowly.  On such a crystal clear day the views were stunning, so much better than they had been nine years previously when we had last visited the landmark.  Following a viewing of the fabulous artisanal murals we took the elevator up to the viewing tower – how does that attendant cope with riding that 7′ by 4′ by 3′ (approximately) tin box all day?  It is worth the trip but not if you suffer from claustrophobia.

Having negotiated the Greenwich Steps on the way up to Coit Tower, it was only right to take the even lovelier Filbert Steps down in the heart of Telegraph Hill.  We failed to spot or hear the wild parrots (though we did see them on the following day on Lombard Street), but the smells and sights of the flower laden gardens was delightful.

Landing back on earth on Sansome we walked along the street until we reached the Transamerica Pyramid where we entered the mini-Muir Woods that is the Redwood Park.  This is a nice spot to rest your weary legs after traipsing the unforgiving streets of the Financial District, although the shade of the trees did render the grove rather dark and chilly.

After resting briefly we walked onto Market where we walked to, firstly the Embarcadero Center and then the Ferry Building.  As we were thirsty at this point we dived into the Ferry Building Wine Bar, fortunately part way through the middle of the first innings of the San Diego Padres versus San Francisco Giants baseball game which was being shown on the TV screens.

We, or rather I, needed no invitation to find seats with a full on view of the game that Giants were already winning 3-0 after a Buster Posey two run homer.  As we worked our way through a carafe each of Sonoma chardonnay and Anderson Valley rose, Tim Lincecum led the Padres a merry dance, clocking 13 strikeouts in an eventual 8-4 victory for the Giants.  No surprise that, but being engaged in conversation at our table by the very winemaker, Eric Sussman, whose wine we were drinking at the time, was an unexpected and interesting experience.

Prising ourselves eventually from the wine bar we caught the F Streetcar from Ferry Plaza back to Fisherman’s Wharf where we waited interminably for a cable car from Hyde Street back to Powell.  Fortunately, the no. 21 bus was waiting for us at Market to transport us back to the apartment.  Initially, we had planned to eat out, but our weary legs won the argument and it was pizza at home instead.

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Three and a half days to go – time to settle back into The City.  One thing we had promised ourselves on this trip was to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and back.  We had driven it many times but still had not experienced the thrill of stamding on it midway across the bay.

Abandoning – not for the first time – the late running MUNI buses in our neighbourhood, we walked to Van Ness on another warm, clear morning where we picked up a no.47 to North Point.  From here  we cut through Aquatic Park to Fort Mason where, conscious of eating early this evening, we felt it was time to have a light lunch.  We discovered the Readers’ Cafe in Building B which not only served fine food and the strongest, handcrafted coffee imaginable, but contained a large second hand bookstore. 

As we ate our tofu and avocado sandwich (me) and flapjack (Janet) it was also nice to know that we were contributing towards the San Francisco Public Library.  I took the opportunity here to engage a local woman in conversation about how lucky she was to live here permanently.  Whilst acknowledging her good fortune she said she really loved London!

We have enjoyed our two stops at Fort Mason, barely half a mile from Fisherman’s Wharf yet I wonder how many tourists ever get to visit it or are even aware of it.  And do San Francisco residents make as much use of the facility as they might?

The walk through the Marina and Crissy Field was challenging as we had both the brisk coastal wind and strong sun in our faces.  The Warming Hut, therefore, proved a very welcome refuge.  Aside from the food and drink available it has a very interesting gift shop with a number of San Francisco related books that I had not seen anywhere else. After a short break we walked up the hill to the entrance to the bridge, stopping constantly to take photographs of the killer views.

The camera was called into action many times again as we made the trip over into Marin County.  We quickly became immune to the noise and rush of the traffic, although we had to be on our toes to avoid many of the (local) cyclists who seemed to think they were riding flat out in a velodrome rather than on a pedestrian filled six foot wide pavement.  With the constant photo stops and observation of a sea lion diving for fish, it took us around three quarters of an hour to get to Vista Point on the other side of the bridge. 

After a comfort break and more photographs, we set back across the bridge to make the return journey which took just half an hour.  Coffee and chips were our reward before we caught a no. 28 bus back to Fort Mason

We spent the next hour and a half exploring Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf before retiring to The Franciscan for dinner.  Excellent food, attentive service and sunset over Alcatraz made this one of our better evening meal experiences on the vacation.  I had crab enchiladas and Yukon mashed potatoes with zucchini whilst Janet had Crab and Shrimp Louie with fries.

We took the F Streetcar to Market before picking up the no.5 MUNI bus to take us back to the apartment.

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Well, by train from San Francisco we do.

Today we attended our first National Hockey League game, the pinnacle of the sport.  In the early nineties we had followed the Medway Bears, a team in the second/third tier of UK ice hockey who played in front of around 1,000 admittedly passionate fans in a small, tired ice rink.  This was a very different experience.

After yet another lazy morning we caught the no. 5 MUNI bus to Market and walked to the 4th and King Caltrain station for the 2.07pm train to San Jose.  We disembarked the double decker tin can at 3.38 on another hot afternoon and collected our tickets from the box office before wandering into what we thought was downtown to find something to eat.  I’m not sure that we found the real city centre, but we did stumble on what was a decent Mexican chain restaurant, La Pinata, where I had the biggest (shrimp) burrito I have ever seen in my life whilst Janet had shrimp fajitas.  This was washed down with a pitcher ($30) of Top Shelf Margarita.

The area in which we ate, though only a few minutes walk from the arena, struck us as a little seedy, not least because of the shady characters dotted around the streets aiming to buy and sell tickets.  There were also a surprising number of Los Angeles Kings fans around, not I hasten to add that they added to the seedy atmosphere (sic).

We entered the impressive HP Pavilion, which is reminiscent of the O2 Arena in London, around an hour before face off and explored the wonders of the Sharks Store.  Janet confined herself to a t-shirt and an SJ Sharkie (the mascot) soft toy.  We took our fabulous seats in the fifteenth row of the lower tier of the arena to the right of the goal.

 At 7pm the San Jose Sharks emerged from the giant, smoking shark’s mouth to tumultuous applause.  A win tonight would clinch their place in the end of season play offs, so expectation was high.  The LA Kings. who were also in play off contention, were roundly booed as they entered the ice around thirty seconds later.  Any tension was dispelled when the Sharks took a 2-0 lead in the first few minutes, a lead they held until the end of the first period, despite the Kings having the most shots.

The Kings pulled a goal back at the very end of a powerplay at the beginning of the second period, but this only inspired the Sharks to a four goal blast, several of them spectacular, in the remainder of the 20 minute spell.  Aside from a fight or two the final period was an anticlimax as Sharks consolidated their position without much trouble.  It was a very impressive performance by the Sharks, both offensively and defensively, although it should be noted that LA were missing two star players.

A number of things struck, but didn’t necessarily surprise, me about the experience:

1. Aside from the obligatory fights, the discipline of the players was so impressive, with far fewer offisdes, icings and penalties called than we have been used to in the UK. 

2. The number of fans who were wearing either replica shirts or t-shirts, sweatshirts or jackets with Sharks colours, at least three quarters and far more than you would see even at an English football game.

3.  The noise and fanaticism was intense.

4.  The regular interruptions to hold competitions and provide prizes for the fans is something that UK sport could do well to follow, though the latter’s historic antipathy to stoppages in play will probably prevent that happening – either way we could learn a lot about looking after the fans from US sport.          

All in all, a great experience – but I still prefer baseball!  A 45 wait for the return tin can to San Francisco at 10.30pm was made bearable by the balmy conditions and high spirits of other passengers.  I should add that although the train was basic and the journey not particularly comfortable, both outbound and inbound services were on time leaving and arriving at their destination.

In view of the fact that it was midnight when we came out of the Caltrain station we hailed a cab back to the apartment.  The driver spent the majority of the journey on the phone to Nigeria in his native language, but turned at one point to apologise in perfectly modulated English for his rudeness!  Despite his distraction he did return us to the apartment in very quick time.

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This will be an unusually short entry (hoorah I hear you cry), due in part to the fact that, in keeping with our plan to “live like locals” as much as we could whilst in San Francisco, we spent a relaxing Sunday afternoon just walking around Golden Gate Park in the warm sunshine, taking in the sights and sounds of the City at play.

Walkers, dogs, walkers with dogs,dogs with walkers,  joggers, dogs, joggers with dogs, dogs with joggers, cyclists, dogs, cyclists with dogs, dogs with cyclists, skateboarders, dogs, skateboarders with dogs, dogs with skateboarders, roller skaters, dogs, rollerskaters with dogs, dogs with rollerskaters, football games, soccer games, baseball games, kite flying, boating, rowing…………the list goes on of activities. 

The most extrordinary sight was the high intensity roller disco where roller skaters and bladers hurtled round a self-imposed rink to loud disco music.  Some of the moves were amazing and it was a wonder nobody crashed into each other.  And dogs, of course, got into the action too! 

We strolled around the open air art gallery, visited the steamy Conservatory of Flowers, and climbed to the top of Strawberry Hill on Stow Lake for tantalising glimpses of the City and Golden Gate Bridge.  We would normally visit the Japanese Tea Garden but it was extremely busy at the time, so we gave it a miss.  And besides, I’d just had another hot dog!

The lazy Sunday was completed by a bit of food shopping and dinner at the apartment, followed by America’s Next Great Restaurant and Celebrity Apprentice on TV (how will we keep up with those when we return home?).

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