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Archive for April, 2011


With our City Pass booklet we started the day by visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).  Neither of us are great fans of much of modern art, though we enjoyed some aspects.  I particularly liked the Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870 exhibition, and not because of the amount of nudity it contained.  There is no doubting the splendour of the building and the design of space throughout the museum.  We had a light lunch in Caffe Museo, asparagus soup for me and a fruit scone for Janet.

We wandered around Yerba Buena Gardens afterwards, taking in the Martin Luther King Jnr Memorial and waterfall and the excellent views it afforded of both MOMA and the Financial District.  The area was filled with thousands of comic book fans visiting San Francisco for the weekend for the 25th Wondercon comic book, science fiction and movie convention at the Moscone Centre South.  Many were dressed as their favourite characters and all carried shopping bags packed with merchandise.  San Francisco has more than its fair share of interesting looking characters but that number was magnified this weekend by aliens and superheroes stalking the streets.

As we were in the area we moved on to AT & T Park and the San Francisco Giants Dugout Store.   Given the proximity of the opening home stand it was very busy.  TV screens were transmitting the third game in the opening road trip of the season, and as we arrived Giants were 8-0 ahead in the 7th inning, a vast improvement on their first two sloppy one run defeats at the hands of the LA Dodgers.  By the time we left they had stretched their lead to 10-0 in the ninth and the atmosphere in the store was upbeat.

Although Janet and I could have spent thousands on replica shirts, jackets and other paraphernalia, I confined my purchase to a t-shirt, DVD and magazine.  We do, however, intend to return before we leave town on Friday, so the credit card should not rest easy just yet.

Walking back into town we had frappuccinos at Starbucks (yes I was in that much need of a “frozen concoction” on a warmer, brighter afternoon than had been forecast), surrounded by characters from Star Wars, Marvel and assorted Japanese franchises.   A final trip to soon to be closed Border’s bookstore in Union Square completed our afternoon.  Whilst not quite as pathetic looking as its counterpart in Santa Cruz, the top floor and cafe were closed and everything was at least 50% off.  Regular announcements advised that deals were available too on fixtures and fittings. 

The high – or low – spot of the day?  I ate a hot dog on Market Street, my first meat hot dog in over 30 years!  And it was good!  Does that now make me an American?

We had initially planned to go out for dinner again but mutual tiredness, my persistent cold and the undeniable pleasure of being able to wind down in our own place (which is why we rented an apartment in the first place), led us to decide to buy dinner from the supermarket, fresh catfish which we had with home made chips aka fries.

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As we were due to return the hire car by 2.30pm we felt we should make best use of it by visiting some of the sights less easy to get to by public transport or on foot.  Firstly, we drove out to Ocean Beach and explored the delightful districts of Parkside and Sunset, before stopping at 16th and Moraga to walk up and down the beautiful marble stairway with outstanding views of the Pacific coastline.   We noticed that many of the animal designs in the marble contained people’s names, presumably by way of sponsorship, and set me to look at the possibility of having our names included on it.

Our next stop was Twin Peaks.  It had been the first place in San Francisco we had visited on a coach tour back in 1995 and, to be honest, I don’t think either of us had taken much note of it then, more interested in later delights such as Fisherman’s Wharf and cable car rides.  The absurdity of that attitude was exposed when we feasted our eyes on The City laid out before us on this warm, sunny morning.  What struck me in particular was just how near everything was, you could almost take it in the palm of your hand and stroke it.  

We prised ourselves reluctantly from Twin Peaks and headed down into the Castro and the Mission where we tried to find a parking space close to Dolores Park to relax and enjoy the famed views of the city from there.   But it proved futile, after all it was Friday lunchtime, the sun was beating down and half of San Francisco had got the same idea – never mind, we will do it before we leave.

A tortuous drive back through the Mission and along the Embarcadero meant that we handed back the car to Avis on Beach Street less than an hour before we were required to.  By this time we were hungry and in Fisherman’s Wharf where we had a mediocre lunch experience on the previous day.   However, we had enjoyed a nice meal at Lou’s at Pier 47 in the past so felt comfortable in sitting down at one of the outside tables there.  We were not disappointed as my salmon cakes and Janet’s red snapper were excellent.

With the car returned it was time to collect our City Pass booklets which I had purchased online before leaving the UK.  We walked up Mason and Columbus in the blistering sun to Washington Square where, still replete from lunch, we crashed out on the ground with a cold drink.  However, we soon sought sanctuary on a park bench, as my damp shorts testified that the heat of the past few days had still not drawn the dew left by the incessant rain beforehand from the grass.

Washington Square was understandably busy with bikini clad girls stretched out in the sun, Chinese elders gossiping under the shade of the trees, a single hippie playing catch with himself and office workers resting on the way home to make phone calls to arrange their evening activities.

Refreshed, we walked through the heart of Chinatown to Union Square, stopping only to check the closing time of the restaurant we were planning to eat at later, and for Janet to have her first fix of DW Shoes on Powell whilst I collected the City Pass booklets from the visitor information centre on Hallidie Plaza.  We then used our 7 day MUNI passport for the first time in returning to the apartment.

The highlight of the day, with the possible exception of Twin Peaks, was the journey back into the time in the evening on the no. 5 bus.  After the no-show on Monday evening, which necessitated the life threatening cab ride to the Warfield, at least the bus had the decency to turn up tonight, even if we had more than a ten minute wait in the increasing cold.

The journey was uneventful until Fillmore when a middle aged woman with a motorised wheelchair got on.  The step onto the bus was lowered by the driver to allow her to enter.  The bus was very busy with standing room only at this point but the woman had to manoeuvre herself into the wheelchair user space a third of the way along the bus.  The next five minutes entailed those sitting at the front of the bus having to bring their feet up onto their seats to enable her to get past, when she then engineered a 27 point turn into her appointed position.  It was clear from when she told the driver where she wanted to get off that the same pantomine would be required sooner rather than later.

However, it got worse.  At the next stop a young girl got on with a child in a buggy, which would inevitably complicate matters a little.  But when TWO more girls got on with buggies at the very next stop, this was going to be very interesting.  Once we had reached Larkin and the female wheelchair user wanted to get off it looked an impossibility – until the three girls with buggies, noticing that seats had been vacated, leapt back into the seats, in an almost orchestrated manoeuvre,  with the buggies, complete with babies, in their arms, allowing the wheelchair to get through, and universal applause from the front of the bus.  In our experience there are very few MUNI journeys, especially at night, that cannot provide some such adventure.

We had decided to revisit our favourite Chinatown restaurant, the Great Eastern on Grant and Jackson, and despite the delay caused by the bus journey, we were found a table immediately.  Although the R & G Lounge that we had eaten at in 2008 was possibly the smartest Chinatown restaurant we have eaten at, the Great Eastern has now given us three consistently good meals and is thoroughly recommended – my scallops with straw mushrooms and sugar snap peas, along with shrimp fried rice, was filling and delicious.

And I can proudly announce that I completed my very first chinese meal without resorting once to a spoon or fork, even to clear the final scraps off my plate.  It was chopsticks all the way – and it was still warm when I had finished! 

A couple of large straight Jack Daniel’s for me and two gin and tonics for Janet at Vesuvio’s in Columbus and Jack Kerouac Boulevard completed our evening, apart from a relatively smooth if painfully slow MUNI bus home.

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In the past decade Janet has invariably spent her birthday in San Francisco, and she has tried to do something fun and different, for example the Fire Engine Tour and Ride the Ducks in recent years.  In keeping with the touristy nature of such adventures she decided today that she wanted to ride one of the open top buses, something we had never done in our previous seven trips.

We walked to Union Square where we waited for the City Sightseeing bus which offered an “all loops” package, including Sausalito and Muir Woods as well as the obvious city sights,  for $49.99 for 48 hours  If that sounds expensive the ticket collector immediately, and unsolicited, said he would extend our ticket to four days at no extra cost.  Whilst we weren’t planning spending the weekend sitting on a bus, listening to the same patter, we weren’t going to turn such an offer down.

We boarded the second bus (the first had no available seats upstairs) which took us first through the Tenderloin to the Civic Center, returning to Union Square before travelling through Chinatown and North Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Here we boarded another bus across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back again.  It was good to get a different perspective on a number of the attractions, and the weather was stunning, although there was only minimal opportunity to take the photos you might wish to take, other than from the vista point on the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The tour guides, the second of which was also the driver, were knowledgable and informative, although I do wonder whether some of the anecdotes are designed more to the need to titillate the tourist than authenticity.  It was not easy either to hear what the first was seeing due to the group of young Latino girls behind us who persisted in talking over him and taking photos of each other with no discernible background picture.

By the time we disembarked the second bus at Fisherman’s Wharf we were ravenous.  Now I know that many people, especially locals, turn their noses up at eating there, but we have had good meals at Neptune’s Palace, The Franciscan and McCormick and Kuleto’s in the past.  On this occasion, I think our hunger had overrode our judgement because we succumbed to the hard sell outside Alioto’s Waterside Cafe.   The service and wine were fine but the food was bland and uninspiring.  We had coffee at the Boudin Bakery and Cafe on the Wharf  before wandering  around for a while.

As we were keen to catch the opening game of the new baseball season between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the reigning World Champions, the San Francisco Giants, we hailed a cab to take us back to the apartment.  I had asked the driver to get us back in time for the first pitch, and despite the fact that we caught every red light, he obliged.  However, it was a disappointing game with the Giants playing very sloppy defense, and despite Tim Lincecum‘s competent pitching and Pat Burrell‘s ninth innings solo homer, losing 2-1 to their arch rivals.  Ah well, it’s only the first game and there are 160 still to go.  

After the game had finished Janet and I grappled with the seemingly complicated system for putting the garbage out, ensuring that recyclables were put in the right bins (just like being at home, except that in San Francisco there are garbage police who will enforce the policy)!  The combined stress of the baseball game and the trash wars made it necessary for me to visit the Lucky supermarket to buy more wine.  For the second night running we spent the last couple of hours of the day watching re-runs of the British TV show, Come Dine With Me.

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Having spent the previous day drivin’ south on Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, we decided to take advantage of the remaining time with the hire car to  head in the opposite direction to visit some of the towns in Marin County.  Initially, we had intended to travel as far as Bodega Bay, the location used for one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s most chilling films, The Birds, but another late start (we are on vacation after all) caused us to modify our plans by mid afternoon. 

It wasn’t helped by the fact that my sore throat and cough had developed into a full blown cold, occasioning a consultation with the pharmacist at the nearby Lucky supermarket before we left.  So, having handed over half of our remaining spending money for the pills and syrup, we set off over the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear, sunny morning that was to produce record temperature by mid afternoon.

Our first stop was in Mill Valley for coffee.  As I was feeding the parkaing meter I was asked by a young mother if I knew where The Depot was.  I explained that I was a new kid in the block too, thinking that this delightful, woodland scene could hardly be the locatoin for a branch of The Home Depot.  Five minutes later Janet and I were sitting outside the Depot Cafe, sipping coffees and scrutinising the Marin County map I had just bought in the bookstore linked to the cafe.  The sight of the menu, and the presentation of the food being delivered to other customers, made me regret having had such a heavy breakfast.    

Mill Valley, one of the wealthiest communities in the United States in a lovely, wooded setting, struck us as affluent and civilised.  Moreover, the people were very friendly, notably the proprietor of the  jewelry store who individually gift wrapped the watch, earrings and bracelets I had bought Janet for her birthday tomorrow.

As we drove around Marin County the artists’ and spiritualist colonies for which it was renowned were evident respectively in galleries and establishments like the Vedanta Center and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

We had decided to take another drive today not least because we wanted to ensure that we ran the gas down before returning it to Avis.  However, as we drove towards Stinson Beach we realised that if we went much further today we would need to buy more gas.  We did not want to run out on an isolated part of the road.  Fortunately, we found a gas station at Point Reyes Station, a raggedy western style town, where we also had a picnic lunch.  With Bodega Bay still the best part of an hour away we decided to head for Sausalito via Fairfax and San Rafael.

As it transpired, we drove through Fairfax, an attractive town, and its neighbour, San Anselmo, in preference for spending the remaining hour of the shops opening in San Rafael.  However, no sooner had we entered the town then we had passed through it!  Perhaps the downtown area was off the main road.  We considered returning to Fairfax but decided to push on to Sausalito.

We had coffee in the Bridgeway Cafe in Sausalito and sat “on the dock of the bay” marvelling at the crystal clear and deceptively close view of The City across the bay. 

Now, you are never far from an ageing hippie in the Bay Area, and this was no exception as we were entertained by a character who did not look dissimilar from David Crosby (long golden hair, receding hairline, bushy moustache, tassled brown suede jacket) whom we had only seen a couple of nights before.  But that is where the similarity ended.  Whilst he had a guitar strapped across his chest, he only used it a mute prop to his rendition of “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by” (only readers of a certain age will remember this – hardly a west coast hippie anthem).  When he wasn’t “singing” he was engaged in loud and harmless conversation with whomsoever would accidentally catch his eye.  Amongst his rapid fire tips on surviving in today’s world was “if you sit somewhere long enough someone will bring you food”.  Well, it worked for him as a middle aged woman delivered shepherd’s pie to him and his dog (there’s always a dog).

We could have avoided him on the return to our car but that would have required an unnecessary  minor detour.  Inevitably, as we passed by he said “where you guys from, it can’t be San Francisco with a t-shirt like that”, and as if to answer his own question he ventured “Australian” of course.  He then offered his services as a tour guide if we wanted someone to show us around.  He didn’t want paying – all we would need to do was supply a car and buy him dinner.  He would even take a “day off “(from sitting on a bench rapping to every passer by) to help us out.      

After crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge (at a toll charge of $6) we stopped by the Exploratorium and the majestic Palace of Fine Arts, where we spent a relaxing twilight hour watching the world winding down, including joggers, many with dogs trotting alongside them, children in their toy cars and swans elegantly gliding around the lagoon.   We then retired to the apartment for dinner (seafood lasagne).

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