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San Francisco and Marin County

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: June 2009

Another year, another “girlfriend getaway” with my mom. This time we went to San Francisco, which both of us had been dying to visit! We flew out of Philadelphia on Southwest, changed planes in Phoenix (wow, what a nice airport — loved the clean bathrooms) and arrived at the San Francisco airport without incident. The approach to SFO over the water was cool.

It was easy enough to take the AirTrain from the domestic terminal to the BART station (BART = one of San Francisco’s public transportation options), and then head downtown from there. We got off at the Montgomery stop and I miraculously navigated us to our hotel without getting lost or backtracking once. In the five-minute walk from the BART station we spotted three Starbucks, oy. There was also a Walgreen’s pharmacy, which proved helpful for Mom in dealing with an earache after our flight.

We got a great deal at the Orchard Garden Hotel, which I chose for its location and its incredible eco-friendliness. The building is LEED-certified, which very few hotels are, and it has a number of green policies that you’d think other hotels could adopt too, like recycling bins in the rooms and a key card system that shuts off energy use (lights, AC) when you’re not in the room. Our room was not huge but it was lovely, decorated in restful earth tones. There was a flat-screen TV on the wall and the bed was ridiculously comfortable. The location was good too, almost literally right next door to the entrance to Chinatown and just a few blocks from BART and the cable car lines.

After dropping our bags off at our hotel, we spent a half-hour or so wandering up and down Grant Street, the main drag through the biggest Chinatown in America. It was very colorful, almost overwhelming. There was an absolute barrage of ticky-tacky souvenirs — picture $1.88 T-shirts — but there were also some cool Chinese markets selling unrecognizable dried goods labeled in Chinese, traditional garments, Asian-influenced decorative items, etc. I wish we’d had a little more time to browse, but we were pretty hungry for dinner.

We ended up eating at Plouf, one of about half a dozen restaurants on Belden Lane (a few blocks from our hotel). They were all European-style sidewalk cafes, each with a host or hostess out front to try to entice people off the street. The entree prices ranged from $20 – $30 at just about all of them, which was more than we wanted to pay, but we got around it by ordering the soup du jour (carrot puree) and appetizer-size salads (I had goat cheese and beets, while Mom had some sort of endive concoction). It still wasn’t super-cheap ($44 with tip), but it was a good light meal. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel to check the next day’s weather report and then collapse, jetlagged, into bed.

Day One: Biking to Sausalito

Got up around seven and went in search of breakfast, which we found at a place called Jamba Juice, a local chain. Mom was excited to see them growing several trays of wheatgrass (which she grows herself in her kitchen back home). She got a shot of the green stuff plus a mango smoothie, and we both ordered some yummy apple cinnamon oatmeal.

Then we headed to Powell Street to hop onto a cable car. (Note to coffee drinkers and others: We had to toss Mom’s mango smoothie because food/drink isn’t allowed on the cable cars.) You can board a cable car at any marked stop along its route; just wave it down and it will stop in the middle of the nearest intersection. It’s touristy and a bit expensive ($5 per ride), but we didn’t want to go to San Francisco without doing it.

We caught the Powell-Hyde cable car, which is apparently the most scenic, and indeed it was pretty nifty — we went up and down some dizzying hills, pausing at the intersection of Lombard Street for a view of the famous crooked street (more on that later). Then we went down a very steep hill toward the bay, getting a sweeping view of both the water and of Alcatraz.

We disembarked at the end of the cable car route, snapped a few pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, and then wandered along Fisherman’s Wharf in search of Blazing Saddles, a bike rental shop at Pier 43 1/2. (It has a few other locations too.) In one of those tourist brochures at the hotel we’d found a coupon for $5 off the daily rate, so we were able to rent the bikes for $23 each instead of $28. The Blazing Saddle folks were very friendly and helpful, and they gave us a good map showing us how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge and then, on the other side, to the waterfront town of Sausalito. (The whole ride was about eight miles.)

A bike path runs along the waterfront toward the Golden Gate Bridge, with numerous parks, beaches, viewpoints, etc. We saw quite a few locals jogging, biking, walking, playing with their kids or otherwise enjoying this amazing waterfront space. The ride was largely flat except for a few decent-sized hills (we had to walk our bikes a few times). There were public restrooms near a cafe/bookstore called the Warming Hut, not far from the bridge.

Actually going over the bridge was awesome. It’s nearly two miles long, which I hadn’t realized, and offers great views of the city skyline, Alcatraz, Angel Island and Marin County. (We lucked out in that there wasn’t a bit of fog in the sky.) The bridge apparently sees about 20 suicides a year; there are several phones along the span that you can use to reach crisis counseling, as well as signs saying “There is hope.”

On the other side of the bridge, we stopped for a quick photo op and then followed the bike path down a few long hills into Sausalito — or was it the Amalfi Coast of Italy? The turquoise water, colorful flowers and hillside houses made me think immediately of Mediterranean villages like Positano and Amalfi.

We locked our bikes near the ferry dock and walked around a bit, stopping for lunch at the Bridgeway Cafe (we both got omelets, which really hit the spot after our bike ride). The place had good service and a sunny sidewalk table too. Afterward we wandered through town, did a little souvenir shopping, and browsed the cute shops and galleries. Then we took the ferry back to San Francisco (the bike shop had sold us the tickets at the time of our rental).

We biked from the ferry drop-off point (at the Embarcadero) back up to Pier 43 1/2 to return the bikes, stopping at Pier 39 to see the famous sea lions. They’re totally goofy and noisy, barking and lolling about and pushing each other into the water. They kept a huge crowd of tourists enthralled!

Otherwise, though, Fisherman’s Wharf was frankly pretty dreadful — full of tourist shops and chain restaurants, with not a local in sight. (One good thing though: free public restrooms.)

We left as soon as I could yank Mom out of the souvenir shops and headed to Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower — a pretty major uphill climb. Unfortunately, the tower’s elevator was out of service so we couldn’t get up to the observation deck. Bummer. But we still got to see the Depression-era murals inside the tower, as well as some lovely views of the bay from the park surrounding the tower.

Because we were feeling energetic and it was such a nice day, we headed back down to Lombard Street and walked all the way up yet another high hill to the “crooked street” — a series of narrow zigs and zags down a hill covered in gardens and bordered by upscale houses. (Again, it felt a bit like the Mediterranean — there was even a grapefruit tree in front of one of the homes.) There seemed to be no one driving this crazy road but tourists — some whooping, others grinning nervously and clutching the steering wheel, and nearly all of them holding cameras out their car windows.

We rewarded ourselves for our strenuous climb with a heavy dinner at Piazza Pelligrini, on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, SF’s Italian neighborhood. We started with an appetizer of mussels and clams in white wine broth, which was the highlight of the meal. So yummy! Then we got salads and dessert (cannoli for Mom and some fruity pastry thing for me).

We wound up at the famous City Lights bookstore, which I loved: three floors of nothing but books, including one just for poetry! There was a great mix of topics in the basement, where apparently folks like Kerouac and Ginsburg used to hang out. The stairs up to the poetry floor had a number of framed and signed poems on the walls, which I seriously considered buying as a souvenir. (Instead I bought a whole book of poetry.) The sun was going down by that point, so we walked back to our hotel and collapsed with sore feet!

Day Two: Muir Woods and Point Reyes National Seashore

Today was our day to get out of town, so we walked up Bush Street to the National/Alamo office in the morning to rent a car. We hadn’t made arrangements ahead of time (since we wanted to pick a day with good weather), but we had no problem getting a vehicle. It cost $40 with taxes, plus the ridiculous cost of gas. They gave us the car with only an eighth of a tank, which I thought was obnoxious; that meant the first thing we had to do was stop at a gas station, and almost guaranteed that we’d fill the car with more gas than we actually used. Ah, well.

After filling up ($34, ouch!), we proceeded without incident over the Golden Gate Bridge and then took the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach exit to get to Muir Woods. Once off the highway, this was a lovely drive with lots of steep switchbacks and forest views. Muir Woods itself was wonderfully quiet and serene — it was amazing to see these tall redwoods and rushing streams less than half an hour outside of San Francisco. Admission was $5 for adults and free for kids, and the park includes a number of loop trails so you can spend as much or as little time as you want (we did the longest loop, about two miles). There are several longer side trails where you can do some hiking, but unfortunately we were pressed for time.

We headed back out onto Route 1 North, which would take us to Point Reyes National Seashore. The road wound its way up the coast for a bit — quite scenic, especially at the stunning Muir Beach overlook, which offered panoramic views of the sea, the rocky coastline and the colorful wildflowers in bloom. It was another sunny day and we could see for miles and miles. Gorgeous.

We popped into a local market in the nearby town of Stinson Beach to pick up lunch: a baguette, hummus, cheese and apples. We ate once we got to the main visitor center at Point Reyes (there are several). Point Reyes was actually a lot bigger than I thought it was: from the visitor center to the historic lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula was a 45-minute drive. I do highly recommend stopping at the visitor center; the park ranger there was very helpful in mapping out an itinerary for our afternoon/evening.

Another thing I wasn’t expecting about Point Reyes: cows! But indeed, there are a number of historic ranches within the park, many of which appeared to be dairy farms. We saw dozens of cows milling about, apparently quite freely. The rolling hills of the farms and the fields of yellow lupines made for a really beautiful drive. As we approached the lighthouse, we started getting glimpses of the sea on both sides too.

The lighthouse is a short walk from the parking lot and then a precipitous climb down 300 stairs. The lighthouse is all automated now, but there are some historic foghorns and other equipment inside the current building. Down in the sea below the lighthouse was a large rock where hundreds of birds — common murres and pelicans, I believe — were congregating.

We headed back up the 300 steps, which was a really good climb (cute trick: the steps are labeled with descending numbers — 300, 290, 280 — so you can see how many you have to go), and hopped back in the car to visit the Chimney Rock trailhead. Just 0.2 miles away was an elephant seal viewing point (though it was more like a hearing point — the seals were a pretty good distance away, but they were making a heck of a racket!).cliffs point reyes national seashore marin county

The Chimney Rock trail is a little longer, though still less than a mile each way, and it was the highlight of Point Reyes for me. A narrow dirt path took us through a grassy field and then headed uphill to a fork: to the left was a promontory with a dizzying view over the sea, and to the right were amazing views of the cliffs, rocks and beaches along the coast (including some sea lions lolling on a beach below). In a day full of stunning views, these may have been the best ones.

Our final stop was Drakes Beach, a lovely stretch of sand fringed by pale rocky cliffs. We walked a little way down the beach, but it grew windy and chilly as the sun started to go down. Mom dared to bare her feet and dip them in the Pacific — looked like it was awfully cold! Huddled in my multiple layers, I decided that sticking a toe in the Pacific wasn’t worth it.

We ate dinner at Priscilla’s in the little town of Inverness, which I believe is located inside Point Reyes. The meal was okay — we ordered clam chowder and salad, and Mom decided after one bite of the chowder that she couldn’t eat it. The waitress was clearly unhappy when Mom asked for something else, but she brought out some lentil soup and didn’t charge us for the chowder.

We took a faster way back to San Francisco — the Francis Drake Boulevard to 101 rather than Route 1 South — and discovered that we still had a ton of gas left in the car. So we headed back to Sausalito for a nighttime walk along the waterfront. Nothing much was open, but we did get a nice view of the glittering San Francisco skyline. Then we headed back over the GG Bridge and made a stop at the Palace of Fine Arts, a Greek-style rotunda thing in the Presidio. It looked lovely all lit up at night. And our final stop of the day was a drive down the crooked street. It wasn’t all that exciting, to be honest, but at least we could say we did it!

Day Three: Mission, Castro, Haight and Golden Gate Park

We returned our rental car first thing in the morning and then took BART to the 16th Street Mission stop. We’d heard that the Mission neighborhood had some amazing murals, which Mom wanted to see, but we started with a visit to Mission Delores, the city’s oldest building. It’s next to a more modern (and more ornate) basilica, and the tour of the place includes both.

The self-guided tour ($5) took us through a quiet cemetery laden with flowers, then into a small museum with artifacts from the mission and the city. We popped into the basilica briefly, but a mass was starting so we moved on to the chapel in the old mission. It was dim and simply decorated, with a wooden altar and ceiling (the latter was painted in traditional Native American colors and patterns).

We left the mission and walked to Clarion Alley to see a few murals. The area was a bit grittier than some of the other places we’d visited, but the murals were definitely worth seeing, stretching down both sides of the alley. Even better, though, was the Women’s Building, a local community center that was painted from top to bottom with amazing, vibrant, multicultural images of women and girls. What an inspiring place!

pink triangle memorial gay castro san franciscoFrom the Mission, we followed 18th Street west over to the Castro neighborhood, which seemed a bit more upscale and was festooned with rainbow flags. (This is San Francisco’s famously gay neighborhood.) We didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked, but we did check out Harvey Milk “plaza” — which seemed to be just a small corner near the Castro muni station.

It was a nice tribute though, with a few black and white photos of Milk and a plaque about his life and the difference he made here in San Francisco. Flying above was a giant rainbow flag. Also nearby was the Pink Triangle Memorial, a small, triangle-shaped median at a busy intersection set up to remember the lives of gays and lesbians murdered in the Holocaust.

From there we continued on foot to the Haight neighborhood, which was great fun — lots of funky stores and hippie hangouts. Mom grabbed some joe at the Red Vic, a cafe/inn offering fair-trade coffee and T-shirts with lefty slogans. We had our best meal of the trip at Squat and Gobble, where we ate omelets in a sun-dappled courtyard. (Called the “Upper Haight,” the omelet had cheese, zucchini, peppers, sprouts and mushrooms, topped with low-fat plain yogurt. It was divine.)

After lunch we ducked into and out of a few stores, then walked to Golden Gate Park, which is big — about three miles from end to end. We were offered drugs twice within our first five minutes in the park, and we tiptoed past what’s known as “hippies’ hill,” where dozens of scruffy folks lolled on the grass and the smell of pot wafted on the breeze. The atmosphere changed a bit as we approached the Conservatory of Flowers, a huge greenhouse with various botanical exhibits. Admission was $5 — definitely worth it if you love flowers, which we do!

Not far away was the Japanese Tea Garden (admission was $5 there too), which was pretty but swarming with tourists. Mom and I were so tired at that point that I don’t think either of us really appreciated it as much as we could have, but there were some lovely temples, waterfalls, fish ponds, etc.

rose garden golden gate park san franciscoOur final stop in Golden Gate Park was a wonderful surprise: a rose garden in full, extravagant bloom. I was amazed by all the different shades — white, dusky pink, purple, yellow, orange, deep crimson. At the end of a long day of walking and sightseeing, when we were very tired, stumbling upon this garden really lifted our spirits.

To get back to the hotel, we went out to Fulton Street (which runs along the northern end of the park) and caught the #21 bus, which took us downtown to the intersection of Market and Stockton — maybe five or six blocks from our hotel. For the half-hour bus ride, the fare was only $1.50.

We ate dinner outside at the Metropol Cafe on Sutter Street. We each got the Metropol chicken salad (red cabbage, bell peppers, chicken, honey mustard dressing and a hint of cilantro) and shared the salmon chowder and a piece of cheesecake covered with berries. Mmm. Expensive but delicious.

Day Four: Grace Cathedral and SFMOMA

We started the day by walking uphill to Grace Cathedral in the Nob Hill area. Its gold front doors are taken from a cast of Brunelleschi’s famous doors in Florence. Inside we found a treat: the cathedral’s men and boys choir was practicing up in the front of the nave. I’m not sure what they were singing, but it was Latin and sounded lovely — an atmospheric backdrop for our visit.

The cathedral has a beautiful rose window, two labyrinths (one indoor, one outdoor) and many colorful stained glass windows. But the highlight for me was the interfaith AIDS memorial chapel, where there’s a unique and whimsical sculpture called “The Life of Christ” as well as several panels from the AIDS quilt. I hadn’t realized that each of the blocks in the quilt was 3 feet by 6 feet — the size of a coffin.

After leaving the cathedral, we walked to the SoMa (South of Market) area and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I expected to spend a couple of hours here, maybe three, but we ended up staying from 11:30 to 5:30. Fantastic place. Our visit started with a special exhibit called “Natural Affinities,” highlighting the works of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. Then we took a spin through the paintings and sculpture on the second floor (Matisse, Kahlo, Magritte, etc.).

We ate lunch at the Caffe Museo, and it was delicious — Mom got a spring orzo salad with watercress, while I had a grilled veggie sandwich with pesto. Yum.

Then it was on to the third floor for the best part of our day: an exhibit on Richard Frank’s 1959 photography book “The Americans,” a collection of 83 black and white images taken on a trip around the continental U.S. The photos themselves were incredible, capturing everything from loneliness and celebration to romance and racial tension, and the exhibit offered just the right amount of informative commentary.

We took another break in the museum’s rooftop sculpture garden, where we stretched our legs and soaked up a little sunshine before looking through the contemporary exhibits on the same floor. Contemporary art is definitely hit or miss for me, but I found several innovative and thought-provoking pieces here. All in all a very rewarding day of art!

We ate dinner near our hotel at Gitane, which served Moroccan and Spanish dishes. Mom got a chicken tajine (a Moroccan stew) and I got a few veggie dishes. For dessert: mango and strawberry sorbet, mmm.

We hit Chinatown for one last souvenir run and then took the BART train to the San Francisco airport, where we caught a free shuttle to the nearby Super 8. Can’t say it was the nicest place I’ve ever stayed — the color scheme made the place look like it hadn’t been renovated since the 70’s, and the ratty blanket and duvet had definitely seen better days. But it was reasonably priced and only 10 minutes from the airport, so we couldn’t complain.

All in all we had a great trip — the city was gorgeous and the weather couldn’t have been better. The high points: biking over the Golden Gate Bridge, the amazing cliff-top views of Point Reyes, the magnificently blooming rose garden in Golden Gate Park and the photography exhibit at SFMOMA. And of course, bonding with my mom for yet another year!

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