Wednesday, September 23, 2009

San Francisco - September 2009

As part of Andy's Weekend Travel Series, I decided to visit the San Francisco area. I've visited the Bay area more than any other place in the US. My first big trip away from home was out to visit my aunt and uncle in Santa Rosa, about 45 minutes north of SF. On that trip I remember paying "only" $300 for a flight from Grand Rapids, Michigan to SFO -- and that was after a special voucher from a local grocery store. Fast-forward about 15 years and I paid a post-deregulation price of only $220 direct from Houston on Continental. Friday afternoon I left work and drove straight to the airport. The flight was uneventful (and completely packed). Picked up my $10-a-day rental car at SFO and -- wouldn't you know it -- they gave me a sea-foam-green New Beetle. Despite completely ignoring his directions, I eventually arrived at my cousin's house. He lives in the residential neighborhood of Ingleside, just a few miles southwest of what you'd think of as San Francisco. Chris' apartment is cute, spacious (but full of plants), and commands an impressive over-the-rooftops view of houses marching up a large hill to the south. To the west, on clear days, you can "just see the ocean". The entire back of the apartment is a dine-in kitchen add-on with essentially a wall of windows. Not a bad setup.

After a night on El Coucho motel, Chris and I hit the streets in his sporting late-model dark-blue Toyota Corolla (but it needs an oil change). I realize I tested the neighborhood by leaving my wallet and cell phone in plain view on the front seat of the Beetle. We headed toward Cliff House, on the Pacific Coast, and I marvel at the row of houses facing the boulevard along the beach. South of the Presidio on the Pacific coast, there is a narrow, sandy beach backed up by an area of low, wind-swept, bonzai-like, dark green shrubs. Beyond these shrubs is a nearly-always-deserted boulevard (I guess it's highway 1?). Just on the landward side of this boulevard is an endless row of 3-story houses, standing side-by-side and facing out to the ocean, many with gigantic windows for eyes. Inside these windows are the rich people who can afford a view out over 10,000 miles of ocean. Talk about the edge of the world. Here, we live our lives in our condo on the beach. Over there is nothing until you hit China.
We parked by Cliff House and strolled along a jogging trail that apparently connects to the Presidio. There were seals a-barking and plenty of dogs off-leash. I learn that San Franciscans aren't really the eye-contact, hello-how-are-you and smile type of people. There was plenty of fog, and the associated groves of gnarly, wind-swept trees for the fog to dwell amongst.
Eventually it starting raining a little (Chris referred to this as a "torrential downpour", but he clearly has not visited Houston), so we glanced in the direction of the Golden Gate and the eponymous bridge and trotted back to the car. The Golden Gate Bridge lost none of its splendor by having its top half shrouded by the fog.Back on the road, Chris showed me around various parts of the city. Eventually I complained about hunger so we stopped and got some gigantic hamburgers. Then we stopped at the elusive, trendy and back-alleyish Blue Bottle coffee shop. Just the fact that I've visited the place will probably cause them to go out of business. The shop is run by a particular type of person referred to as "hipsters". More on that later. The brown Beetle was outside the Blue Bottle.
We drove around SF more and finally found Coit Tower (yah!).San Francisco-ey neighborhood:
Back to Chris' then we headed north on The 101, bound for Santa Rosa.The fog lifted a bit - only very slightly - and it was possible to see more of the Golden Gate Bridge. And some pointy rocks adjacent to the bridge. The drive to Santa Rosa was uneventful. California used to seem so different than everywhere else when it was the only place I'd been outside of Michigan. Now that I've been all over the US it doesn't seem quite as foreign. Santa Rosa is still a beautiful town, but it seemed like some of the shine had worn off since my first visit about 12 years ago. The same cannot be said for my aunt and uncle's house. They've done a huge remodel and revamp, with a new open-format kitchen and a huge sunroom addition. I've always loved their simple and functional house, and it's even better post-remodel.

On Sunday morning we drove a windy hilly road over to Napa valley and indulged in a castle tour topped off with some wine tasting. I'm sure if you are a wine fanatic you will know this place.
The weather was cool, lovely and foggy. The whole crew came out for the Napa Valley trek -- cousins JP and Chris in addition to aunt D and uncle J.

Sunday evening I drove down to Napa to visit my friend Cari, who was preparing to move out of her apartment, which happened to be the same place she was living during my previous visit, some five years before. It was a brief visit since she had work the next day. On Monday, I attempted a local Napa hike but got sketched out by lots of undergrowth blocking the trail and the fact the first mile of the trail passed some type of prison facility. Jumped back in the car and cut across the scenic and marshy northern reaches of the San Pablo Bay. In Houston, a marsh is a swamp and it's a stinky, steamy place. The marshes of San Pablo Bay had a fresh, open feel to them, with the golden hills of Marin rising in the distance. I turned south on the 101, aiming vaguely to hit some of the parklands I knew existed in the Marin headlands area, just north of the Golden Gate. When I saw a sign for the Marin County Civic Center, I hopped off the freeway to see this well-known Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building. After exploring this quirky and interesting structure, I set off to find some redwoods before I had to bid California goodbye. I wound up at Muir Woods, which, in typical California style, didn't have enough parking and was crowded even on a Monday midday. The trees were spectacular, but I do like some solitude with my nature, so I must recommend coast redwood groves farther to the north.
Back to the airport on 101, which brings travelers right through the center of stop-light-choked downtown San Fran. Back to Houston.


Anonymous said...

Hadn't heard about the sea-foam-green New Beetle rental, did you like it? Have you driven a Beetle before? Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

You are such a talented writer. I loved the photos too. I felt like I was right there with you on the trip! Makes me want to travel more...

stratovolcano said...

Hi Anonymous people! I really hated the New Beetle. I have not driven one before. It was cheap, had poor handling, a coarse engine, and poorly functioning powertrain. It felt unpleasant to drive, unstable. It did not give good feedback in hard cornering. Also underpowered. A big thumbs down!