Monday, June 11, 2012

San Francisco Adventure--Day Three: Crepes, Chinatown and Cable Cars

I started out Day Three with a workout in the hotel's fitness room. The Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf had an impressively roomy fitness center on the first floor of the hotel. We've been in many that were half the size, so were pleased to find 3 treadmills, two ellipticals and one bike. They also had a fitness ball, weight bench, and free weights starting at 5lbs and up.
Afterwards, we headed back to Pier 39 for breakfast at a crepe shop J & I had spotted while making a run-through on Monday, the Crepe Cafe.
(Don't mind Travis, our travelling gnome.)  Mama & Papa W shared half of their strawberry and banana crepes with each other, while Jody opted for the breakfast crepe plus (scrambled egg, cheese, plus ham). As much as I love fruit crepes and egg & cheese anything, I chose the veggie crepe--avocado, roma tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts and cheese. Every one of our crepes was delicious. Not only are the crepes amazing, but so is watching the whole process. The crepe griddles are right in the front window, so you can watch the chefs make your crepes. They make it look so easy, and it doesn't take long at all--it's almost instant deliciousness!

After breakfast, we headed for the cable cars to take a ride towards Union Square and Chinatown. We were lucky enough to get seats and spots outside of the cable car--Mama W & I were able to sit, while J & Papa W got to hang onto one of the side bars.
If you visit San Francisco and plan on taking the trolleys, cable cars, or other transportation, your best bet is to get a one, three or seven day "passport" (for $14, $21, & 27, respectively) that is good on all modes of public transportation (cable cars, streetcars, etc). Due to an accident in downtown San Francisco, we had to disembark around Washington or California Street. We headed towards downtown and happened upon part of Chinatown. We were in a section that was primarily small grocers and a handful of retail stores. The sidewalks were packed, it was reminiscent of Pittsburgh's Strip District. We were all getting a little hungry, so we headed out in search of some grub.

J & I had spotted a place in our travel book, DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 San Francisco, that we wanted to hunt down called The Irish Bank. Mama & Papa W chose to stay closer to where we had gotten off the cable car and ended up having lunch at Union Square. The Irish Bank is tucked in a little alley, so it took us a bit of searching to find it, but find it we did. After a delicious lunch (review to come later), we set off to find a cable car stop to take us back to Fisherman's Wharf.

Right at the intersection of Bush & Grant Streets, we saw this entrance to Chinatown:
This end was the more retail end of Chinatown, and I was happy to find a dress in one of the shops. We  continued on until we reached Hyde Street again and waited for a cable car. By then it was close to 5pm, and between residents and tourists, the cars were packed. For the ride home, we were unable to get an outside seat or spot on the bars to hang off of, and were inside the car behind the sliding door. All riders must stay behind the door, as the gripman needs room to work the brakes. (Learn more about the history and operation of cable cars here.) While at first I was disappointed to have to ride on the inside, it actually provided an interesting glimpse at how the cars work and how physical the job of a gripman is. I recommend both an inside and outside ride for the full experience. Luckily, as we progressed towards Fisherman's Wharf, riders got off at some hot spots like Lombard Street, and Jody & I were able to ride the rest of the way hanging onto the side rail!
This was the day of "doing our own thing", as Mama & Papa Woosh went back to the Buena Vista Cafe for dinner, and J & I headed back to Pier 39. Our eyes had spied the Swiss Louis Italian & Seafood Restaurant and thought it was just the place for us. We were seated at a table overlooking the water which also provided a good view of the sun slowly going down. I chose the gnocchi in a pesto sauce while J went for the Spaghetti Con Frutti di Mare.
Now, mind you, I am not very adventurous with food, so I couldn't look at J for a few minutes until I was sure he had eaten the little octopus. (ICK!) J gave high kudos to the sauce--he was in pasta & seafood heaven! While my gnocchi was a little over sauced, it was delicious, and the gnocchi were definitely homemade, so light and a perfect fit for the creamy pesto sauce. Our meals left us no room for dessert, though what I had seen on the dessert tray in passing looked enticing.

We enjoyed a nice walk back to the hotel along the pier, the Alcatraz lighthouse blinking away. Perfect end to our last full day in San Francisco.


Coming soon: Review of lunch at The Irish Bank and Day 4: Farewell, San Francisco!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

San Francisco Adventure--Day Two: Two Buena Vistas, Fremont Diner & Lombard Street

J & I started off Day Two in San Francisco with a 2.5 mile run at Hyde Pier and surrounding area. Hyde Pier is just a beautiful spot to spend some time early in the morning and late in the evening. We had a great run, which geared us up for breakfast. We chose a popular San Francisco eatery, The Buena Vista Cafe, which boasts the origin of the Irish Coffee in America. You can view the story here:

Deciding on breakfast was difficult--too many delicious options! I settled on traditional Eggs Benedict, though the Eggs Blackstone (poached eggs over grilled tomatoes) was tempting. The Canadian Bacon was the thickest I have ever seen, with a great smoked flavor. J opted for the Mexican Omelet, and upgraded the toast to toasted sourdough, of course. Papa W had a serving of corned beef hash (he was thrilled to the gills!) and side of sourdough toast along with sharing some eggs off of Mama W's Buena Vista Breakfast Combo (french toast, eggs & bacon). The food was wonderful and the staff even more so. Our busser, a very pleasant fellow, tried to encourage an early start with an Irish Coffee. While J & I would typically take the challenge and bypass the no-alcohol-before-noon rule by justifying with "it's after noon in Ireland", we were still lagging a little from the long day before.  The Buena Vista cafe is a must-stop if you visit San Francisco. It is also safe to say you should visit more than once, as the dinner menu is just as appealing.

After breakfast, we set off for Sonoma, a mere hour from Fisherman's Wharf. We were excited to get to make a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a beautiful bridge, and is worthwhile viewing from various angles and lookout spots. (More on that further down.)

We had set out specifically for the Buena Vista Winery, California's oldest winery.

It is a charming winery tucked at the end of a long road in Sonoma. From the parking lot is a short walk down a walkway lined with incredibly tall trees and exceptionally large wine barrels.

We spent some time outside reading the placards that tell the story of the winery's origin. We stepped inside for a tasting, and were warmly greeted by the staff. J & I were very satisfied with the wines we tasted, and chose the Syrah to bring home. After leaving the winery, we drove into town, where Mama W & I took some time to score some goods from the fair trade store Baksheesh. Not only do we find interesting and unique items when shopping fair trade, we also are grateful to be able to help support artisans in Third World countries.

Based on a recommendation from the winery staff, we stopped for lunch at The Fremont Diner. Before I go on to rave about this place, I have to be honest and say that we all agreed that had it not come recommended, we probably wouldn't have considered it, as it would not appear to be much from a quick glance while driving by.

Boy did we ever learn a lesson in not judging a book by it's cover! Since it was a sunny day, we opted to sit outside. We were immediately greeted by our waiter, who brought water to the table.

I was immediately charmed as I love old bottles and mason jars. I couldn't help but notice a group of ladies had biked to the diner and had an accessory that I absolutely need.

Once again, the tantalizing menu gave us some tough choices. Most of the ingredients the diner uses are from their own farm out back or from nearby friends and farmers. Mama W & I both chose the grilled cheese (goat cheese & asparagus) with a side salad,

Papa W had the Reuben with a side of baked beans,

and J, as always, could not pass up the burger.

The food was amazing, and to say The Fremont Diner was anything but awesome would be doing a great disservice. Not only is the food great, the staff fantastic, and a great view of a vineyard to the left of the outside dining area,

the diner is full of fun and charm.

Be sure to visit the gift shop for a t-shirt or trinket to take home. The Fremont Diner is a place you want to remember. You know what I remember most? The salted caramel milkshake I had for dessert. That's right--you heard me...

On the way back to San Francisco, we stopped at the Marin Headlands, a very hilly peninsula just before the Golden Gate bridge. There are several lookout points to pull over along the way, providing amazing views of the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The photo below is taken at one of the first lookout points. The second was taken once we got back to the bottom of the peninsula, almost underneath the bridge.

The Marin Headlands are also home to Fort Cronkhite, Fort Barry, the Nike Missile Silo, Fort Baker--which is now converted to a resort (reminiscent of the Bedford Springs Resort here in Pennsylvania) and the Point Bonita Lighthouse. Unfortunately, the winds were so strong when we reached the area where we would have to get out and walk to the lighthouse, so I did not get to see it. J & Papa W braved it, and made it over the hill, however Mama W & I opted for the safety of the car. I knew I would be lucky to remain standing, and I figured it wasn't worth it.

Upon arriving back to San Francisco, we decided to take advantage of having the car out and some spare time to drive the hills of San Francisco to see some of the popular tourist spots, such as The Painted Ladies and Lombard Street. Just as I was glad Papa W was driving down the extreme hills of the Marin Headlands, I was also glad he was driving down Lombard Street when we took the plunge. It is an incredibly tight S shaped street and not for the faint of heart. I think the person driving two cars ahead of us had to stop and breathe each bend, as they came to a complete stop before embarking through the next curve.

We were all still full from our late lunch at the diner, that we bypassed officially eating out that night in lieu of lighter fare and snacks. J & I bought a bottle of wine at the Walgreens and set in for a relaxing glass of wine while reading. For as much as we were packing into a few short days in San Francisco, we were sure to allow ourselves some down time, space and freedom to do as we pleased.

Stay tuned for Day 3: Crepes, Chinatown and Cable Cars.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

San Francisco Adventure--Day One: Boudin Bakery, Alcatraz and Sea Lions

Last week, J & I spent a week in California, one of our absolute favorite places to vacation. The main purpose of our trip was to attend the May 25 wedding of my fellow Diva, N and her fiance, T in San Jose, California. Considering factors like distance, time zones/jet lag, and money involved with getting there, we certainly thought it was worth our while to make a vacation out of it. Since San Jose is less than an hour from San Francisco and we had never been to San Francisco, we chose that as our starting point. My parents also joined us for the trip since they were also invited to the wedding, and this was their first trip to California. J & I were very excited to show them our favorite state.

We arrived very early into San Francisco--9:30am PST. While by the end of the day we were paying for it, it was definitely a perk to get there early and really have time to start exploring. We retrieved our luggage immediately after landing, and hopped the tram to the rental car area of San Francisco International Airport. Pickup was quick and easy, and we easily found our way to the 101 and were on the way to the hotel. I had booked us a suite at the Courtyard San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf. The Fisherman's Wharf area is one of the most northern areas of San Francisco, and I highly recommend staying there if you go. It is very convenient to almost everything--and the many reliable options for public transportation make it incredibly easy to get to other areas of SF.

I had requested early check-in, which cannot always be honored if the hotel was fully booked the night before. This was the case for us, but the front desk staff offered to store our luggage as well as park the car so we could begin exploring ASAP. We unloaded everything, turned the car keys over, and off we went. I had booked us a tour of Alcatraz for 1:45pm, so our main goal was to find lunch and fast, as we were hungry and cranky. We began walking down Jefferson Street, the main drag of Fisherman's Wharf.

Soon we stumbled on the famous Boudin Bakery, where San Francisco Sourdough was born.

Part of the fun at Boudin is seeing them bake all kinds of crazy loaves of bread, even offering a "talk to the baker" window from the street where you can watch and interact with the bakers.

(Teddy bears, turtles and crocodiles, OH MY!)
J opted for the traditional Clam Chowder in Sourdough Bread bowl, and I had a delicious Grilled Cheese.

As carb lovers, I can assure you that we easily could have eaten half of the bakery. Everything looked delicious. The Wharf location offers tours of the bakery and in-house museum, which would have piqued my interest if it weren't for the much anticipated tour of Alcatraz. J & I (as well as a few of my friends) had gotten hooked on the Fox series Alcatraz (which, to all of our dismay, has since been cancelled), so we were definitely interested. My parents were on board too, as they had been told by friends that Alcatraz was a do-not-miss tour.

I booked the tour about two weeks prior to our trip, as the tours commonly sell out. A ferry takes you from Pier 33 to Alcatraz Island. They suggest allowing 2-2.5 hours for your tour, though you can stay longer if you want, as they do post the return ferry times at both docks. Aside from bottled water and coffee sold on the island, no food or drink is permitted on the island beyond the dock. There is a picnic area there, so packed lunches are permitted only in that area. You can also grab a snack at the refreshment stand on the boat ride over. The ride over was very breezy and the water incredibly choppy. J & I found it amazing that any inmates ever thought they could swim through such conditions in escape attempts.

We were giddy with excitement as we approached Alcatraz, which is most famous for operating as a federal prison from 1934 until 1963, and boasted high-profile inmates like George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Al Capone, and James "Whitey" Bulger. The island is now maintained as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area by the National Park Service. It boasts several rare flowers and plants (many which were planted by guards' families who lived on the island), and is also home to many nesting sea birds.

(Note the nest to the right of the gulls)

(The egg is semi-camouflaged into the nest, bottom right by the stone)

Approaching Alcatraz:

When you arrive on the island, there is a mandatory but brief greeting with a National Park ranger, who gives a rundown of the rules of Alcatraz as well as a brief history of the island. You may then embark on a self-guided audio tour (free of charge) or do like J &I did, and just go off on your own. I'm sure Mama & Papa W got more history and info than we did on the cellhouse and inmates through the audio tour, but J & I also had a great time exploring and learning about all of the buildings and areas of the island. The Alcatraz lighthouse was erected in 1854 and was the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.

Our last stop before catching the ferry back was the cellhouse. Very cool and kind of eerie.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, and I have to say all the work that the Conservancy and National Park Service has put into restoring the gardens and Alcatraz shows. It really is an amazing place, and the flora and wildlife is as interesting as the prison and related buildings.

J & I got an earlier ferry back, and took a quick spin through Pier 39 to scope out the shops and restaurants. There we stumbled on a farmstand that boasted a lot of fresh, large, home grown fruit, and we greedily scooped up some fresh strawberries, apricots and other items to snack on. We also took a moment to watch the sea lions who live at Pier 39.

Upon our return to the hotel, we opted for a quick pizza dinner nearby at Fisherman's Pizzeria. J had wings, and the rest of us shared a pizza. J & Papa W had beers, I opted for a glass of Chianti. It was a little pricey, but we quickly learned that is to be expected.

Afterwards, we went on a search for ice cream. Mama & Papa W ended up at Coldstone Creamery, while J & I did a little more walking and exploring, ending up at a Ben & Jerry's, then doing a little shopping before stumbling on Hyde Pier, which would soon become a favorite spot for us.

None of us made it past 9:30pm PST, however we quickly realized it was really 12:30am "our" time, and we had started our day 21 hours before in order to catch our early flight. We all slept well that night. Good thing, as we still had 6 days to go...