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Trip Report A “Mini”-trip with some HUGE moments—San Francisco & area

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Background: DH had a conference in San Francisco in late March. Rather (for us) at the last minute I decided to accompany him for part of the time (as a high school teacher, I hate to miss many days in the busy last quarter of the schoolyear). We would fly from south Texas through Dallas to SFO on a Sunday; I would return on Tuesday while he stayed through Thursday.

Previous SF trips: In 2007 I accompanied him for 4 days in which we rode the cable cars, strolled the Ghirardelli Square area, had a marvelous night tour of Alcatraz, and rode a bus to the Cliff House area for DH’s first brief glimpse of the Pacific. While he was in meetings two days, I took 2 day tours, one around San Francisco and then north across the Golden Gate to Muir Woods and Sausalito and the other south along the Pacific Coast Highway to Carmel. Two years ago he attended the conference alone and did a bit of walking around the SoMo area and also made it to Coit Tower. So between the two of us we had seen several of the area’s great destinations, at least briefly.

This trip: DH wanted to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. That was really the only goal we had. So when I decided to go with him, he reserved a Mini-Cooper (which he’s rather wanted since college!) and I started exploring the internet, looking at maps, and posting questions on Fodors so we could have a tentative itinerary! Below is a mini-report on our “Mini”-trip.

Day 1—Sunday, the travel day: We traveled to DFW very early but smoothly. For the flight from DFW to SFO DH had been able to use one of his AA upgrades so would be in first class, but a similar request for me saw me bumped further and further down the list, as the flight was full. (He DID try to make me ride in first, but he was headed to drive and then a conference—I was just taking it easy for a few days, so I wouldn’t take his seat!) So we didn’t ride together on the rather bumpy ride, which took off a little late, but generally all went fine. The coast had been having horrible weather, including flooding around the Santa Cruz area, but it was much better when we arrived. We rode the airtrain to the rental car center and got our Mini pretty quickly (from Avis). In the garage we easily located our dark green car-for-the-day, hooked up “Sheila” our Garmin GPS and were on the road by about noon. The skies were cloudy but no rain, with sometimes bright blue skies and bright sun shining through.

When the idea of our driving along the coast had first arisen , I had hoped to show him Carmel, but it quickly became evident that was too far. So we planned to drive to somewhere north of Santa Cruz probably and decide from there on a couple alternate routes for getting the car back to SFO.

We drove very quickly and through not bad Sunday traffic to Pacifica and began to have great glimpses and even long views of the roiling Pacific. There had been (maybe still were) high surf warnings and the water was pretty riled up. We began pulling over often, onto the shoulder or into pullouts, for frequent photo-op quick sessions. The air was too misty and gray and the sky not clear, so the pics aren’t terrific, but we were enjoying the beauty and glad it wasn’t raining.

HUGE LUNCH: Thanks to stududley, we were on the lookout for Sam’s Chowder House as we approached Half Moon Bay. And there it was, with a full parking lot. But because we were willing to sit on those tall chairs with a tall table near the bar, we had no wait (otherwise it would have been 15-20 minutes). We had absolutely wonderful service and food. I had maybe the best clam chowder ever (although NOT in a bread bowl) and DH had …interesting gumbo. Our fish sandwiches—grilled mahimahi and salmon patty--with wonderful sides were delicious. And HUGE! And the views from the restaurant and from the outside porch areas of Half Moon Bay are wonderful. Thanks, StuDudley, for this recommendation; it was a perfect stop for us.

Then on we went down the Pacific Coast Highway, with, as I said, frequent photo stops. We drove along the coast through areas with evidence of slides like the Devil’s Slide area….We opted not to pay to park any where. There are several state parks/beaches that charge $10 to park. I think this is a perfectly reasonable rate for day use of the beach, the picnic tables, the hikes—but a bit steep for a 5-10 minute photo stop and we’re too honest to park and not pay when it says to. So we just enjoyed our views from the Mini and from occasional shoulder stops.

HUGE WAVES: Then we got to Pescadaro Beach at which you park for free. So we did. And walked out to see the HUGE waves. It was amazing. Neither of us have been to Hawaii or even along the Pacific much; Gulf of Mexico and Hilton Head Island waves aren’t very big generally! These waves were HUGE, the biggest either of us had ever seen. They swelled, they rose, they roared and broke and foamed and rushed in a froth over the rocks and pebbles. It was great! We enjoyed a lengthy look here.

Back on the road our next main stop was the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. We didn’t spend any time here, but we took the short detour off the main road to drive near this pretty spot.
At Davenport we stopped for some drinks and a leg-stretch and decision. We had been given advice on Fodors that if we wanted to see some big trees, go to Big Basin Redwoods, and near here was a good place to cut east. It was about 3pm so we decided that’s what we would do.

HUGE TREES: We then headed from a little south of Davenport east to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This is California’s first state park. We had a blast driving the Mini (generally at the speed limit—I promise) up and down and around and back over the windy roads. I was rather surprised at the total lack of signs. If we hadn’t told “Sheila” where we wanted to go, I don’t know; of course, we knew we’d be using her and not a paper map, but still—I was surprised. Anyway, she generally told us how to get there; we overruled her once. The roads are good but narrow, twisty, and hilly—much fun! Don’t know how it would have been in a bigger vehicle or as rider in a back seat! We arrived at the Park before 5 and found a few people there but the store closed but the ticket office open. We paid our fee, put the receipt in the window and took a hike. We did the pretty and short Redwood Trail on which we saw the oldest and the tallest (The Father and the Mother) redwoods in this forest. It was gorgeous and awesome. I had been to Muir Woods, but DH had never seen such trees. As janisj says, it compares quite comparably to Muir Woods with less crowds. We walked for less than an hour and then drove around a little.

The weather was now deteriorating. We had had a little misty drops and the skies were totally grey now. My “plan” had been to head over the mountains to the freeway and back to SFO. But DH said he’d just as soon backtrack and maybe catch some different views of the Pacific, even if in worse weather. So that’s what we did—we left Big Basin about 6 and retraced our drive toward SFO along the Pacific Coast Highway. But by the time we reached the coast, it was raining, so we basically just drove back to SFO through light to medium gray rain. DH did get a couple cool pics of Pigeon Point actually being a LIGHT House!

At SFO we turned the car in with no hassles, caught the airtrain to the BART station, figured out how to buy our tickets (we live in a city where we never take public transport so it’s an adventure for us!), and rode the BART for 30 minutes to the Powell Street Station for $8.10 one way each. I bought a round trip ticket but DH wasn’t sure how he’d be returning to the airport so bought a one-way. We found this experience to be generally fine. I was a little confused by the automated ticket booth thing, with the $20 increments you have to subtract or add from to match the proper fare needed, but we got our tickets fairly easily. The worst thing was the basically useless audio announcements of the stations while we rode the train, and without any digital display and darkened signs on platforms as we passed by, I think this is very unhelpful and could be very confusing, especially for non-English speaking riders. In any case, we did make it to Powell Street in about 30 minutes. From there it was a fifteen minute easy walk to the Hilton San Francisco on O’Farrell. It is a fine hotel and we settled in for a good nice sleep.

Day 2—Monday, my sight-seeing day: BLUE skies! We didn’t hurry getting up and then walked over to Mel’s Diner on Ellis for a hearty late breakfast. When we stayed at the Marriott before, we had discovered this and liked it. Good food and cool atmosphere and convenient. Then DH went off to a full day of meetings.

I first went through Yerba Buena Gardens, a pretty spot this late morning, with a few older people doing their exercises including one with a sword and a few tourists like me with their cameras. I wandered on to Union Square and a little after 10 went into Macy’s. I have a Macy’s store, and a pretty nice one, in my hometown, but this one is huge. I enjoyed wandering the petite dept. and actually found a couple pieces I’d never seen. Fun. I meandered here and there around Union Square and Geary Street enjoying window displays (are those REALLY Miros and Picassos in the windows?). I took my purchases back to the Hilton room and took off one layer of shirts—it promised to be a gorgeous day.

Thanks again to StuDudley—I had read about the different CityGuides free walks in SF; there were two on Mondays, at 10 and 1:30, of Chinatown and I had decided I’d try to make one of those. Our morning was too nicely un-hurried to try to make the 10 one, so in later morning I headed toward Portsmouth Square for the 1:30 tour. (Their website said meet near the elevators, which made no sense to me. I emailed them for clarification and was promptly answered. CityGuides seems to be a great organization—highly recommended!)

HUGE INTELLECTUAL FUN: I had plenty of time, so I walked first to City Lights Bookstore. I’m an English teacher at a classical Christian private school and I have definite “conservative” bents, but I also strongly support both free press/thought and independent bookstores. So it was great fun to be here. I could spend a small fortune in 15 minutes in such a place, but I confined myself to one book (Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom by Beauclerk—I’m actually willing to consider that maybe “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym, maybe for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford—hey, a little literary/historical controversy is good for the intellectual soul!).

I then went back to Portsmouth Square, our meeting place, an hour early. (I had found a little shop to buy a soda and some chocolate at, and to use the facilities, but I forgot to get the name! They were kind). I sat in the shade watching the many many groups of card-playing adults and playground-enjoying kids and parents while I ate some Ghirardelli, fruit, and Coke (yes, in that order!). It is a busy, vibrant area. About 1:15 I went over to the elevator area—it was obvious now what this meant. I easily found the people obviously waiting for a tour and a couple people with clip boards. Mr. Ng would be my tour guide; he was absolutely wonderful. He had a microphone and led us for about 2 hours all around Chinatown. There are too many details to even begin to recount here. All I can say is if you are in San Francisco, check out the CityGuides website and see if there are any tours during your time there. These tours are free (but do bring $ for donations) and sponsored mostly by the public library. There are many different ones. The Chinatown one was terrific; I’m so glad to have gotten to go.

Afterwards, I headed toward the hotel; DH was getting done with conferencing about the same time. We rested a bit in the room and about 5:45 we walked to John’s Grill on Ellis. We had eaten here before. It was made famous in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon –a falcon and an Oscar are on display—but we were returning because the food is great, too. We had to wait at the bar a few minutes as the upstairs room doesn’t open til 6, but we got seated and started our delicious meal. The electric guitar player arrived before 6:30 and we enjoyed this as we ate. This is a wonderful place—food, music, atmosphere, history.

Day 3—Tuesday, day of separate ways: After breakfast at Subway on Ellis, DH went off to the conference and I wandered just a tad then went back to the hotel and decided to just go early to the airport in case there was any glitch and I could always read my book there while waiting. I walked down Powell to the station on another lovely morning. I easily found the right platform, slid in my previously-bought roundtrip ticket, and in about a minute, here came a train so I hopped on. Didn’t read the sign. It wasn’t going all the way to SFO, so I had to detrain at Balboa Park and wait about 15 minutes for the “right” train. Duh. Still made it to SFO in about 30 minutes total. Upon arrival things are pretty well-signed, so I headed toward the correct terminal and security (no luggage to check). Security took about 15 minutes at the most (note—I had all my toiletries in bag in the outside pocket of my luggage to easily grab out—I forgot—and nobody said anything. Hmm.) Found my gate and a seat to read awhile. Got an (expensive) turkey wrap right before I got on the plane.

My flights to DFW and home were on time and smooth, so no stories.

Meanwhile, DH had a full conference day and then went with a group to First Crush on the corner of Ellis and Cyril. It normally sells wine flights along with a full menu, but for this big group they just served selections from a set menu and he said it was all good.

Day 4 for DH: This day was all conference—breakfast provided, meetings and presentations, even dinner at the hotel. No sightseeing this day!

Day 5 for DH: He and a couple companions also took a BART train from the Powell Street station back to SFO; that as well as the 2 legs of his return were basically glitchless. Good to be gone; good to be home!

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