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Trip Report Irish Language, redwoods and beach rides in SF

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Here is my trip report from my trip to SFO last month. Enjoy!

San Francisco for Irish Language Weekend
September 28-October 3, 2012

Friday, September 28th

This trip was meant to do triple duty as a vacation, a chance for photographs of the SF area, and to learn more of the Irish language. I had attended this weekend course 3 years ago, and had learned much. I tried to at least keep up with the learning a bit, and had done well enough that I felt I was ready for Level 2 this time, rather than repeat Level 1. I hope I was correct in my self-assessment!

I had an early morning 7am flight out of Pittsburgh, so decided it would be prudent to stay in a local hotel the night before rather than drive the hour and a half up in the morning. When I had travelled to Ireland in 2011, we had stayed in the America’s Best Value Inn near the airport, and I knew they had an early morning shuttle. In addition, I could park my car there for a reasonable fee while I was gone, so I chose the same place again.

The trip up that evening had no issues, but the blue mists in the twilight made it somewhat eerie and magical.

Checking into the hotel, I chatted with the clerk, Lynn. This was the anniversary of her father dying, and her son had sent her chocolate covered strawberries to make the day a bit sweeter – very nice of him! It was a bit difficult to get to sleep. While convenient and cheap, the hotel beds are a bit on the firm side to my liking. However, sleep I did, and I was up at 4:15 for my adventure. A quick shower, and down to check out and get on the shuttle.

The shuttle driver had a couple stops before we got to the airport, and regaled us with 1970s disco music during the trip, as he navigated through several airport parking lots to pick up more people.

I had already checked in the day before and had carry-on luggage only, so I showed my printed boarding pass in to the security line – which was about the longest I had ever seen it. The maze was filled and the line continued out and almost to the doors of the airport. Luckily, it went rather quickly, and we were through in about 45 minutes or so. This is why I always come in plenty of time! Security was polite and efficient. I saw some people show their boarding passes on their cell phones – must try that myself next time!

Once inside the terminal, I found my gate, and then grabbed a sandwich for breakfast and a bottle of water and some snacks for the long day ahead. I had a connection in Minneapolis and a full evening planned once I got into SF. There was some joking about on the shuttle to the terminal – we all wondered what it was about 5am that got people in a jolly mood? Perhaps sleep deprivation?

Once we boarded, I saw it was a pretty full flight, with perhaps 3-4 empty middle seats open that I could see. Luckily, one was next to me. I prefer the window seat, as I love looking out the window at the world passing by. I take lots of photographs of both the clouds and sky and the earth below, if it is visible. Since I’ve lost 150 pounds, I am less wary of having someone next to me (I don’t like to intrude upon their space), but it was nice having the extra elbow room.

As the plane rose, we flew through a mackerel sky of dotted clouds, and I could watch the sunrise through and then over them as we rose. It was a lovely sight! The flight was uneventful, and we landed in Minneapolis on time. I had to trek across from terminal D to G – and there was LOTS of shopping available on the way – but I had several hours to kill before my flight left. I had a snack at an Italian place called Tagliere, and some delicious cookies from Cravory – the salted caramel cream cookies were absolutely divine!

Again, we had an uneventful flight and an empty seat next to me. The sky was mostly clear, so I got to see a lot of the land we flew over during the flight. I saw canyons, farms, mountains and rivers below, and took photos of many of them. Perhaps some was even the Grand Canyon? I don’t know. We were delayed about a half hour due to haze in San Francisco, but we arrived in decent time.

There was a long walk and a tram to the car rental place from the terminal, and then about an hour wait to actually get a car. All the lines were long, not just Hertz – not only was this Friday afternoon before Fleet Week, there were also some major conventions in town, including Oracle and several others. Luckily, I got my car and headed off to my first stop.

I have a great love of photographing funereal sculpture – Celtic crosses, angels, cherubs, etc. I do sell my photos online and at art shows, but most US graveyards have a limited selection of such sculpture. San Francisco, however, has many beautiful examples. I was looking forward to visiting Colma, a city with more dead people than live ones. The cemeteries in San Francisco were all moved to Colma at one point, so they have mostly buried folk.

I chose Cypress Lawn Cemetery for my first venture today. There were several lovely angels and cherubs, and even a couple Celtic Crosses. I noted the oriental gravesites, with their Fu lions in marble guarding the graves. There was a funeral going on at one of the oriental sections, so I gave them a respectful berth. The mists started rolling in, and the wind and a bit of stormy weather. Some of the mists started raining a bit, and the temperature dropped quickly. It made for some lovely atmospheric photographs, and I was very much enjoying this place.

I went on to my hotel soon, and checked in to the Days Inn at the Beach on Sloat Avenue. I had stayed here 3 years ago when I attended the class before. It is about a block from the Irish Cultural Center where the classes were held, and 4 blocks from the beach itself. It is a clean, neat place, very convenient, and a decent price. The staff is very friendly and nice. I settled in, changed, and went off to the Cultural Center. I was a bit early, but so were a few others, and we chatted a bit.

There were four teachers, one for each level of class. Level 1 was John from Donegal, Level 2 was Brian (from Galway), Level 3 was Barbara (from Donegal), and Level 4 was Liam - I don’t remember where he was from. I talked to some of the other students, such as Terry and his sister Kirsten, from Orlando, Jessie from Oregon, John from Dallas. Many of these now lived locally, but some, like Jessie, did travel for this class.

There are other classes, probably closer than this, that I could attend, and I’ve started looking into them. However, since this trip allows me to hang out with my best friend afterwards, I came here to take them.

We had our first lesson for Level 2 down in the dining room, with Brian asking several questions to help to gauge our understanding and knowledge of the language before he began with the real lessons. He is incredibly dynamic, very helpful, and great about explaining the whys and wherefores (that he knows) of the language, grammar and spelling. It was great to learn from him.

After the lesson for the evening was over, the rest of the group gathered for social hour, watching some Irish language films, singing some songs – but I had plans with a very old, dear friend (I’ve known her almost 30 years!) for a night out on the town. Tiffani had come to meet me, and was having a drink at the bar in the center when I was done with my lesson, so we took a cab for dinner at Fleur de Lys. This is a high end restaurant in SF, with chef Hubert Keller. This was my first time at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and I was excited. My husband is a chef, and he was quite jealous, as Keller is one of his idols.

The restaurant was very opulent, with fabric draped everywhere, dark red and wood décor throughout. We both ordered drinks - I had a Sandeman’s Manhattan, thinking the ‘tawny’ in the description meant port. No, it was evidently whiskey, it was STRONG, and I’m a lightweight. That’s fine, I drank it, just not all at once! For the appetizer, Tiff had “Roasted Maine Lobster – Thai red curry, coconut milke, lemongrass, ginger and toasted nori”. I had “Rye Crusted Scottish Salmon – cabbage three ways, buttered rye toast, radishes, pickled mustard seed, caraway jus”. Mine was incredible, and possibly the best salmon I’ve ever had. Hers was OK, I’ve had better lobster cooked by my husband several times. I think it was even a bit overcooked. We were also brought an amuse bouche – an asparagus soup with a carrot and beet salad. The salad was delicious, but the soup was quite bland and uninteresting.

The couple at the next table were celebrating the release or finish of a film they had been working on. It was called Mandorla, an animated short. They said it was sort of a spiritual search film. Looking it up, we were likely sitting next to the director, Pablo Calvillo. At least, it looks like him!

For our main meal, Tiff ordered “Kobe Beef Cheeks, topped with mustard and cornichons, smoked veal jus, sweetbread fricassee with truffle & spinach” while I had “Coffee Rubbed Buffalo Steak, with pickled figs, caramelized leeks, espresso and fig red wine sauce, cornbread madeleine”. This time mine was OK, and hers was fantastic. The buffalo was quite dense and a bit tough to chew, though it was tasty. We were a bit confused by the Kobe beef, as it was presented shredded like a pot roast in a tower – which sort of nullifies its advantage of even marbling. Still, it was incredibly tasty and well presented.

For dessert, we had the chocolate soufflé (served with cherry and Kirsch ice cream) and a Fleurburger – Lightly spiced dark chocolate ganache, homemade Beignet, Banana flavored milk shake and Frozen fennel ice cream pommes frites. It looked like a burger, fries and a shake, but it was all sweet and sugared. Bizarre, but tasty enough! The soufflé was huge, and we could not finish all of it. They also brought out a sampler of other desserts – mini tarts, tiny pastry puffs and such, with dipping sauce for them. So much food!

As we were eating dessert, the chef came out and greeted several diners, including us. He graciously agreed to have photos taken with him, he was very friendly and sweet.

After dinner, we went off to find an Irish Pub for drinks and music. Tiff had done some research, and found one with trad music called the Plough and Stars. They had Magners on tap and a group singing in the back, so we scored. She, of course, attracted the old man who started hitting on her. There was a group of young men showing off at the pool table. We laughed and joked with several, and then around 2am I realized what a long, tiring day it had been. I had been awake at 4am (1am California time) and traveled across the country. The large meal and pints afterwards were definitely taking their toll! We found a cab to the hotel and crashed.

Saturday, September 29th

Early morning rise for breakfast at John’s Ocean Beach Café, a couple blocks from our hotel. I had eaten there before as well – it was still just as good. Endless offerings of omelettes and benedicts. I had the smoked salmon/cream cheese/caper benedict. Other than the muffin being slightly crisper than I like it, it was delicious. Of course, after this very filling breakfast, and bidding Tiffani goodbye as I headed to my class, there was incredibly good brown bread, fruit bread and fruit available upstairs at the Irish centre. I took a few of those to munch on during class.

We had our morning classes in the dining room again, going over telling time, various verbs and the days of the week. We discussed how to describe our hobbies, eating and drinking. A break for lunch and we were back for more learning - counting things, professions, etc.

Dinner was prime rib and horseradish sauce – so tender you could cut it with a fork. I dragged out my jewelry and managed to impress a few more people, and chatted with Robin, Patrick and Barbara. We then went to the pub for a ceilidh, with pints of cider, traditional singing, storytelling, and music. Ceol agus craic! Ray McMahon was a guest, and he sang several long, funny songs, one with my teacher, Brian.

There was a group of guests at the bar that were not part of our group. One of the ladies was dressed in an incredibly short dress, and heels so high mine hurt just looking at them. They were rather loud and raucous, but finally moved off elsewhere, and I could hear the performers better. I got to talk to Jesse and her mother a bit during the evening. It was an earlier night than Friday had been, but fun was had by all.

Sunday, September 30th

I got up early and went searching for one of the other host hotels, as one of the folks in class had said the nearby café offered a Full Irish Breakfast, but I was unable to find which one it was, and went back to John’s after a lovely drive down the beach and through the neighborhood. I had the same breakfast, better without a burnt muffin underneath.

A second day of classes and fun, describing ourselves and more grammar. I’m beginning to understand what someone is saying from what they are saying, rather than having to translate in my head. This is good! For lunch we had a full Irish breakfast for a brunch buffet. I got my wish! There was good Irish bacon (more like Canadian bacon with bits of fat on the edge), regular American bacon, hash browns, brown bread, eggs, and more delicious fruit bread. There were also various pastries and such. It was very filling.

The afternoon classes were in the big room upstairs, the St. Francis room. This place was almost a cathedral, big enough for several hundred people. Earlier this morning they had a sports broadcast on from Ireland, and it had been filled.

After classes, some of us went down to the library, where they were selling off some of their books. I bought a couple books – one was a simple story in Irish, which I figured would help me learn it by translating it. The other was an English book on Irish histories, quite old. It didn’t have a publication date, but it looked very interesting.

I went off to explore the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland before heading north to Petaluma to stay with my best friend, Kim, for the next few days. Mountain View was spectacular! Colma was nice, but this was stunning. Rambling over rolling green hills, with angels and cherubs, saints and gargoyles everywhere. I wish I had more time to explore it all, but I was limited on my timeline, so had to go after only about a half hour.

At Kim’s I met her very enthusiastic young dog Briona, and her cat Tabasco (who I last met when she was a kitten). We decided on Vietnamese for dinner, and found a place new to her called Ngoc Thanh. It was delicious, savory, and spicy. I had the chicken noodle curry soup, we ordered summer rolls, and had flan for dessert – we were very curious. The food was delicious, but the dessert was… odd. We are from Miami, and are used to Cuban flan. This was thicker, less sweet, almost salty.

Monday, October 1st

Up early, but not as early as Kim! She had to work today, so I was on my own. I headed off to Armstrong Redwoods Park, and walked about 3 miles up through the paths at random. There were beautiful trees, cool and crisp in the morning mists. It was about 60 degrees down in the forest. I saw enormous fallen giants, faces in the bark, and phantoms in the bushes. I also saw some trail riders, campers, and other hikers.

After the lovely walk, I got back into my car and drove the paths. I climbed higher and higher, until the paths reached through the trees and into the sun at the top of the mountain – and all of a sudden, the temperature climbed into the 90s. Now I saw scrubby forest, pale and dusty, up in the merciless strong sun.

After finding the one road back out (after much forced exploring to find it!), I headed to my second goal today, Goat Rock Beach. This was another area Kim recommended to me for lovely photographs of the rocky coast, and she was not wrong. I walked out over the fine sand dunes to the surf, and down the beach to the rocks. The sand was hot, and I had gone barefoot over the dunes. The water, however, was freezing cold when the lapping waves reach my legs. It was colder than the water in Scotland had been, on the Orkney islands! Perhaps it was because it was now so warm out, the contrast was startling.

I got lots of photographs of the rocks, the surf, the birds, the driftwood. I headed down south along Sonoma Beach, stopping often for interesting shots along the way. I finally headed back to Petaluma, and had a late lunch at In & Out Burgers. Now, I’ve heard lots about this place, and for a fast food place, the burgers are pretty good – but they are still fast food burgers, and I wasn’t all that impressed. Ah well.

I hung out at Kim’s house for a while, and then met back up with her when she got out of work that evening. We headed out for dinner at Real Doner, a Mediterranean restaurant she had heard of. It was fantastic – we got a sampler platter, and some eggplant salad. We shared a semolina and honey dessert and Kim had a Turkish coffee. It was very rich, tasty, and way too much food. We stopped by the stable where she kept her horse, Jesse, to feed him before we went home and crashed.

Tuesday, October 2nd

I was again up early, but not as early as Kim. She was up and doing laundry as I languished until 6:30. Then we went off to get her horse, Jesse, and then pick up Blaze, the horse I was going to ride that morning. We went towards Bodega Bay, and picked up some breakfast sandwiches on the way. Of course, after Kim recommended the smoked salmon sandwich, they were out! Ah well, sausage and egg works fine, as well.

There were some commercial trail riders saddling up where we were. According to Kim, they weren’t supposed to do that here. This was, by the way, my first time up on a horse in at least 15 years. However, I didn’t do so badly. It only took 2 tries to get me up, and I settled in nicely. The straps were a bit too short, and my knees felt torqued at one point, so Kim loosened them up for me and all was great.

We rode up through some forest, up into some scrubby dunes with red grasses, angled trees and strange shapes. We saw a coyote at one point, and some deer. We made it down to the beach, and watched the waves – some were a dark, rusty red due to a red tide, so we decided against going into the water at all. We traveled towards one end of the beach where there was a sea cave, but a seal was basking on the sand, so we kept our distance. On our way back, we spooked a deer and her fawn, and they ended up getting separated, so we had to wait until they found each other before moving on – we didn’t want them bounding across and spooking our horses too much.

We ended up wandering the dunes and found ourselves near a house that we shouldn’t be near – evidently the guy hated horses on the beach, and had actually sued to forbid them in the past. Up and down some very vertical dunes to get back to the trail! Dismounting actually was a little harder than mounting had been, I think, but I got it, and didn’t hurt as much as I thought I would after a couple hours’ ride.

Back at Kim’s, I gathered my stuff and headed back down to San Francisco for my last evening in town. I had a hotel not too far from the airport (about a half hour away) for an early morning flight. I couldn’t get one too near, as it was rather expensive with all the Fleet Week folk in town, but this was in Hayward, inexpensive, and I had time.

On the way down, I drove through Muir Woods briefly, but it was rather warm that day (105!) and I didn’t get out and walk a lot. I continued down the coast and over the bridge to SF proper, and went up to Coit Tower to get some views of the city. This was lovely – the only criticism is the plastic messed up some of my photos from the glare.

I went down to the Ferry Building, as I had just enough time before they closed to wander there a bit. What a delight! So many little gourmet shops. Charcuterie, cheese, mushrooms, wine, gelato – what to buy? Well, I was on carry-on only, so liquids were right out. I did buy some cider for that evening, and some dried mushrooms for my husband to cook with. I had some key lime pie and graham cracker gelato and went to watch the sun set while on the patio. Then I realized I had enough time to make it back up to Coit Tower to photograph the sun setting and the Golden Gate Bridge, so that’s what I did – as well as dozens of other people.

The sunset was fiery behind the buildings and purple behind the bridge. There was just enough mist to make it ethereal, and I got many lovely shots.

After the sun set, I headed to the hotel, and got ready for an early night. The bed and room was huge, but a bit hard. I watched a bit of Fifth Element on TV, had my cider, and bunked down.

Wednesday, October 3rd

Up at 3:30 am, yuk! But my flight was at 7, and I still had to get to check out, get to the airport, turn in my car, get through security, and to my gate. All this was done without much problem – except for finding the wrong security gate! No worries, I found the right one, and used my phone display for my boarding pass (it messages you one of those QR codes to display, and they get scanned as you check in). I got my breakfast at the café (bagels with lox and capers and cream cheese, yum!) and waited on my flight.

Boarding was fine, and I had, once again, an empty seat between me and my rowmate. The trip out to SF had onboard entertainment individually to each seat, but charged for anything you wanted to watch. I’m used to transatlantic flights, where such entertainment is free. On the trip back, it was one choice on the screens above – ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’. I was uninterested, so I plugged in my earphones and listened to my book on my iPhone (one of the Game of Thrones books).

We landed a bit early in Detroit, and for once my arriving gate was very close to my departure gate. This was good, as this was the tightest connection I had, one hour. I boarded my last leg (again an empty seat in the middle) and arrived safe and sound. The shuttle back to the hotel was there quickly, and the drive home began.

Only to be stymied by road construction! On the trip down through PA to the WV border, they were diverting all traffic off the highway, through windy, twisty one lane roads through the countryside and setting sun. It took over an hour of backed up traffic to get back to the highway, and travel all of 5 miles. Ugh – I was so tired, I just wanted to be home. Finally made it, safe and sound, and ready for bed!

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