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San Francisco & Monterey, Spring Break - Family Edition


May 9th, 2014, 06:00 PM
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Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 120
San Francisco & Monterey, Spring Break - Family Edition

A long trip report, but instead of posting in chapters, I worked to finish the whole book. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the read/trip…

You can say we covered San Francisco like a thick layer of fog – by train, by trolley, by cable car, by bus, by foot and by car. My husband, myself, our daughters, 7 years old, and 4.5 years old, set out for the City by the Bay and Monterey for Spring Break via Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle.

A few notes about my first overnight train trip – loved getting to the station 30 minutes before we departed, didn’t have to worry about how much my suitcase weighed (or even if all of our 4 people worth of things would all fit into one suitcase (we could have taken 2 suitcases per person if we wanted, for free) or if I was transporting liquids more than 3.4 ounces, yada yada yada. Got to hang out in our family sleeper car, play games, read books, have delicious meals, enjoy some really beautiful scenery, all while en route to my destination. Thumbs up! Now on to the trip…

Monday - We arrived on time into San Francisco, 9ish a.m., and headed down to Alcatraz Landing to pick-up our City Pass booklets. We used every single ticket in these booklets, and found them to far exceed the value paid, especially with the week of Muni transportation included! On the way we made a stop at Pier 39 for the seals, and enjoyed a quick snack at a picnic table with a beautiful view of Alcatraz. They had been threatening a “big storm” for today, and although it hadn’t arrived yet, the skies were looking pretty ominous. After picking up our City Passes we trollyed it back towards Fisherman’s Wharf to the destination we were quite possibly the most excited to visit (having been born and raised in Southern California), In-N-Out! Oh, how I missed you! While devouring our Double-Doubles the “big storm” did arrive, and not just a little drizzle, this was pouring rain! Clearly, my itinerary was about to be altered. So, after figuring out the proper bus routes (which is just plain more complicated in pouring rain than in sunshine), we got ourselves pointed towards the California Academy of Sciences to enjoy the rest of the day. We arrived quite soggy, but after coat checking our outermost layers, we were “happy, happy, happy.” We really loved this place (taking 1st place amongst our kid friendly museum/aquariums that we visited)! We arrived just as the busloads of children were exiting, about 1ish, and got to leisurely see all the sites in about 2.5 hours. Loved the fun earthquake simulator, gorgeous aquariums, and the rainforest dome (going through the rainforest dome felt like a bit of a time machine as exactly a year prior we really were in the Costa Rican rain forest amongst many/most of the same animals and species we saw there).

A sidebar on meals here - for us, I cannot imagine eating out for 3 meals a day; it’s simply too much food (not to mention a lot of contained sitting time with “restaurant behavior” for the kids). Instead, we made excellent use of the Trader Joe’s and Safeway that was a few blocks away from the hotel, and stocked our room and fridge with food to cover our breakfasts, light dinners, snacks, etc. through the week, and typically had one large meal out (usually lunch) to keep everyone happy. I am actually making a copycat recipe of TJ’s Kale and Broccoli Slaw Salad to go with dinner tonight - had it twice while we were there, but I’m still wanting more!

Tuesday – Up and at ‘em today headed for Alcatraz! We had our tickets for the 9:30am ferry (they board between 9:00am-9:20am) and found ourselves in pouring rain once more as we waited to board. We were prepared with our rain ponchos this go round, but the need was short lived, as by the time we boarded the ferry, the rain had passed, and it was actually sunny! Enjoyed Alcatraz and all the stories and lore that it contained. We happened to be there on a day that an actual former prisoner was there, signing his book. Quite a treat, since as he put it, they are a bit of an “endangered species.” Had a fun chat and photo with him, and knew from his personality his book was bound to be good, and purchased that too. If you do go to Alcatraz, my advice is to make sure you walk around the whole island. I would have felt that we missed half the experience if we hadn’t done this. Beautiful gardens, birds, other sites like the prison exercise yard (where our daughters ran the bases), just an overall cool thing to do. Took the 12:55pm ferry back (for a round trip of about 3.5 hours), headed back to the hotel to regroup, and off to Chinatown for, of course, some Chinese food! Asked a policeman in Chinatown where he would recommend and he directed us to House of Xian Dumpling (where you can watch them make the dumplings fresh). Ordered way too much food here, but between our in-restaurant feast and the leftovers that made their way back to the hotel, nothing went to waste. Really delicious, and really fresh! The rain returned while we were eating, but we carried on through the weather, making our way up to the Fortune Cookie Company on Ross Alley to see the ladies assembling people’s future fortunes, and enjoying our tasty samples too. We continued on to the free Cable Car Museum, which is just plain amazing to me that someone in that time period could figure out and put into action the fantastic invention of the cable car (the kids liked ringing the bell the best).

Wednesday - Sun, glorious sun!!! I have to say this was my most favorite day we spent in San Francisco. We went from morning until night all outdoors! By the time I laid down in bed, I could literally feel my heartbeat in my feet - they were tired! Major props to our 7 year old who walked every single step that us grown-ups did without any whining or complaining – she rocks!

We headed to Golden Gate Park to arrive at the Japanese Tea Gardens before 10am for free admission (MWF), and loved the beauty of the grounds, flowers, trees, buildings, etc. After exiting the gardens, we enjoyed a brief energy run (kids) and snack stop (yes, in the sun), in the gardens in front of the California Academy of Sciences. Post energy run we headed up to the Tower of the De Young Museum, where the views are indeed amazing! Love this little gem is free too! Then made our way up to and around Stow Lake to see Huntington Falls. Lunch was callin’ by this time, so after a pit stop at Wooly Pig Café, we took our to-go bags to the Koret Children’s Playground for a picnic. Spent a good deal of time here playing on the very large playground. They have a crazy webbed contraption that has to be at least a couple of stories high? Our 7 year old climbed to the tippy-top of this thing within minutes of being on the playground, but I have to admit, my 1st time up I got close (enough) to the top, and then headed back down. After my husband heard this, he had to show off and indeed climb to the very top – well, that’s it, now I had to do it. The 2nd time up I did go to the very highest rung, but I had a mondo death grip on those ropes, I can assure you! We wrapped up our park experience with a family ride on the carousel.

Picked up the 28 bus from Golden Gate Park to the Palace of the Fine Arts, which was amazing and beautiful and oh so grand! Walked through the Palace on to Crissy Field and pulled two kites out of our backpack that just sent the kids spirits soaring! What an awesome place to fly kites! On the beach, with perfect kite flying wind, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background – don’t think I’ll ever have a better kite flying memory than this! Kite surfers were abound here, and they seemed to arrive one after the other as they each clocked out of work. It was fun to watch them launch and fly their own kites. We walked our way back out through the Palace of the Fine Arts and got to see a swan this time (which the kids were hoping for). What a full day we had, but as I said, my favorite day of all!

Thursday - We started the day at the Exploratorium which I had read great reviews about, and aptly so. To sum up, it’s like your high school Science Fair times ten, and on crack. If you’ve got an appetite for science, than this is the place to get your geek on. For us, it wasn’t our favorite of the ‘kid-in-mind’ museums. Everything is hands-on, which is great, but after awhile, it can tend to get a bit monotonous, for the grown-ups as well as the kids. Be prepared for crowds, they are a plenty, and almost all the children here were on field trips, (which means an average of a 6 to 1 kid-grown-up ratio for these groups). We could practically hear an audible sigh of relief from our immune systems as we exited the Exploratorium’s doors. Don’t get me wrong – we enjoyed ourselves here, but the Exploratorium just wasn’t our favorite.

After the Exploratorium, we headed to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana for what yelp reviewers tout as one of the best pizzas you will find in SF. One meatball gigante, one pizza margherita, and one small pizza for the kids later, we left extremely happy, and with no to-go boxes! Yum – everyone should go here. After a gelato stop in Little Italy we made our way over to the playground in front of St. Peter & St. Paul Church to let the kids play for a bit before actually going into said church to admire the grandeur, and say a brief prayer – we have so many blessings to be thankful for! On our way back to the hotel, we hiked up the hill to the top of Lombard Street, and back down, just to make sure we got the full experience. Quintessential SF – gotta love it!

Friday - We picked up our rental car and took a trip north across the Golden Gate Bridge and on to hike around the peak of Mt. Tam. A forum poster (Chester9cat) had given me super spot-on directions to East Peak Loop trailhead and beyond, which always kept us on the right track. Fun and easy walk with great views overlooking the city, and beyond. From there, we headed to Muir Woods and after getting about 30 ft. into our walk, it began to rain, and continued our whole walk through! This was the only time this day that we encountered the rain; I think the trees must call the rain, and then hold onto it once it arrives – the redwood’s way of ensuring their survival in a California drought? We trudged on despite the rain, and couldn’t help but think, “gosh, this looks amazingly like hiking in Washington (sans giant redwoods).” Glorious to see, but of course the rain did compromise the experience just a bit. Our friends who previously lived in the Bay Area had told us of a restaurant in San Rafael (which was just a wee bit out of the way) called Sol Food, which was their very favorite restaurant. So, of course we had to see for ourselves. It’s a Puerto Rican fare, and everything we had here (and we had a sampling of quite a bit) was mmm mmm good. On the way back into the city we stopped at the Marin Headlands during “the magic hour” for amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and photo ops (thank you StuDudley). The previous day while on foot, we attempted to find the Yoda Fountain, but couldn’t quite pinpoint the exact entrance, but we did much better this day with a car. Found the Yoda Fountain waiting for us in the courtyard, took silly Star Wars light saber posing pictures with him, and made our way into the lobby to take similarly silly photos with the giant Darth Vader, and Boba Fett. Navigated our way back to our hotel via Lombard Street, to top off another great day.

Saturday - Packed ourselves up, and hit the road south on Hwy 1. I love when a drive somewhere can be an experience in and of itself – Highway 1 is that kind of road. Stopped in Half Moon Bay to go to Jeff Clark’s Surf Shop and about a minute after we arrived a nice lady came out to ask us if we would mind if they used our girls as models for some of their kid’s clothes. We of course obliged, and the girls had fun playing dress-up and posing for their pictures. A couple of t-shirts later for my husband, and a few little gifts the shop gave to the girls for their help, we were on our way for a stop at Mavericks. It’s hard to imagine how that coastline transforms itself in winter to the giant waves of the famed Mavericks, but for us on that April afternoon, it was a nice walk on the beach, and energy run for the kids.

We drove on from Half Moon Bay further south for lunch (on the recommendation from the Surf Shop) to a little town and a great restaurant that you just wouldn’t ever find on accident. In the little town of Pescadero (known for artichokes grown in the area) we filled up to the brim at Duarte’s (pronounced Do-arts). Seriously, you could go here just for the freshly baked sourdough bread and olallieberry pie, but the main courses were delightfully good as well. We had the nicest servers here of our whole trip – the kind of kids you hope your own children grow up to be like. Walked the small town after to buy a few goods at the farmer’s market, and coffee shop as well. By the time we arrived in Santa Cruz the Surfer Museum was closed for the day, but we did enjoy the views along Cliff Drive, before making our way back to the main highway. Made a brief stop at Jetty Road where we saw more wild sea otters together than I have ever seen all at once, which was fun (thanks chinita415).

Sunday - Began the day with the kids running around Dennis the Menace Park, which is really a park amongst parks. Had fun here recreating before and after pictures of our oldest daughter who was only two years old the last time we were here – now seven! Yikes! After enjoying a picnic lunch in the park we made our way over to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. While we really loved our last experience here, it was sad to say it just wasn’t as good as before. One of the exhibits that we loved to see the last time we were there was their giant assortment of seahorses. You could have watched them forever - this time, zero seahorses! I always think of places such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium improving, not losing exhibits that made it so special. The kids of course didn’t remember it “before,” and enjoyed themselves and the all the sights. Had a deliciously authentic and tasty Mexican dinner at Puerto Nuevo (mmm…carnitas) in Seaside, and headed to the pool for an evening swim to work off some energy (kids) and calories (adults).

Monday - Well, I had my favorite day in San Francisco, but this would be my favorite day in Monterey - Point Lobos State Reserve! After checking out of our hotel we stopped at Subway to ready ourselves for a picnic lunch later in the day, and made our way to Point Lobos. We parked on Hwy 1 and walked in on foot to avoid the parking fee (but did pay the suggested donation into the slot for admission) and hit the trail. This is an amazing place! Growing up in California, you become accustomed to the beach, water, etc. but the water here is blue like nowhere else in California. The coastline that follows you on this trail is just extraordinary; be prepared to have your breath taken away for every corner you round on the trail! Visited the nesting herons, stopped at the Whaler’s Cabin for a bit of history, stopped to chat with a local photographer who narrated the seal’s birthing process to us in pictures – both adorable and amazing, awwwed at the newborn seal pups themselves (one only a day old) lounging and nursing on the beach, and picnicked next to a breathtaking beautiful cove (did I mention it was my birthday – happy birthday indeed)! After completing one giant loop, (insert many more gorgeous vistas along the way) we returned to our car at 2:30pm, and headed north to San Francisco. Roughly two and half hours later we were seemingly far, far, away, back in the city and dropping off our luggage at the Amtrak station to hold until our departure. We returned our rental car, and had one last ceremonial cable car ride enroute to our dinner destination - you guessed it – In-N-Out! Gotta make those “Double-Double with grilled onions, add pickles” memories last (did I also mention it was our 11 year wedding anniversary)! This girl couldn’t have asked for a better anniversary dinner! Walked over to Ghiradelli Square to snap a night-time shot of the infamous sign, but didn’t dare venture closer as I had given up chocolate for Lent! Made our way back to the Ferry Building train station, and awaited our bus to take us to the Coast Starlight, and eventually home.

Tuesday - We were a couple of hours delayed getting into Seattle (from an earlier engine problem they had prior to us boarding), but hey – show me a person who’s never experienced a delay flying before, I’ll show you a person who’s never flown before. We were still on vacation – still playing games, reading our books, enjoying delicious meals, and beautiful scenery, so we took it in stride. Not sure if I was surprised to look back at our itinerary and see that we did everything I had planned for us, or half expected it! Our girls were such good troopers, who made it not only possible, but incredibly memorable too!
coryandcarissa is offline  
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May 9th, 2014, 08:05 PM
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Sounds like a great way to travel and a wonderful trip for you and the kids. Did the kids like the train as well as flying?

Thanks for the report.
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May 9th, 2014, 08:41 PM
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Nice trip and report! Thanks for sharing.
DebitNM is offline  
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May 9th, 2014, 09:41 PM
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emalloy - I asked the kids your precise question, train vs. plane, and apparently I have two diplomats in the family. They said they both liked them equally. I would say the train was definitely an "experience" for them. They loved eating in the dining car, and also watching the scenery go by. You go from water, to green, to snow covered trees... beautiful!
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May 10th, 2014, 08:30 AM
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Sounds like a lovely trip. Great report!
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May 10th, 2014, 07:08 PM
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your enthusiasm for the area is contagious great report. I got even more inspired for planning of my trip in august. and kudos to all of us who travel with young kids. was the 4.5yr old in stroller? (we are considering getting a used McLaren just for the trip to CA in august for our to be 5yr old)
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May 10th, 2014, 08:59 PM
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Wonderful report!

I am always interested in hearing what visitors to this area enjoy and worry that they won't have a good time. Your report will be a terrific inspiration for other families.
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May 10th, 2014, 10:29 PM
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Weekend_celebrations, believe it or not, we are still getting our use out of the Ergo at our house! Our youngest weighs in at 35lbs. so she's only got a few more pounds to go before she weights out of it, but until then, she's happy to walk when she wants, and ride/sleep when she gets tired. I've gotten so used to carrying kids over the years I don't even notice any difference; whatever it takes to keep the family happy and moving. A stroller might be a bit more challenging given the hills and on/offs with buses, trolleys, etc. (no room at all on a cable car for one), but anything is doable. If you avoid any extremely long stretches of walking, breaking it up between well routed public transportation and activities, you may not need one at all. Hope you have a great vacation too!
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May 11th, 2014, 06:27 PM
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Good point about hills and stroller. Our not yet 5yr old is way over 35 limit bc of height...but we are still considering the stroller....we are going to be driving all over so some areas (LA) will br be less hilly i suppos while others (yosemite) much more so our older is 14 so we will just separate into 2 groups for certain things
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May 12th, 2014, 03:33 PM
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It sounds like you and your family had a blast! Thanks for posting your report.

Lee Ann
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