San Francisco Bay Area February trip report

Feb 28th, 2009, 04:37 PM
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San Francisco Bay Area February trip report

As I watched the snow pile up on our deck all winter and wondered whether we would see the ground any time before March here in Massachusetts, I looked forward to our planned trip to the San Francisco Bay Area in February. The weather would have to be better there, right? I planned a few days staying near our daughter in Alameda exploring the Bay Area and a few days driving down the coast to Big Sur.

Then, as the departure date approached, the weather improved at home. The snow started to melt a bit and it looked positively sparkling in Boston as we drove to the airport on Valentine’s Day. Meanwhile, forecasts for California sounded more and more unpleasant. I put off making reservations for Big Sur and figured we’d plan more once we saw how the weather developed.

This turned out to be wise, since there were heavy rains the first two days of the week, and a mudslide closed the highway at Big Sur the day I had planned to drive there. So we spent the week at a hotel in Alameda, the Hawthorne Suites on Webster Street, and used that as a base for exploring. In the process, we discovered some terrific neighborhood restaurants in Alameda, spent two fun days in San Francisco, drove up to the Napa Valley for wine tasting and some scenery and art appreciation, explored Berkeley, and spent a great day in Marin County ogling and photographing coastal redwoods and ocean views.

After an uneventful flight from Boston to San Francisco, my husband Alan, our daughter Eileen, and I are picked up at the airport by our daughter Lauren, who has been living in Alameda since last summer. Alan and I have been here once before, when we helped Lauren move to California from Denver over the July 4 weekend with Lauren’s Jeep and a rented Penske truck at the time of the all-time record high gasoline prices. The trip across Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada goes much more quickly by jet plane. Lauren is late picking us up though, because it takes her an hour to cross the Bay Bridge in traffic. Fortunately the way back across the bridge is less congested. The Jeep now sports California plates.

We have dinner across the street from our hotel, at a Mexican restaurant called Otaez. This place is hopping, but our wait for a table is not too bad. I get a terrific whole fried fish in buttery garlic sauce. An all-girl mariachi band is playing as a Valentine’s Day treat. We are all fascinated to see the instruments, which include a harp and a guitar the size of a cello.

By the time we are finished with supper, it is late even according to California time, and Alan and I make our way to bed. Eileen, however, has a friend from college living in San Francisco, and Lauren drives her back across the bridge for a visit, where they spend the rest of the evening bar-hopping in the Mission District. Ah, youth.

Sunday morning we wake up to a cold, rainy day. Too cold and rainy for the clothes I’ve brought. In my optimism, I packed a light rain jacket and a leather jacket. I had hoped to have no need for the winter parka. I thought wrong.

We all meet up for a dim sum brunch at East Ocean Seafood Restaurant, also just across the street from our hotel. There is a big crowd waiting in the entrance, but the line moves quickly because the restaurant is quite large. The carts start coming around at a dizzying pace, and we quickly fill up the lazy susan in the middle of our table for five. Alan points to dishes without really looking at them; that’s how we end up with a plate of chicken feet.

It pours all day. The news tells of traffic issues and high winds on the Bay Bridge. We decide to stick close to home and spend the afternoon at Lauren’s apartment, going out in the evening for dinner at Havana Cuban Restaurant in Alameda. This is the third excellent ethnic neighborhood restaurant we’ve tried in twenty-four hours. I love my braised lamb shank with boniato mash.

After dinner, Lauren takes us to the Alameda Wine Company (, a small wine bar offering tastings of wine and selected accompaniments in a casual atmosphere. If you like what you taste, you can buy a bottle. This is a very pleasant way to finish the day. The proprietor is a woman with a strikingly short haircut. I assume it is an edgy style statement. Apparently it is rather an edgy political statement. According to a news article posted on the door, the city of Alameda, which is the wine bar’s landlord, requires the owner to keep the wine bar open from 11 AM, and the owner would rather open later on weekdays because there is very little business early in the day. In protest, the owner shaved her head and had her face and head painted blue on New Year’s Eve. By the time we get here over a month later, her face is back to its normal color however.
Nikki is online now  
Feb 28th, 2009, 05:40 PM
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Your report is off to a great start, Nikki!

Lee Ann
ElendilPickle is offline  
Feb 28th, 2009, 06:16 PM
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When I lived in the East Bay I always loved spending time in Alameda. I had some friends who lived in a lovely old Victorian close to some very good restaurants. Looking forward to hearing more about the trip.
iamq is offline  
Feb 28th, 2009, 06:52 PM
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Monday dawns cold and rainy again. Not that we get moving anywhere close to dawn. We break up into two groups. Alan and Lauren’s fiancé Dan head off to the races at Golden Gate Fields. Lauren, Eileen and I are going to Berkeley for lunch at Chez Panisse ( I have called this morning and gotten a reservation for lunch the same day, despite the website’s notice that reservations will be accepted up to a month in advance. By now the rain has stopped. We arrive before the doors open, and I line the girls up for a photo in front of the Chez Panisse sign. They feel embarrassed, but I tell them everyone will be doing it. And soon enough I am proved correct.

The restaurant is located in a lovely California style house. The café, where we are to have lunch, is on the second floor. The menu changes daily. We all enjoy our choices. I love my appetizer of smoked steelhead and roe with little potatoes, celery, and horseradish. I am a sucker for smoked fish of any kind, but this is an outstanding example. Eileen’s pizzetta with leeks, black trumpet mushrooms, and gremolata is also wonderful. For a main dish, I am very happy with the grilled pork leg with stone-ground polenta, rapini, and black olives.

After lunch we drive up into the Berkeley hills. We follow a winding road up past some campus buildings and suddenly find the way blocked by a chain link fence and a guard house. This is the entrance to Berkeley Laboratory, and the security makes me very curious about what kind of work is done here. But we turn around before we are branded as troublemakers of any kind.

We find another road up into the hills and stop outside the Berkeley science museum, the Lawrence Hall of Science, at the Vista Parking Lot. Eileen wonders aloud why it is called that. I point out that it is because of the panoramic view. Eileen says she was thinking of Vista, the computer operating system. We both have an aha! moment as we realize why a Windows operating system would be called Vista. The parking lot is full, we look at the view, and we drive back down into Berkeley through the campus.

We park in a garage near Telegraph Avenue and go for a walk. I was last in Berkeley in 1976. I am here to tell you that they are still selling the same clothes. No really, literally the same clothes. There are several vintage stores displaying things I know I used to wear. I wish I had saved my wardrobe; Eileen could wear it. And a rack of men’s jackets looks like something out of Alan’s closet.

It smells the same walking down the street also.

Late in the afternoon, we drive to the racetrack and pick up Alan. He has actually failed in his mission to add to his lifelong project: 1001 ways to lose money gambling on horses. This time he has had the unique experience of betting on the wrong horse (that’s not the unique part) and winning $100 as a result (that’s the unique part). The track is right on the bay, and there is a trail outside the track where we find Alan walking while he waits for us. He says it is interesting and scenic.

We drive to Sunnyvale for the evening, where we have dinner with an old friend, and we return to Alameda late, as it rains some more.
Nikki is online now  
Mar 1st, 2009, 01:15 AM
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Tuesday morning I watch the news in the breakfast room. This is an interesting experience in California. Items on this morning’s broadcast include mountain lions on back porches, mudslides closing the highway along Big Sur, and medical marijuana clubs hurt by the recession. I am glad we have canceled our plans for Big Sur, as the report says the road will be closed until they can excavate the mud. No indication of how long that will take.

Instead we have planned a day of museums in San Francisco. It is sunny outside the hotel, but I am seeing pictures of wild weather on the television, and Lauren tells me later that it has been raining at her house, less than a mile from our hotel. It will rain on and off all day.

We start by driving to the Legion of Honor. This museum has a fantastic site in a park high over the ocean, with a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. We browse through some of the rooms in the permanent galleries where there are Rodin sculptures and European paintings, and then we visit the special exhibit devoted to Fabergé, Tiffany and Lalique. I tell my family that if they are looking for gift ideas for me, I’d be happy with any number of items in this exhibit. Instead I end up buying Lauren a birthday present in the gift shop. It seems to work this way frequently.

Next we drive to Golden Gate Park to see the de Young Museum. This museum is free with the ticket from the Legion of Honor if you use it the same day. The new building is fascinating on the inside if a bit austere on the outside (my friend says it looks like a concentration camp with a watch tower). There are special exhibits devoted to Andy Warhol and to Yves Saint Laurent. I enjoy the galleries of contemporary American art, as well as interesting displays of art from New Guinea and from the South Pacific. Then, just as it is closing for the day, we catch the last elevator up to the observation tower for a panoramic view of San Francisco. The guard tells us this space is rented for private parties, and I have fun mentally planning an affair with a view.

We emerge into Golden Gate Park, and the rain has stopped. We decide to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge for the view from the Marin Headlands. The sun is hitting the bridge from the West, lighting it up dramatically against the gray sky and the San Francisco skyline. Walking on old military fortifications, we take in the views and snap lots of photos.

As it is getting dark, we allow the GPS to guide us back to the Bay Bridge. I figure this will be easier than navigating in the dark with my map, but it selects a tortuous route through busy downtown streets during rush hour. We figure there must be a better way, but this does eventually get us back to Alameda, where we have dinner at Toomie’s Thai Cuisine. This is yet another really good neighborhood restaurant, where we share some great dishes: coconut milk soup with seafood, duck red curry, and spicy catfish.
Nikki is online now  
Mar 1st, 2009, 06:25 AM
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Photos from this trip have been posted at
Nikki is online now  
Mar 1st, 2009, 08:15 AM
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Wednesday we drive to Napa Valley. The weather is greatly improved. We stop for lunch in Napa at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, an updated take on the drive-in burger joint using all-natural, vegetarian fed beef and compostable containers, complete with wine list. We have picked up a magazine at the tourist information center that maps all the wineries, and during lunch I mark a route for us to follow.

After lunch we drive up into the hills on the appropriately named Redwood Road to the Hess Collection, a winery owned by a Swiss beer maker, boasting a sizable gallery of contemporary art by well-known artists from the owner’s collection. The scenery is beautiful and I am told by the samplers in our party that this is their favorite wine of the day. We buy a couple of bottles. After this stop, I become the designated driver, and we head back down into the valley. There are two roads that follow the length of the valley: the major road, Route 29, and a parallel road, the Silverado Trail. Connecting these two roads are several cross roads through the vineyards planted along the valley floor.

Our second winery is Trefethen, in a historic building off Oak Knoll Avenue, one of the cross roads. This wine is more expensive and doesn’t grab anybody in particular, so we are off to the next tasting. It is getting later than we had hoped, and some of the wineries I have marked on the map are closed. We discover that the magazine with the map also has a list of operating hours, so we head for the vineyards along our route that are open later. We get to Mumm Napa on the Silverado Trail just before closing, and although our tasters are not particularly fond of sparkling wine, they all pronounce it better than the less distinguished champagne they have had in the past.

We drive back across the valley on Rutherford Crossroad, passing a vineyard that appears neglected and overgrown with bright yellow flowering plants, and turn left for the Peju Province Winery on Route 29. This is housed in an over-the-top building with formal gardens and sculpture. The entrance is beyond a stream that either has an artificial croaking frog sound effect or a particularly persistent and well hidden large frog. There is a large gift shop in addition to the tasting room. Samples of wine-flavored chocolate sauces and mustards are available. The wines here are a success with our party, and we buy some bottles.

We are ready for dinner now before driving back, so we talk about trying to get a table at the nearby Mustards Grill along Route 29 in Yountville. I have read that reservations are essential here, and an employee at Peju offers to call and see if he can get us in. He succeeds, so we drive to the restaurant and have a very nice dinner. The next day, reading through the tourist literature, I learn the answer to two questions at once: why is the restaurant called Mustards, and what are those yellow flowers in the vineyards?
Nikki is online now  
Mar 1st, 2009, 09:31 AM
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Great trip report! You have added more to my horizons on the entire Bay Area! I never ever thought of going to Alameda - now it's on my list of places to visit in the Bay Area.

The Lawrence Berkeley Labs (And the Lawrence Livermore Labs) have been part and parcel of the nuclear development in this country, some of for peacetime applications, some of it for war:

Enjoying your report very much! Please keep it coming!
easytraveler is offline  
Mar 1st, 2009, 11:06 AM
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It's interesting. I was debating whether to include the restaurants in Alameda in this report because I wasn't sure people would be interested. Now I'm glad I did. I find it a somewhat surprising place. It doesn't seem urban enough to be sandwiched as it is between Oakland and San Francisco. It has a nice position on an island in the bay, with a long beach. There is a ferry to San Francisco, which we took last summer. And the local restaurant scene seems to be the beneficiary of a very competitive climate in the area, especially among Asian and Mexican restaurants (something missing here in Massachusetts).
Nikki is online now  
Mar 1st, 2009, 11:17 AM
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Alameda is a hidden gem of a community in the Bay Area.

Years ago a friend and I decided to stay in a hotel by the yacht club for a conference in Oakland and we did go to some of the restaurants in DT Alameda. It wasn't such an interesting DT at that time, but the area used to be part of the Navy installations and so had some interesting leftovers from those days. I believe some of the scenes in the movie "Matrix" was filmed in the now defunct shipyard area.

Glad to hear that the restaurants have improved!
easytraveler is offline  
Mar 1st, 2009, 04:36 PM
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Great trip report! Alameda is an interesting place and off the beaten tourist track.

The mustard is now in full bloom here in the Napa Valley. On Friday, one of our few sunny days in a while, it was absolutely gorgeous here. With the mustard fields, the fruit trees in bloom and the hills looking like Hawaii, this is the most beautiful time of the year.

That overgrown vineyard you saw just hadn't been pruned yet. I'm sure it will be soon if it hasn't been already.

Oh, and Mustards Grill had a fire last week. It's closed until about April 1st.
Supercilious is offline  
Mar 1st, 2009, 06:00 PM
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I figure this will be easier than navigating in the dark with my map, but it selects a tortuous route through busy downtown streets during rush hour. We figure there must be a better way

Actually, probably not!

Great report (Alamedans are fanatical about their community - my cousin lived there for years with her husband, who spent his entire life there until they moved to Virgina, and would like to return someday)
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Mar 2nd, 2009, 06:16 AM
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Thursday morning we drive to Marin on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. I now see that this would have been a better route to take back from the Golden Gate Bridge the other day, but then what would everybody have had to complain about to the navigator? We are headed toward Muir Woods. As we drive up the steep and winding access road, Eileen asks why we have to drive over the mountain to get there. “Because it’s on the other side of the mountain,” I say. “Can’t we just drive around it?” she asks. It turns out this question is important. I hear a park guide explain later that the reason the old-growth forest was preserved through a long period of timber cutting which diminished most of the coastal redwood forests in California is that the site was so remote there were no roads to it. By the time conservationists moved to set this land aside at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was one of the few old-growth coastal redwood forests left.

It is mid-day as we explore the forest, and sunlight makes its way through the canopy of trees. The sun feels warm and welcoming, and I finally have the right clothing. After an hour of strolling, contemplating, and photographing, we head back out the winding road to Highway 1 for a drive up the coast. We pull over at a scenic overlook at Muir Beach. There are beautiful views in all directions. An old military base-end station still stands here that was used as a look-out point during World War II before the widespread use of radar made it obsolete.

There are picnic tables, and two couples of (I think) German tourists are enjoying their meal with a view. One of them is an amusing character who is describing their “typical American lunch” loudly in English to his friend, who is recording his monologue with a video camera.

The drive up to Stinson Beach and beyond is very scenic. Past Stinson Beach, the highway runs alongside a huge salt marsh filled with birds wading, swimming, floating in the water. There is a school next to the road, and we think it must be fun to devise nature projects in the great outdoor laboratory right outside the schoolhouse doors.

We stop for lunch at the Station House Café in Point Reyes Station ( The menu boasts fresh, organic, local and sustainable ingredients. We share barbecued oysters from Drake’s Bay, and I have a really good halibut club sandwich.

We’re a little sleepy from lunch and all the driving, but we head out toward the lighthouse at the tip of Point Reyes. I am not thinking clearly, because it doesn’t register in my mind how long it will take us to get out there, even though there is a sign at the turnoff indicating it is twenty miles to the lighthouse. I muse as we drive toward the end of the earth that on the Pacific the earth ends at Point Reyes and on the Atlantic it ends at Race Point (in Provincetown on Cape Cod). That’s what happens when I’m sleepy.

The drive seems endless, and the day is getting late. The payoff is that there is beautiful late afternoon light for photography when we reach the end of the road. It is very cold and windy up here on the cliff, and Eileen and I spend a half hour freezing on a bench (with a beautiful view) while we wait for Alan and Lauren to return from their jaunt to the lighthouse at the end of the path, wishing we had the key to get into the nice warm car. When Alan returns alone, we all wonder where Lauren is. “Isn’t she with you?” “No, I thought she was with you.” Eileen goes to the parking lot and peers into the car, and finds Lauren curled up sleeping in the back seat.

Eileen takes over the driving, and we head back toward civilization. After leaving the seashore, we head inland on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, passing through redwood groves in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. We are going to the home of one of my imaginary friends from an internet message board. She lives in a wonderful house on a beautiful wooded site by a stream. We enjoy some wine and excellent conversation before driving back to Alameda.

We have supper at a bare-bones storefront restaurant (rest rooms down the alley out back) called King of Thai Noodles. I have a big steaming bowl of duck soup with thick noodles, which just about removes any chill remaining in my fingertips from my windy sojourn on the cliff-top bench.
Nikki is online now  
Mar 2nd, 2009, 07:10 AM
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Most excellent!

And thank you for using paragraphs.

We keep threatening to go to the Mustard Festival each year in Napa Valley.

It's been years since we went to Stinson's. It was our "date beach" when we couldn't get down to San Diego.
It's due for a re-visit.

One reason I like trip reports in my own region....reminds you of things you haven't done in awhile.
Kal is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2009, 08:38 AM
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Great report! Thanks for sharing your trip.
kureiff is online now  
Mar 2nd, 2009, 10:41 AM
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Friday is devoted to tourist San Francisco. We drive to the waterfront and park at the garage opposite Pier 39. Emerging from the garage and crossing the bridge across the street, I look around and feel like I am visiting the San Francisco pavilion at Epcot in Disney World. The sky is blue and the sun is shining so it even feels a bit like Orlando. The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz might be painted on a backdrop to add a sense of place. Descending to ground level, though, the experience becomes more authentic.

We walk out along the pier and watch sea lions basking in the sun, sounding like disgruntled old men. There are docks for the sea lions and docks for the boats, and we wonder how the sea lions tell them apart. There is a sign on the sea lion docks, but despite the resemblance to old men, we’re pretty sure the sea lions can’t read it.

We walk along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf and have lunch outdoors in front of one of the fast food fish restaurants. There is fried shrimp and calamari and crab salad and steamed crab legs and clam chowder in bread bowls. Good beach food; I can almost smell the sunscreen.

After a cold New England winter and a rainy California week, the warmth feels wonderful. I’m thinking the sea lions have the right idea, lying out in the sun. The atmosphere along the waterfront is relaxed and colorful, and I decide to spend the afternoon here while the rest of the party takes the cable car to Chinatown. I walk along the docks taking pictures and sit on the benches watching people and trying to decipher the many languages I hear. One guy crouches on the sidewalk holding a big mass of greenery in front of him, jumping out from behind it as people walk past to startle them and to entertain the small crowd that has gathered behind him to watch. People pose by the water and others come to take their pictures, group after group. Everybody is smiling, even when there is no photo being taken. An Indian man in a suit and a woman in a beautiful white sari pose for a picture; the man continues to talk on his cell phone while the woman smiles into the camera. I wonder whether they have a whole photo album filled with such shots.

Alan returns from the cable car ride. He has left the girls to explore on their own. We retrieve the car from the parking lot and drive to the Presidio. This is an interesting spot occupying a fantastic piece of real estate at the tip of the city around the Golden Gate Bridge. An army post for over two hundred years, the area is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The old military buildings are being restored and rented out to private and commercial tenants.

We drive to Fort Point, directly under the Golden Gate Bridge. Soldiers manned the fort’s big guns during the Civil War to defend San Francisco, although no battles were fought within two thousand miles. Now the area is taken over by surfers, who have parked their cars all along the water and are catching the waves as they roll in from the ocean under the bridge. The parking lot marks the end point of paths used by runners and bikers. A pair of plastic hands hangs on the chain link fence at the end of the parking lot, and almost all the runners and bikers go up to the hands and touch them before turning around or finishing their routes. We watch for a while to see which people avoid the hands and merely touch the fence, and who is just too cool for school and avoids touching anything at all.

A mist develops and it is getting cold when we decide to leave. We drive around the shore and admire the wonderful views, then emerge from the Presidio and drive back toward North Beach, where we are meeting Lauren and Eileen for dinner. We drive along California Street from one end of the city to the other, and it is quite an experience. This is when I realize why in most places roads are built along the contours of hills rather than straight up and down. As we drive down the impossibly steep slopes, I find myself tensing up each time we approach an intersection, hoping we’ll be able to stop. I think I remember that Lauren had the brakes done before she drove out to California; at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

We manage to arrive at North Beach without running down any pedestrians. Lauren and Eileen are waiting for us at the Mona Lisa Restaurant on Columbus Avenue. They are drinking wine and munching on bruschetta when we arrive. This is an old-style Italian place with lots of choices. I get osso bucco in white wine and mushroom sauce with polenta, which I like a lot. After dinner we head back to Alameda and I get my things organized for our departure the next day.
Nikki is online now  
Mar 2nd, 2009, 11:03 AM
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what a wonderful report.
like kal, i too enjoy reading a trip report about my hometown.
not only have you reminded me of the many wonderful places that i have not visited in a while but it is also very refreshing to see it from your perspective.
abranz is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2009, 11:45 AM
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Very nice trip report Nikki. I have lived in Alameda for over 15 years now and I still am in love with it. All the places you've mentioned is a reminder of how grateful I am to be living in the Bay Area. In fact, this Sunday is my birthday and am planning to play SF tourist for a day along with my family. Cheers!
frestonia is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2009, 04:21 PM
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Great report Nikki.
iamq is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2009, 04:45 PM
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Enjoyed your report a lot, Nikki!
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