San Francisco, May 2018

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This is our first travel post and it’s about a trip we had been really looking forward to: Our first time visiting California/the West Coast, Napa Valley, Alcatraz, The Golden Gate Bridge – we were definitely psyched for this vacation. Please bear in mind that we are new to this blogging thing, so we’re gonna just try and give you our honest impressions without too much finesse, or bells & whistles, okay? Okay.

It turned out to be a great trip, just (as always!) – too short.

Anyway, without further rambling, here’s the day-by-day breakdown of the fun we had…

Day 1

Our Delta Airlines flight arrived early at SFO – 10:30am, leaving from JFK in New York at 7am, so you know – including the time to drive from where we live (just North of NYC), finding the offsite parking company in Queens, getting through TSA screening, etc, meant that we were up from about 4am, and, thus, already pooped well before we touched down in San Francisco, some 6 hours later…

Luggage gathered, we next proceeded to figure out how to get the BART train into San Francisco proper.

*SF offers dedicated BART train service to & from SFO. Land at SFO, walk through to the airport shuttle train, get off at the BART station stop, purchase a refillable Clipper card, take the train into SF proper.

To do this most effectively, it turned out that we were best off purchasing 2 re-loadable Clipper Cards. We had already consulted the BART train map online before leaving home and had determined that the closest stop to our hotel would be Powell Street, which we found our way to, despite some irritatingly sotto voce conductor announcements & sometimes hidden platform signage along the way. Literally, 2 blind guys on our train had a better handle on when to get off than we felt we did.

Anyway, our hotel – The San Francisco Marriott Marquis – was just a short block’s walk  from the train stop, and it was quite pleasant, after our travels to have a very cheery top-hatted doorman greet us on our way into the lobby.

Of course, hotels are a pain in the rear, when it comes to check-in and check-out times, and The Marriott Marquis was no better or worse than any other establishment in this regard. This meant that we had to check-in, leave a cellphone number at the front-desk, and our luggage in a storage room just off the main lobby floor, and basically just kill time in the area until they pronounced a room to be ready for us & notified us.

Well, by now it was around lunchtime, so – unsurprisingly! – we decided to get lunch at a nearby restaurant – ‘Split‘ (burgers) – while waiting for a room to be ready. The burgers were tasty and decent, and we were finished with them just as we got notification that our room was ready. We got our room key cards, trekked up to our room

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(the Marriot Marquis is MASSIVE and labyrinthine!) and just plain passed-out for about 4hrs. We woke up, feeling much more energized, but it was still bright daylight outside. Bright daylight that hurt our sore, jet-lagged eyeballs!!

Anyway, determined to hang out until we got somewhat in sync with local time, we took a walk around the vicinity of the hotel. We found a Trader Joe’s store (literally across the street from the hotel!), and they sell real booze. And not just wine – but actual liquor!!!! We likey!!

  Ken- In fact, Trader Joe’s had a better price (by about $25) on a bottle of Balvenie 12yr Doublewood scotch whisky than I’d ever be able to find back home in NY, so that was my first official souvenir purchase!!

We returned from our stroll and got our daughter, back in NYC, to text us the passwords for our Hulu & Netflix accounts. With most TV’s in the world now being of the ‘Smart’ variety, this is going to be a standard thing for us now, when we travel – to have our Streaming TV account numbers with us, ready for use!

Next, we ventured back out into Chinatown, which seemed to us to be strangely deserted for a Thursday evening… we had a nice meal, nonetheless, in the aptly named Chinatown Restaurant and then returned to the hotel to sleep at around 10pm.


Day 2

We were up at 6:30am for our first full-on day of tourist activities – First – a trip out to the legendary Alcatraz Penitentiary in the morning, followed by a Gray Line tour of the city in the afternoon. After picking up our vouchers, we stopped and saw the seals at Pier 39

– which was very cool before boarding our boat out to Alcatraz at Pier 33.

Alcatraz was cool – very cool, but thanks to Gray Lines’ casual ineptitude, we couldn’t spend as much time there as we wanted to, because of trying to adhere to their shitty itinerary, which they couldn’t even be true to.

We grabbed some fried calimari & chips from a stand in Fisherman’s Wharf to eat as we walked over to meet the Gray Line city tour bus…which then kept us waiting 45min past the stated pickup time.

But, eventually, the bus came, and shuttled us over to Union Sqare to validate our coupons, and then on to the tour itself – a 4hr affair in a very comfy bus, with a very competent driver – Danillo from Honduras. He maintained good rapport & engagement with the passengers & had decent knowledge to share about the areas of San Francisco that we visited.

Some of the places and areas we went to included:

  • Presidio National Park
  • Lands End & the Sutro Bath ruins
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Chinatown
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Victorian Homes/Painted Ladies
  • Twin Peaks

Then we were taken back to Union Sq. which was only a short walk from our hotel, were we had dinner in the hotel lobby restaurant (B55 Craft House & Restaurant), which was quite nice and featured the biggest pretzels EVER!!

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After eating, we dipped over to Trader Joe’s to buy the aforementioned Balvenie 12yr Doublewood & some wine. Then, despite darkness descending, we embarked upon a (failed) walk to find a particular store we’d read about and were interested in finding. Instead, we accidentally found Glide Church, which was featured in the Will Smith movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” and is in The Tenderloin district – which isn’t intended to be an after-dark tourism spot, by any means! Full of indigent & homeless people. And it was dark. And it was dirty. And we abandoned this mission on grounds of Pure Common Sense & Safety.

So, back to our room, some wine, some Netflix & sleep.


Day 3

Up at 6am – utilized hotel gym facilities.

Out by 9 to head over to Sears diner for a good breakfast to launch us into the day. There seems to be always a wait to get into Sears, but it’s well worth it. Very good food at good prices, and with attentive service – despite how crowded it can be. The overall ambience was nice, except for the whale conservation videos which were playing the whole time we were there. Nothing against the whales, nor the efforts to preserve & protect them – we just prefer news or sports with our diner food…

Then, oriented ourselves & head over to Hi Ho Silver – a jewelry store that Gabby hoped to find a nice ring, bracelet, or necklace in – as a memento of this trip.

We got out to the area – the Fillmore district – kind of earlier than we expected to, so we went into Harry’s Bar, on Fillmore, just up the block from the aforementioned jewelry store, while we waited for it to open.

Watched the first half of the Liverpool vs. Real Madrid soccer match with some very well-made drinks, including the absolute best Manhattan Ken has ever had the pleasure of sipping. We might make a point of revisiting Harry’s on our next trip to San Francisco…

After a few purchases in Hi Ho Silver – a very nice little store, with lots of lovely, unique jewelry, plus other fine items (scarves, framed butterflies, wallets, bags, etc) in their next-door store ‘1906’ – we walked over to Japantown,which seemed a bit desolate in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, so we didn’t really spend any much time there…

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We made our way back over to see the small, but fascinating, and free, Cable Car Museum by bus & taxi (you can see the actual pulleys, wheels & gears that power the city’s cable cars, in action), then back through a crowded Chinatown (Very much more bustling & lively in the daylight hours, apparently!) to our hotel. Some food from B55 restaurant downstairs, then sleep.


Day 4

Carnaval! Up at 5:45am so as to get breakfast at Mel’s around the corner from the hotel, before heading off to the parade for 9-9:30am start.

Interestingly, the trains didn’t start running until 8am (because it’s Sunday?) and then it was a further half-hour for a train to go the way we needed.

Still, arrived in time, found our seating in the grandstand area & settled in for the start of the parade.carnaval (2)

The parade itself: much lower key & scale than the West Indian Day, Halloween, or Mermaid Parades, back in New York, but it was in somehow more enjoyable for that.

Led off with a variety of classic cars & low-riders – many of them hydraulically enhanced.

Many contingents and troupes from many cultures and local cultural organizations marched past, with many colourful costumes and displays. Several groups had nice dance displays – we especially enjoyed the Sanitation workers choreography!

Great parade, great friendly atmosphere, and overall just a fun, enjoyable event.

After – we searched for (and found) Tartine Bakery, on the recommendation of our hotel concierge. It was good, but the place seems a little full of its own reputation, with a generally disdainful attitude being affected by pretty much all of the staff towards the paying customers who actually line up outside the store for the privilege of spending their hard-earned cash on what is some pretty good food – just not good enough to cancel out the snotty ‘tudes of the staff, the wait times, and the cramped seating in the store. We really couldn’t recommend going there, unless it’s a bucket-list kind of thing for you…

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On the walk back to the BART to go back to the hotel, we found a store that Gabby was interested in perusing, and while she did so, I took pics of a local street-art adorned alleyway.

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Soon, we were back on the train & en route to the hotel.

Once in, Ken passed out, leaving Gabby to go find food, which we ate in bed, while catching up on ‘Line Of Duty’ on Hulu *(always travel with your streaming TV passwords, since most every TV everywhere you go nowadays is a Smart TV)

Tomorrow, we head out to Napa Valley…

Day 5

Up at 6. Out in search of a specific type of bottled water that Gabby likes – alas, no luck. Hit up an ATM for cash, Starbucks for sustenance, then on to the Napa Tour limo bus, leaving from Union Square on Geary Street.

This bus was Swanky!!!

Went out to Marin County to stop & see the Golden Gate Bridge, and also a whale in the Bay. This is when Abe bust out the complimentary mimosas! …and so, our tour truly begins…

1st stop – Jacuzzi Winery. Nice stuff – G bought 2 bottles right off the bat! Also, since they had their own olive oil production & store right next to the wine-tasting area, Gabby picked up some olive oil, too…

2nd stop – Sonoma village/town/city(?). Cheese, chocolate AND, oh yeah – some wine tasting!!

3rd stop – Madonna Winery.

More nice wines (2 bottles getting shipped back from here!) Nice outdoor lunch in Madonna’s garden area – laid on mostly by Abe the Driver with a little help from the good folks of Madonna, before…

…our 4th & final stop (which was the one with the best views, if not perhaps the very best wines…) at Kieu Hoang winery.

*Just to note – most of these tours DO NOT include individual tasting fees at the various vineyards/wineries. Usually it’ll run about $10-15 per person at each place and the amount you’ll get to taste at each place varies also.

Then back to SF, around 4:30/5pm, gave Abe a good tip for a good day’s touring and with lots of daylight still left to use…

Cheesecake Factory, perhaps? A familiar menu being the principal attraction.

Cheesecake Factory, yes!

Then an early night, with an early alarm set for checkout in the a.m.

Packed luggage before bed, just need to put in the toiletry bags in the morning, zip up, and get out to the airport…

Day 6 – Homeward-bound

Alarm at 5:45am.

On the way back to SFO airport, take only the train designated with SFO as its destination – not Daly City or Millbrae.

You’ll be fine, we promise!

Some Final Thoughts:

  1. Assume it will get chilly, at times – because it will! Take along a light sweater or jacket, especially for when the sun goes down.
  2. Google public transportation options before you get there. Like most other major destinations, San Francisco has excellent transportation choices for visitors to utilize.
  3. Shopping & restaurant prices are generally similar to New York. We tipped according to the quality of service, not just the standard 15-20%.
  4. If you get out to Sonoma, you might get to see a genuine Spanish Mission…
  5. A tour of wine country is essential. Aside from the wines, the views of wine country are amazing.
  6. Alcatraz might not be completely worth the price, but you’ll regret it if you don’t go out there…
  7. San Francisco is a good city for walkers to explore. If you can’t handle the walking, ignore the cabs – there are plenty of public transportation options available.
  8. Get recommendations from the locals – hotel & store staff, etc.
  9. avoid the Tenderloin district after dark. Not even joking.
  10. Chinatown is best to explore in the daytime (weekdays) or Saturday evenings
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