Sunday, September 11, 2011

Guest Post: Betsy's Trip to California

Greetings readers!

My name is Betsy and I am a good friend (and former college roommate) of Michelle. She has invited me to write a guest entry in her lovely travel blog about my recent trip to California this past August. I am happy to oblige!

First off, although my husband and I are fairly well-traveled, specifically within the US and Europe, neither of us had ever been to California. I know I had stereotypes in my mind about typical Californians: tree-huggers, hippies, vegetarians, blondes, winos, and beach babes down in Malibu. I also had visions of plastic surgery offices on every corner, marijuana readily available through a medical dispensary, and Hollywood movie stars walking around. These are the images we get from CA from the media, right?

We started planning our trip back in March, focusing first on figuring out dates and purchasing airline tickets. Although our #1 reason for visiting CA was for the sake of visiting CA, our #2 reason was because my brother happens to live in Sacramento. He has been there for about three years and we were anxious to make a trip out to visit him from our home in Virginia before his life moved him elsewhere (he has no current plans to move...but you never know!). So we had to work with him and his fiancee to figure out dates convenient to both of us. Because my husband and I are employed in education, we needed to travel during our summer months off. My bro warned us against coming in July and August because of the “heat,” but I gently reminded him that we grew up in South Carolina, for cryin' out loud – we can handle heat!

With dates firmly picked out, our next task involved purchasing airline tickets. This is where my hubby and I frequently enter conflict: I would prefer to spend a few extra hundred dollars to depart from our home city, whereas my husband prefers price checking nearby departure cities to see if we can save money. This leads me to travel consideration #1...

Be sure you consider all expenses when selecting a departure city!

In March, when we made these arrangements, we found the best price to be leaving from Richmond, VA, about an hour and a half away from our home in Charlottesville. I can't remember how much the price difference was, but it was probably over $100; otherwise we probably wouldn't have done it. We booked a flight leaving at 6:30am, optimistic that we would just wake up early, drive to Richmond, and hop on the flight. Remember, this was in MARCH.

Four months go by and we wait with anticipation for our departure to CA. In the two weeks prior to leaving, my husband and I have a blissful visit to our hometown of Myrtle Beach, SC. We arrive back in VA relaxed, albeit cranky from the 7 hour drive.

Two days later, on the morning before our departure, I was looking up directions on Mapquest for getting to the Richmond airport. Knowing that we would want to be at the airport an hour early for check-in, I calculated that we'd have to get there at 5:30. When the directions came up and they stated that the trip was 1.5 hours, I balked. We would have to get up around 3:30am to catch this flight! After a quick consult with the hubby, I was making hotel reservations for the Best Western Richmond (using PriceLine.com with the assistance of BetterBidding.com – excellent resource!). We ended up driving down that evening and spending the night in order to make the early flight the next morning.

So the expense of the hotel, plus the cost of gas driving to Richmond and back afterwards, PLUS the cost of PARKING at the airport (another estimate we had under-shot) ended up costing us over $150 in extra expenses.

Like I said before, had I done it my way, I would have just left from Charlottesville, where we could have slept in our own bed, gotten a ride to the airport, and not used a ton of gas.

Lesson learned....unless we're saving SEVERAL hundred dollars, traveling to another city's airport is probably not financially worth it!!

We arrived in San Francisco around 11:30am Pacific time. Upon landing and finding our luggage, the next big hurdle was navigating the public transportation system, which is called BART and Muni in SF (two separate systems for one city).

Tip #2: Research the local public transportation!

Thankfully I had done this online prior to leaving on our trip. We've visited some cities where it was clearly financially beneficial to purchase a multi-day transportation pass to make the best use of our money and time. Although my husband and I are good walkers, we are also prone to laziness. After a long day of touring around, we might find ourselves too tired and lazy to go out on the town again if it involves walking. Having a multi-day, unlimited transportation pass prevents this from happening.

As it happened, the real touristy areas of SF are all within walking distance. We did not feel that purchasing a multi-day ticket for the BART or Muni systems was worth it. So we paid cash for all transportation that we did take.

The BART train took us right to the stop closest to our hotel. After checking in, we immediately headed out towards Chinatown in search of lunch.

Neither my husband nor I had ever been to a “real” Chinatown, so we were delighted to visit this neighborhood of the city. The south entrance to Chinatown is ensconced with authentic looking Chinese architectural gates, with two lions keeping guard. The signs up and down the main drag were in both English and Chinese (although the Chinese was much more dominant). Shop after shop and restaurant after restaurant lined the street, with shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalks and customers lining up to look at merchandise or study a menu.



We found what we thought to be a typical Chinese restaurant for lunch and filled up on sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, noodles, and won ton soup, then walked to a fortune cookie factory up the street. The factory was manned by Chinese people who looked like they could be our grandparents – old, wrinkled, and bent over, yet obviously proud of their business and the work they did. We saw the giant machine that rolled out the dough, pressed out identical circles, and folded the dough circles into the iconic fortune cookie shape. It was the humans who inserted the paper fortune. They even had chocolate fortune cookies for sale!

The rest of our day was spent walking down Market Street to Golden Gate Park, a large forested area in the middle of the city. By then it was late afternoon and jet lag was setting in, so I can't say we took advantage of everything the park had to offer. We were also beginning to feel the effects of San Francisco's cooler temperatures and blustery winds. We called it a night early, stopping by a Walgreens next to our hotel to get beer and snacks to munch on from the comfort of our bed.

The next day we awoke early, caught breakfast at a diner next to our hotel (where we shared a table with a French couple – we quickly realized that there were French tourists all over the city, based on how much French we heard from people passing us on the sidewalks and on buses), and headed up to Pier 39 to catch our ferry to Alcatraz Island. Oh wait – I meant Pier 33...a detail I quickly remembered 10 minutes before our scheduled ferry departure as we were wandering around Pier 39, looking for the Alcatraz boat dock. Thankfully we made it in time due to our quick jog down the Embarcadero (the boardwalk road along the SF Bay).

We were thoroughly impressed by the whole tour of Alcatraz, which was done via audio guide. We have done plenty of audio guide tours all over the world in the past, but Alcatraz's tour was especially fascinating. First of all, the audio guide is narrated by a former prison ward who worked in Alcatraz. He had the stereotypical rough, harsh sounding voice that you would expect from a prison ward. The audi guide also featured a soundtrack of background noises such as men grumbling, cell bars closing, locks locking, etc., making the whole experience seem especially authentic.

The second most interesting part of our Alcatraz tour was the visit to the island of a former inmate. I am ashamed to admit that I don't remember his name, nor can I find it through a Google search. However, he was answering questions and posing for pictures with guests at the end of our audio tour. He was there promoting the publishing of a DVD narrating his experience as an inmate in the 1950s after being found guilty of assisting in a bank robbery. I asked him if he had any advice for today's kids about staying out of jail and his response was “Listen to your parents!”

After returning from Alcatraz, the husband and I continued to tour the rest of the Fisherman's Wharf neighborhood of SF. It was definitely a boardwalk atmosphere, with restaurants and souvenir shops lining the street. We found an In 'n Out Burger and managed to squeeze into the line long enough to order burgers and fries for dinner (which had been on my husband's to-do list). Afterwards we walked around the Cannery and Ghirardelli Square, both of which had been home to the Del Monte plant and chocolate plant, respectively. They are both now boutique shopping centers. We also walked down Lombard Street, the “crooked-est” street in the world!

The final highlight of the day was taking a walking tour of Nobb Hill, another neighborhood of SF close to Fisherman's Wharf. Nobb Hill is home to the Coit Tower; we didn't know anything about either of them. This brings me to travel tip #3...

Seek out walking tours of your locale!

Walking tours were something we discovered in Europe, Berlin to be specific. We could have relied on the Internet or guidebooks to tell us the history of our whereabouts, but that would have been highly impersonal, not to mention cumbersome if we had to lug those 10 pound books around (I say “we” but that really means “I” since I'm the one carrying the purse!). San Francisco City Guides offered a large assortment of different walking tours we could go on instead, all of them being free. Free! Did you hear that?? It is music to our ears. Granted, they accepted tips to help keep the organization running, which we happily provided. But to get a guided walking tour by a local person who is knowledgable about the area for such a low rate is an absolute steal.

On Sunday we were planning on biking across the Golden Gate Bridge first thing in the morning; however, upon turning on the local news, we found out that the San Francisco Marathon was taking place concurrently. So instead we decided to take a second walking tour, this time of the Castro district. Had we visited the Castro district (which is historically gay) by ourselves, we might have seen a few monuments, but we wouldn't have known very much about the history or architecture of the area. Having a local guide tell us all about everything we needed to know was wonderful. Again, we can't recommend walking tours enough.

The tour wrapped up just in time for lunch, so we popped into a nearby sushi restaurant to fortify ourselves with protein before pursuing our bike ride. We opted to rest bikes from Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals & Tours, which we had seen advertised widely around the city by bikers themselves riding Blazing Saddles bikes. We also had a coupon from our hotel, leading to another tip...

#4 – Seek out coupons for attractions you want to do!

This wasn't the only time we were able to take advantage of a discount. We were also able to use a gift certificate purchased on restaurant.com for our dinner later that evening. But more about that in a bit.
We had high hopes for biking across the Golden Gate Bridge. I am not sure what I was thinking, but I know it was along the lines of the theme song scenes to Full House, where the Tanner convertible is driving across on a warm sunny day.

Sadly, we did not have the carefree experience of the Tanner family in their convertible. First of all, the weather was cloudy and misty. We could barely see the tops of the bridge through the fog. Secondly, although we had maps of the route to the bridge from the bike rental shop, it was very vague. There were not (in our opinion) enough markers along the route to assure us that we were headed in the right direction. Thirdly, the route was much more difficult than we anticipated. Luckily we are experienced bikers and in good shape to begin with; however, had we brought children with us on their own bikes, or had we been towing children behind us, as we saw many families doing, we would have been up a creek without a paddle. Although the route was primarily bike and pedestrian only, there were parts that merged with the real road. I wouldn't have felt comfortable bringing children with me on those parts.

Then there was the bridge itself. Each side of the bridge has a pedestrian/bike path, so it's not like we were riding in the same lines as the cars crossing it. However, only one of the two paths was open. By the time we got there around 2:00pm that Sunday, there were pedestrian and cycling tourists EVERWHERE. Biking across the bridge was impossible with the constant stopping and starting we had to do to avoid hitting others. That, combined with the mist of the fog in our faces and the noise of the traffic a few yards away was anxiety-provoking. Where were the Tanners???

We finally made it to the other side of the bridge, which led to more bike paths and eventually the road down into Sausalito, CA, on the other side of the SF Bay from the big city. A quaint little town with a bustling Main Street, Sausalito was abuzz with other cyclists and tourists who apparently had the same idea we did that Sunday afternoon. Our instructions from Blazing Saddles were to find the ferry in Sausalito to take back to San Francisco in lieu of biking across the bridge again (which my husband was adamant that he didn't want to do – and I couldn't blame him). However, what Blazing Saddles neglected to mention was that there would likely be a line for the ferry, which only left roughly every 45 minutes. Thankfully, a gentleman working an information booth in Sausalito pointed us in the direction of the line and advised us to get into it as soon as possible in order for us to make the 5:00 ferry back to the city. For we had dinner reservations that night – to celebrate my birthday!

Thankfully, after a 45-minute wait, we were able to board the ferry and make our way back to Blazing Saddles to rid ourselves of our bikes (which by then had become a burden – I, personally, was cursing the company for misrepresenting the 'bike across the bridge' experience and not providing the same weather conditions that the Tanners had). We rushed back to our hotel to change our clothes in order to make our dinner reservation at First Crush, a French-American tapas (small plate) restaurant close to our hotel for which I had purchased a gift certificate for on restaurant.com a few months prior when they were having a 70% off sale. The dinner was fantastic – an assortment of delicious small plates, one large plate that we shared (I think it was beef – I don't remember), followed by dessert. All with copious amounts of wine. What a great way to turn 27!

More to come...the next day we head to Sacramento!

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