San Francisco and the Bay area

Finally! Suan is joining Mel for a bleisure trip to the US. Having missed the opportunity in 2012, she was not about to let it slip once more. But what are we to do? Just fly into New York?

No. This time we decided to fly first into San Francisco for a couple of days before making our own way to New York. This would be the first time we get to the bay area, and we will definitely use this occasion to check off as many items on the bucket list as possible (note this is different list from the published one here).

10th June
It was a night time arrive via flight (SQ2) that stopped over in HK for about 10pm. This was followed by a car rental pick up, before getting to the hotel for a sleep in.
SATS lounge dinnerWe had to split the use of the lounge, since I was at the Silver Kris lounge and cannot bring Suan to the Gold lounge yet. But we still had the SATs lounge access courtesy of good ole’ Amex which gave Suan a place to settle until the flightSilver Kris Dinner Taking off - SQ plane wash1↑ Now this is not often seen. The washing of a plane’s under belly.
Taking off - dusk in SG3 Flying out of SG3 The weather flying out of Singapore was excellent and since it was not total sunset, we could still see some of the skyline as the plane ascended.
Today we would fly about 3½ hours first to Hong Kong for an hour’s transit that involved not once but two checks, with one of them a run through of your hand carry!
Then it was off for a 12-hour flight to San Francisco.
Inflight meal - saladSalad and bread before the meal. There was a meal on each leg of the SIN-HK and HK-SFO sectors of the journey. Suan had her lamb chops on the way out of Singapore while Melvin had the Kurobuta pork set.
The 777 plane has a new business class seat which the flat bed is more comfortable than the previous one. Amenities such as the entertainment system has also changed.
Inflight meal - Kurobota pork2Lots of tasty pork. Suan missed out!
Arriving SFO2012+ hours into the flight we are now arriving at San Francisco, Arriving SFO12first flying over the coasts of northern California. We could see the pacific ocean lapping the shores at this height and as we descend we could see the eco reserves just south of highway 92.
When you get in, take the returning ESTA line to scan your passport and proceed to customs. Like Newark airport, the monorail takes you to the rental centre where all the companies are located. Locked and loaded, we drove to the hotel, home for 5 nights…

Arriving late was one thing, the jet lag begins to catch up with you soon. The zzz monsters did not go away and soon we went to sleep.

But wait! We have limited time here and could not afford a sleep in for another day. So dreary eyed we drove out on a glorious morning to see the iconic landmark of the city – the Golden gate bridge. You know what? We were not disappointed. It was a wonderful experience to finally walk on the bridge and view the skyline of the city from a distant.

The only negative, if any was the crowds. But how can you blame anyone for wanting to come here?

11th June
Today’s to explore the Golden Gate bridge and the Marin headlands area. We experienced the crowds that was not quite what we expected even at Muir woods.
Our original intent was to get toView from Cliffside7 Louis restaurant, located at View from Cliffside5 point lobos over-looking the pacific ocean. From that point, it was just a short walk downhill to fantastic views of Seal rocks and the Sutro baths just below.
Tip: walk to the Camera obscura for this view. Saves some time!
We also walked down Point Lobos avenue, with Ocean beach in full view. In the early morning, there were many joggers on the beach. There were also many surfers in the water as well. The lands’ end lookout point where you can see trees bent Ocean beach view1in an angle from the continuous Ocean beach view4strong winds from the sea.
Good for a short walk here but don’t get disappointed.Drive to Vista point1 Landsend lookout2Then on to the Golden Gate bridge. Initially we intended to get to the welcome centre on the south side, but a mistaken turn and we ended up driving on the bridge! You do not stop for toll on the bridge. The cameras record you license plate and you make payment within 48 hours.
Speed limit was 50mph on the bridge and before long we had crossed over.Drive to Vista point2 Vista Point view2Vista Point view7 Vista Point view8Drive to Vista point3
Vista Point view12 So many people photo-bombing in the background! We are now at Vista point, the northern end of the bridge. Here there are limited parking but we were fortunate to get one!

The bridge is not open all day for walking. And normally the gauze is not there. There were work at the base of the bridge and this was to prevent anything falling below onto the workers. Now it was really windy on the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge walk1
So much that the chill made it feel like a winter’s day! Jostling with the crowds, we took in views of the bridge and the bay with the city in the background. Very beautiful indeed! And for this time in the day, it was very clear too!
Opened in 1937, it was the world’sGolden Gate Bridge walk22 longest suspension bridge untilGolden Gate Bridge walk23 1964. Hence this earned its place as the icon of the city.
It was also built against odds, as the winds are strong, the channel it straddles have strong tides and currents.
It is noted in some literature that the bridge is quite often shrouded in mist and not entirely visible. Today, it is said the >110,000 vehicles cross it daily. Imagine that before this, it was ferries that connected the two ends of the channel.
Fish and Chips Sausalito2Next up, we drove around to the town of Sausalito. We parked in the public car park in centre of town – $3 for 1½ hours. Then it was time to have lunch at Fish and Chips. The bread is so thick and crispy! Gets busy around 12pm.Fish and Chips Sausalito3 Fish and Chips Sausalito6The meal came to a total of just $19.50 and left us full!
We then proceeded to walk along the Pelican harbor admiring the yachts moored in the berths.
Sausalito Pelican harbor1 Sausalito Pelican harbor4 Sausalito Pelican harbor11
When we had driven to the town, we passed very beautiful and large houses. Sausalito is now a flashy place to live. Then we headed on searching for Muir woods. But there were no parking and weDrive around Muir3 had to circle around in a scenic drive twice before finding one.Drive around Muir6 When we finally got in, it was very packed walking up the small trails to the 4 bridges that connect two sides. It costs $10 for entry. Redwoods were the showcase of this national monument.Muir Woods1
Muir Woods14 Muir Woods9 Muir Woods11
Muir Woods19And these redwoods grow large too though not as large as the sequoias. Good for a walk but far too crowded on a weekend. Recommend just 1-1½ hours. One thing we learned was that the redwoods develop burls. These are outgrowths and also the reason why we could see so many trees that appears to be “jointed” together. And some of these look like souls ‘stuck’ into the trees in the movies… →Muir Woods16 Muir Woods52A nice way to end the day with a drive back over the bridge to San Francisco.
Muir Woods66 Muir Woods75 Back over the bridge1
Back over the bridge5 Back over the bridge7 Back over the bridge9

What a great way to start the journey. Blue skies, warm day, easy drive and luck (we got a parking spot on Vista point on the first attempt). Can we ask for more?

More was to come when we decided to do the walk in the city’s most hyped sites. We started with the pier and the sea lions, not seals. Not sure if we are the only ones who keep mixing this up.

Now we realize that with most tourist attractions, it is bound to overwhelm locals. The cable tram is no exception. Yes, we do see on occasion a couple of old Chinese American ladies taking the tram. But that would be a rarity. The trams are choked with tourists! Onboard you can hear languages spoken from almost every nook and cranny of the planet. It’s really cosmopolitan.

We don’t know what San Francisco residents think about all these tourists coming into their backyard, poking about. In some cities elsewhere there are push backs from the local residents. We have to say we have only met with favorable reactions so far…

12th June
A full day (almost) in the city, exploring the pier area with its shops and seals. Then off on the tram up and down town stopping for lunch and then to Lombard street. End with a very windy stop on Twin Peaks!
Pier 41 view 4 Pier 41 view 6 It was an early morning drive to park at North point mall near pier 39. It’s a short walk to the piers and a view of Alcatraz. First stop was pier 41, boardwalk to the end will get you close to Forbes island, formerly a light-house but seems to be a restaurant now.
Pier 41 view 29Pier 41 view 24 The city view from the pier is also something to take in for a while, even as there are retirees fishing here. At a distance, the gate bridge. Actually you can also see and hear (maybe smell too) the seal colony from this pier, though the distance is further. Pier 39 view 1 Pier 41 view 28Cantonese speaking old men…fishing at the pier early in the morning.
Now Pier 39 is definitely the main attraction with its shops, eating places and the view of the seals. But as you will see, the seals are not all on the floating wood pontoons. They are further away, and we had to zoom in the camera for photos.
Get here early, there’s no one here! And by the way,Pier 39 view 3 Pier 39 seal colony3it’s not seals, it’s Sea Lions.Pier 39 seal colony1 Believe it or not this “phenomena” of the “colony” lounging on the pontoons  only began in 1989. It is probable that the removal of all boats (except the pleasure ones) at that time that led them to move in… Before that, they were mainly on Seal island.
Main attraction here done, the next thing to do is to walk along beach street with all of its restaurants and souvenir stores. Crabs and shrimps are being grilled or boiled on the spot for your culinary pleasure. Not for us.
Pier 39 seal colony20 Pier 39 seal colony23 Pier 39 shopping5
Pier 39 shopping6 Pier 39 shopping8 Powell Hyde Turnaound10
You’ve got to take the cable tram while you are here and nowhere is it better than from the start – ie the turnaround. We got up on the Powell-Hyde line after a 45-minute wait. You can bet many tourists (including us) come here for the experience. Buy your pass here for a day ($20) and make sure you make at least 3 trips on the tram!
Powell Hyde Turnaound26 Powell Hyde Turnaound3 Powell Hyde Turnaound27
Don’t just get onboard, you get to pose with the static tram!Powell Hyde Turnaound17If you are nice to the conductor, you will be allowed to stand at the back of the tram. This is the best spot as the tram ascends.
You can watch the city come into full view and the optical illusion of Alcatraz being “abnormally” large in proportion to its size. Hang on though, the gradient is rather steep.Tram ride to Union St 5
North Beach carnival 1Today must be our lucky day! The North beach carnival was in full swing!North Beach carnival 3
North Beach carnival 5We alighted at Union street North Beach carnival 9and walked to Mason street. Open air cook-fest, smell of meat fills the air. Freebies were being handed out for sampling. But not for us, we are headed to Rogue Ales and spirits, a chain offering craft brews and their own farmed beef.
Lunch at Rogue2Located at the corner of Powell and Mason streets, its reasonably priced. Generous Halibut fish and chips and a large burger → Lunch at Rogue6Lunch at Rogue10 Lunch at Rogue3Tram ride to Union Sq 3
Onward to Union square and the other turnaround station. This one’s vastly more crowded, being in a location with lots of upscale shopping and restaurants.
A historic landmark of California, it’s not really a square but a reference to a area of several blocks. Yes there is a square and today there is a carnival too!
Union Square carnival 8The main event in the square was Filipinos celebrating their independence day. So there was a lot of traditional dancing – eg the “clapping” bamboo. There were also little stalls selling Filipino delectable’s, some of which are very familiar! Union Square carnival 1Tip: come to town on a Sunday, you’ll find it lots of fun! Union Square carnival 2← People partying away on the square!Union Square carnival 6
Lombard Street 22We took the Powell-Mason line to Lombard stop – big mistake. This gets us to the bottom of the street, but not before we walked up from Taylor street. It’s a 45° gradient climb like much of the rest of the city. And climbing is definitely more strenuous than walking down…Lombard Street 29 Tip: Better to be on the top end of the street.Lombard Street 4
Our opinion: Lombard street is well over rated. First up – it’s really crowded, perpetually. You definitely cannot get the photo shots like you find in the web. Those are probably taken from the homes there. Took the tram back down to beach street where we drove on to Twin Peaks. Views from this vantage point is gorgeous but it gets really windy up here! Not being equipped here means we spent less time here.
Twin Peaks view4 Twin Peaks view9 Twin Peaks view11
Dinner at Taqueria la Morena2 Dinner at Taqueria la Morena9 So down we retreated an back to the hotel for a power nap before driving to nearby Baden street for dinner at a local Mexican Bistro.  Opened under new management, El Mezcal serves homemade soups and traditional Mexican fare. And good prices for large meals too!
The chicken soup came with a lot of carrots and potatoes while the Fajita set had so much chicken strips that Melvin could not finish it. The accompanying beans and rice was tasty and such a waste not to have been able to gobble it all down. Dinner at Taqueria la Morena7All this was washed down with their Dinner at Taqueria la Morena8hibiscus tea, freshly brewed.

The walking up and down the steep slopes of San Francisco reminds us of Seoul. Except it is steeper here, much more. Well it was a good way to work off the large meals we had so we came out even.

Being here on a Sunday was a good decision. Yes it was brimming with people, but in very positive vibe sort of way. The carnivals might make us think it is party time all the time! Nah, it just coincided with summer, festivities, some country’s independence day. All good reasons to let down your hair.

13th June
Wow it was a tough drive to get in and out of San Francisco. The drive to Old Faithful took nearly 2½ hours and the same back! Napa valley is indeed a paradise for wine and we visited 4 vineyards!
Drive to Napa2Today we are headed north of San Francisco. It was a drive over the Silver bridge ($5),Silver Bridge 2 along route I80/I580 before branching off towards Napa valley.
Our first stop was at the Old Faithful geyser located near Calistoga. This geyser is one of three in the world that sprouts out hot thermal water regularly.
Drive to Napa4 The other two are in New Zealand and Yellowstone national park.  The thermal sprout takes place approximately every 45 minutes and would last for about 10-15 minutes. We had missed the last one at ~1030hr and tended to ourselves with a walk in the facility’s small petting zoo. Old Faithful Geyser2
Old Faithful Geyser8 Old Faithful Geyser14 Old Faithful Geyser21
There was a collection of goats and a lone llama. A small museum at the corner provides a little education on the formation of thermal springs. And all around the Old Faithful itself are deck chairs for visitors to relax and “soak” in the view of the sprouting geyser.
Old Faithful Geyser40The moment of truth – it starts up slow, sort of bubbling up like the way a kettle boils over. Then the plume of hot thermal water begins to jet up like a fountain sending a mist into the cool dry air.  Old Faithful Geyser56 Old Faithful Geyser51The water that comes up is said to be at ~170°. So it is not something to get in the way of. There was a gentle wind, so the droplets of thermal water fell on one side. Perhaps it would have been good to collect the water for a bath!
It is said that if the regularity of the geyser is erratic, it may be the harbinger of the occurrence of a large earthquake. This has been predicted previously in the 1970s. Well it was 45 minutes to the dot today, so no risk of the “big one”.Old Faithful Geyser55 Old Faithful Geyser59The tickets cost $10 each and you can use the facility the whole day. Barbeque pits and covered lounge areas cater to families intent to spend some time here. One thing though is the toilets are just holes in the ground. Don’t drop anything in it… Palisades Deli lunch1Palisades Deli lunch5
It’s soon time for lunch and in nearby Calistoga is the Palisades deli. Suan had googled this place as the most affordable place to have our lunch.
Palisades Deli lunch2So it was crab cakes, fish Tacos and a turkey sandwich washed down with potato soup. Just to note that soup was really rich and made with leek. Palisades Deli lunch3 Palisades Deli lunch4Delicious! Adjoining the café is a wine shop that has been set up from an old train carriage. A wonderful selection of wines from across California can be found.
We had a chat with the owner who recounted California’s large temperature variations leads to good grapes – ie heat them up in the day and cool them in the night. Good way to pump up the sugar level in them grapes! Palisades shopping1 We did not spend time in Calistoga, with its small town atmosphere. It would have been an option if time permitted. And began our winery drive. Today, our objective is to visit four vineyards and do some tasting at two of them.
Rombauer winery4However we ended up with just one and the rest were stops for look-see.

First stop – Rombauer. A family establishment since 1980, the wine house sits on a lookout of the valley. We did a tasting here for Suan ($20).

There were 6 wines that were sampled and we decided to buy a small bottle of the Merlot.Rombauer winery7 Duckhorn Winery1Now we had drank just one glass each and there were leftover. The folks at the vineyard told us to put the cork back in, so that if you can pulled over you would not be accused of drink and driving – so long as the cork cannot be easily pulled out…
Duckhorn Winery2 Duckhorn Winery4 Grgich estate winery5
At this point, Suan was a little flushed from the tasting, so our next three stops were just for photos. At Hagenfen cellars, we were allowed to view the fermenting tanks and the ageing oak barrels neatly stacked for eventual bottling. Grgich Hills estate offered free wifi and has a beautiful yard for both tasting and dining.
Grgich estate winery2Hagefen cellar3 Hagefen cellar2Huge vats to start the fermentation. Hagefen cellar1Oak barrels for the ageing process.
Silver Bridge 12 Silver Bridge 26 Silver Bridge 30
The drive back to San Francisco over the Silver bridge costs $6 instead and we drove on the top rather than under when we got out of the city. A jam had begun to develop as the evening rush hour began. It was over 2 hours before we got back.SFO traffic jam2 SFO traffic jam4The experience with traffic in the San Francisco area taught us that it is rather challenging to get to the surrounding bay area attractions while based in the metropolitan area.
For the two days we commuted out, we joined long queues of vehicles vying home. The mornings are alright though, especially when we got through to the rural roads.
Tip : if intent on exploring the surrounds, make your stay at motels or inns well outside of the suburban areas that cling onto the US-101 and I-80/I-580.

Actually a little research into geysers threw up little literature to suggest that the “old faithful” in Calistoga is one. In fact, some media suggests that the little old faithful we visited is more of a geothermal well. This means that by coincidence of drilling for water, the top of the cone was punctured leading to regular eruption of water when the mound is full – much like a boiling kettle.

That’s fine. We’ll head to Yellowstone some day.

Napa valley on the other hand is rather pleasant and more than the prices of its B&Bs, hotels would suggest. Though it was only one winery that Suan made the tasting, we went on to more just to have a look and feel. Recommended to join some of the wine tours. It’s far better for someone to arrange to drive you after you had all that fermented grape juice!

14th June
It was a nice drive along the coast of highway 1, trying to get to the Big Sur all the way south of Monterey bay. Then it was off to some shopping at Gilroy premium outlet mall.
Drive along San Mateo rd 1 Drive along San Mateo rd 4 Half Moon Bay town3
The initial drive went over the Skyline view road, where quarrying still take place today.
At Half Moon Bay, we got onto the Cabrillo highway, the road that hugs the coast all the way to Monterey. We are headed southwards today towards the Big Sur.
There are many stops that can be made,Big Sur views15 Big Sur views21but watch out for unstable cliffs.
We did not really got to the Big Sur which is south of Monterey.Big Sur views25 Instead, we made numerous stop along the way. One of our stops was at Pescadero state beach, along with the numerous others, have rugged coastline.
Tour buses bring tourists to these beach for both a comfort stop and also to admire the surf.
Big Sur views26But so far we did not see anyone take to the water.
We also saw numerous cyclists along the small bike paths along the highway. An interesting way to see the coast, especially if you can head back to your car later. The winding turns along this route (also called route 1) is a really nice drive for those who enjoy cruising on the open road with few others to share the space.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse10 Pigeon Point lighthouse is one obvious stop that had to be made. Set on a cliff overlooking the raging ocean, it now has a youth hostel for folks who backpack, trek/hike or cycle along the coast. It is also said that many come here to watch the whales. Pigeon Point Lighthouse7
One of the most picturesque lighthouses we’ve seen.Pigeon Point Lighthouse5 Pigeon Point Lighthouse16Pigeon Point Lighthouse17 Built in 1871, it is still the tallest lighthouse on the west coast of the US. At 115ft tall, it looks like the ones built in the New England area on the east coast.

← Artichoke? They grow all around.

It’s a pity that the lighthouse is not accessible, due to damage sustained. The progress of restoration has been going on for years. Hope it will be funded soon!

Our final attraction stop for today is at Moss Landing.Moss Landing lunch2 This is where we are headed for lunch at Phil’s snack shack. There is a restaurant but the shack is cozier in our opinion.
Today there is a special on boiled artichoke. We spoke with one of the restaurant servers and she told us that this is the artichoke capital of the world!
Moss Landing lunch3It was fun peeling off the layers to get to the bud.
We also had the Burrito special, brought back by popular demand we are told. It was a LARGE meal for anyone! Filled with eggs, bacons etc, it was the biggest yet we found. We were also told it is quite a feat to finish it all – but Melvin did. The power of not having breakfast! The fish burger is something toMoss Landing lunch5 try and this totals up to just ~$20. A real steal!Moss Landing lunch4
Drive Monterey Bay to SFO1 But all touristic things come to an end and for this trip concluded with a trip to Gilroy premium outlet mall. While there are no upscale brands here, Suan did manage to score great deals at Kate Spade, with prices slashed so much it’s like giveaways. Gilroy outlet mall1

And yes it was a 2+ hour’s drive back for the ~60 mile journey back to pack out bags.

Not quite the drive we expected as we had aborted going further than Monterey bay. And we did not make the effort to stop at Monterey too. So, no big Sur for us. Perhaps we can drive upwards from Los Angeles in the future.

Anyway the reason for not driving further was that we had to make a detour to Gilroy. Not normally on the radar of tourists, it is however on the shoppers’ must visit list. As the chauffeur, Mel takes orders from the “charterer”. And as porter, he carries the shopping bags after.

15th June
An early morning return of the car and then to the airport for the 5-hour flight to JFK.
Time to check out and return the rental. We picked up some breakfast and made the way to the airport. Return was fast and simple and soon we were jostling with the crown at security scan after checking in our bags. Being early helps, as the lines are long.
Once past security, it would be wise to pick up your own beverages and snacks for this 5+ hour flight. We are flying trans-continental and cross over 3 time zones today.
Getting to SFO airportOn the no frills Virgin America flights, Taxi-ing at SFO2no meals are served. Only drinks. So, bring your own!
Airborne SFO-JFK17 Airborne SFO-JFK14 Airborne SFO-JFK11
We did not really look over the flight path we took, but it was certainly over many of the mid western states. Onward to fly towards the east Coast and watch out for Part b of this travelogue!

We had contemplated taking an earlier flight (0720hr) but it meant that we had to check out and leave by 5:30am. We’ll choose a different heartache.

All the warnings on the web are true. The long lines for security really builds up, and for us who came early it was still nearly an hour to negotiate the queues to be scanned. Only recommendation, fly midday as it might (we think) be that less folks opt for. Nothing can stop us though, we are on our way to part II of our journey around the world.

Read on here for our adventures in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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