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San Francisco and Marin County

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: June 2009

golden gate bridge flowers san francisco californiaAnother year, another "girlfriend getaway" with my mom. This time we went to San Francisco, which both of us had been dying to visit! We flew out of Philadelphia on Southwest, changed planes in Phoenix (wow, what a nice airport -- loved the clean bathrooms) and arrived at the San Francisco airport without incident. The approach to SFO over the water was cool.

It was easy enough to take the AirTrain from the domestic terminal to the BART station (BART = one of San Francisco's public transportation options), and then head downtown from there. We got off at the Montgomery stop and I miraculously navigated us to our hotel without getting lost or backtracking once. In the five-minute walk from the BART station we spotted three Starbucks, oy. There was also a Walgreen's pharmacy, which proved helpful for Mom in dealing with an earache after our flight.

orchard garden hotel san francisco california guestroomWe got a great deal at the Orchard Garden Hotel, which I chose for its location and its incredible eco-friendliness. The building is LEED-certified, which very few hotels are, and it has a number of green policies that you'd think other hotels could adopt too, like recycling bins in the rooms and a key card system that shuts off energy use (lights, AC) when you're not in the room. Our room was not huge but it was lovely, decorated in restful earth tones. There was a flat-screen TV on the wall and the bed was ridiculously comfortable. The location was good too, almost literally right next door to the entrance to Chinatown and just a few blocks from BART and the cable car lines.

chinatown lion statue gate san franciscoAfter dropping our bags off at our hotel, we spent a half-hour or so wandering up and down Grant Street, the main drag through the biggest Chinatown in America. It was very colorful, almost overwhelming. There was an absolute barrage of ticky-tacky souvenirs -- picture $1.88 T-shirts -- but there were also some cool Chinese markets selling unrecognizable dried goods labeled in Chinese, traditional garments, Asian-influenced decorative items, etc. I wish we'd had a little more time to browse, but we were pretty hungry for dinner.

We ended up eating at Plouf, one of about half a dozen restaurants on Belden Lane (a few blocks from our hotel). They were all European-style sidewalk cafes, each with a host or hostess out front to try to entice people off the street. The entree prices ranged from $20 - $30 at just about all of them, which was more than we wanted to pay, but we got around it by ordering the soup du jour (carrot puree) and appetizer-size salads (I had goat cheese and beets, while Mom had some sort of endive concoction). It still wasn't super-cheap ($44 with tip), but it was a good light meal. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel to check the next day's weather report and then collapse, jetlagged, into bed.

Day One: Biking to Sausalito
Got up around seven and went in search of breakfast, which we found at a place called Jamba Juice, a local chain. Mom was excited to see them growing several trays of wheatgrass (which she grows herself in her kitchen back home). She got a shot of the green stuff plus a mango smoothie, and we both ordered some yummy apple cinnamon oatmeal.

Then we headed to Powell Street to hop onto a cable car. (Note to coffee drinkers and others: We had to toss Mom's mango smoothie because food/drink isn't allowed on the cable cars.) You can board a cable car at any marked stop along its route; just wave it down and it will stop in the middle of the nearest intersection. It's touristy and a bit expensive ($5 per ride), but we didn't want to go to San Francisco without doing it.

We caught the Powell-Hyde cable car, which is apparently the most scenic, and indeed it was pretty nifty -- we went up and down some dizzying hills, pausing at the intersection of Lombard Street for a view of the famous crooked street (more on that later). Then we went down a very steep hill toward the bay, getting a sweeping view of both the water and of Alcatraz.

We disembarked at the end of the cable car route, snapped a few pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, and then wandered along Fisherman's Wharf in search of Blazing Saddles, a bike rental shop at Pier 43 1/2. (It has a few other locations too.) In one of those tourist brochures at the hotel we'd found a coupon for $5 off the daily rate, so we were able to rent the bikes for $23 each instead of $28. The Blazing Saddle folks were very friendly and helpful, and they gave us a good map showing us how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge and then, on the other side, to the waterfront town of Sausalito. (The whole ride was about eight miles.)

A bike path runs along the waterfront toward the Golden Gate Bridge, with numerous parks, beaches, viewpoints, etc. We saw quite a few locals jogging, biking, walking, playing with their kids or otherwise enjoying this amazing waterfront space. The ride was largely flat except for a few decent-sized hills (we had to walk our bikes a few times). There were public restrooms near a cafe/bookstore called the Warming Hut, not far from the bridge.

Actually going over the bridge was awesome. It's nearly two miles long, which I hadn't realized, and offers great views of the city skyline, Alcatraz, Angel Island and Marin County. (We lucked out in that there wasn't a bit of fog in the sky.) The bridge apparently sees about 20 suicides a year; there are several phones along the span that you can use to reach crisis counseling, as well as signs saying "There is hope."

sausalito sailboatOn the other side of the bridge, we stopped for a quick photo op and then followed the bike path down a few long hills into Sausalito -- or was it the Amalfi Coast of Italy? The turquoise water, colorful flowers and hillside houses made me think immediately of Mediterranean villages like Positano and Amalfi.

We locked our bikes near the ferry dock and walked around a bit, stopping for lunch at the Bridgeway Cafe (we both got omelets, which really hit the spot after our bike ride). The place had good service and a sunny sidewalk table too. Afterward we wandered through town, did a little souvenir shopping, and browsed the cute shops and galleries. Then we took the ferry back to San Francisco (the bike shop had sold us the tickets at the time of our rental).

sea lions pier 39 fishermans wharf san franciscoWe biked from the ferry drop-off point (at the Embarcadero) back up to Pier 43 1/2 to return the bikes, stopping at Pier 39 to see the famous sea lions. They're totally goofy and noisy, barking and lolling about and pushing each other into the water. They kept a huge crowd of tourists enthralled!

Otherwise, though, Fisherman's Wharf was frankly pretty dreadful -- full of tourist shops and chain restaurants, with not a local in sight. (One good thing though: free public restrooms.)

san francisco bay viewWe left as soon as I could yank Mom out of the souvenir shops and headed to Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower -- a pretty major uphill climb. Unfortunately, the tower's elevator was out of service so we couldn't get up to the observation deck. Bummer. But we still got to see the Depression-era murals inside the tower, as well as some lovely views of the bay from the park surrounding the tower.

crooked street lombard san franciscoBecause we were feeling energetic and it was such a nice day, we headed back down to Lombard Street and walked all the way up yet another high hill to the "crooked street" -- a series of narrow zigs and zags down a hill covered in gardens and bordered by upscale houses. (Again, it felt a bit like the Mediterranean -- there was even a grapefruit tree in front of one of the homes.) There seemed to be no one driving this crazy road but tourists -- some whooping, others grinning nervously and clutching the steering wheel, and nearly all of them holding cameras out their car windows.

We rewarded ourselves for our strenuous climb with a heavy dinner at Piazza Pelligrini, on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, SF's Italian neighborhood. We started with an appetizer of mussels and clams in white wine broth, which was the highlight of the meal. So yummy! Then we got salads and dessert (cannoli for Mom and some fruity pastry thing for me).

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