Wednesday, September 30, 2009

17 Mile Drive - Pebble Beach

Just a short drive from Carmel is the scenic road of 17 Mile Drive. Along the road you see wildlife, flora an fauna, jagged coastlines and some world famous golf courses, all for the cost of US$10 entry fee to get into this gated community.

Mum and dad didn't bring their golf gear, too much of a drag to bring half way across the globe to play a game. But if you don't mind forking out over US$500 to play a round in the Pebble Beach golf links, you probably don't mind buying another set of clubs to play there. Perhaps, one day if they become better at the game, they might go play there. If you just want to marvel at the some of the greens and fairways of these courses, you can get within an eye-shot along the drive or you can actually walk on the vernal lawn right next to the courses. One of the most famous is the 18th hole on the Pebble Beach Golf Links. Wildlife does indeed mix in with the golf courses. You don't see a lot of deers grazing next to a golf course bunker.

You need to combat not only the bunkers, traps and cliffs, playing golf in any of the courses along the 17 Mile Drive, sometimes requires superman's eye sight. Fog often engulfs the whole area making it impossible to tell where your golf ball is even after a perfect tee shot. But this didn't stop all the retirees who were playing at the time. I know they have GPS guided golf-carts, but I didn't know they have GPS guided golf-balls.

Carmel-by-the-sea - Simply irresistable

On the third day's morning, mum and dad went to pick up their rental car to start their journey south of San Francisco heading for Carmel-by-the-sea, or simply Carmel. The car was an Audi Q7 SUV. They look awfully big when you see them in Hong Kong car-parks but they look just about the right size in California. The first complain they had was the slowness of the GPS and the keys are not the most intuitive. Guess it's all a case of getting used to.

Carmel is a small town pack full of little shops, restaurants and hotels. A stroll through the whole town would probably take you just over half-a-day. The word that mum like to describe these sort of places is quaint. This town is particularly dog friendly and you can see our brothers everywhere quietly waiting for a chance to grab a few hearty treats. Unlike Hong Kong, a lot of these hotels, shops and restaurants readily admit guests with dogs. Meanwhile, you are not supposed to wear high heels without a permit, in case you hurt yourself.

San Francisco - Alcatraz and Golden Gate Bridge

For the athletically challenged mum and dad, the ride from downtown to the start of Golden Gate bridge was a big deal. Especially the steep slope just before the entrance. Dad managed to paddled his way up, but his heart was in danger of jumping out........ The ride across the bridge was relatively easy and definitely a worthwhile experience. As they were trying to find the turning into Sausalito, a more experience biker said "It's all down hill from here." Indeed, it was and certainly the most effortless part of the journey including the ferry ride from Sausalito to the Ferry Building.

The bike journey also gives you a few different views of the famous Alcatraz. Mum and dad only saw it from afar and decided not to venture there.

San Francisco - Ferry Building

The second day morning with a stomach-full of heavy duty American breakfast from the hotel, they set out to burn some calories by riding a bike from San Francisco to Sausalito through the Golden Gate bridge. Whenever there's a chance of going to a local farmer's market, mum will jump on it. By chance, there's one next to the Ferry Building in the morning. The market was jam-packed with people and everything looked so fresh. Even the bull dog wanted a piece of the action. The bottle of pomegranate juice was so unbelievably delicious that they decided to take a picture of the empty bottle. After you tasted the strawberries there, you will find it hard to go back to the ones you get in Hong Kong.

San Francisco - First day and first meal

The timing for the flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco must be one of the best. You hop on the plane early afternoon and you get there in the afternoon on the very same day. If we ever get time warp, this surely feels like it. Downtown is just a short taxi ride away from the airport and the fare costs less than US$50.

After they settled in to their hotel room, mum and dad started their walking tour of downtown San Francisco. The first destination is the "crookedest" street, Lombard street, via Chinatown.

Chinatown is filled with shop after shop selling American ginseng in all sort of sizes and of course plenty of Chinese restaurants. The area feels like Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s. And as mum and dad found out later, there are plenty of places where you can use Cantonese to communicate even outside Chinatown. Plenty of local shops have Cantonese speaking people behind the counter and a lot of the cable car drivers speak Cantonese as well.

San Francisco downtown is a bit like a department store of different ethnic cultures. You walk past the China section to go into a small section which feels Italian. And on the other side past Union Square, you get Japantown as well.

The trek up to the crooked part of Lombard street is a long steep one. If you prefer an easier time, take the cable car up instead as the Powell-Hyde Cable car line takes you all the way from the crossing of Powell and California to the crooked part of Lombard. Also if you use a GPS, make sure you key in 2000 Lombard street instead of 1 Lombard street which will take you to the other end with not a lot to see.

When you see the "crookedest" street, you realize why it's such a tourist trap. Not only do you see the tight hair-pin turns on a steep slope, the surrounding flora and houses also please the eyes.

You might have seen a lot of pictures showing the whole stretch of the "crookedest" street, but none of them are taken from the surrounding area. You need to take one from afar to capture the whole thing.

The long steep road from Lombard street down via Hyde street take you to Fisherman's Wharf where if you are a fan of Dungeness crab, you won't be disappointed. Street stalls and restaurants are serving the crab in one style or another. Probably too much of a challenge for mum and dad on the first day. They decided to grab a light meal in Boudin near Fisherman's Wharf. Clam chowder and a crab cake sandwich - yummy!! You should see the video showing the production line of this meal.

After dinner at Fisherman's Wharf, they strolled along the bay where street artists performed with the sun setting behind them.........

Then they arrived at their final tourist trap of the day, Pier 39. In addition to souvenir shops of all variety, its major claim of fame is a resident population of sea lions. Despite their names, they are more like dogs and they can't seem to stop "barking".

Thursday, September 24, 2009

San Francisco - Wine Country

Northern California is famous for its wine production. Wine tasting is an important item for a lot of travelers but less so for mum and dad, as they can never night from day after a few drinks. Unlike New Zealand where most of the wine cellars offer free tasting, the wine cellars around Napa all charges a fee and that can range from US$15 to US$ 30 for a simple tasting and US$45 or more for an elaborate sit down tasting. Given their capacity for alcohol, they only did tasting in 3 different wineries, Joseph Phelps, Silver Oak and Chateau St Jeans but they have visited a lot more wineries.

San Francisco - Yountvile, a city block of Michelin stars

Cuisine has always been a big theme for mum and dad's travel. They have gorged themselves a total of 8 stars during this trip. Unlike the Michelin stars awarded to restaurants in Hong Kong, these restaurants really deserve their ratings and we will go through them one by one. They started their star quest with the French Laundry (TFL as it is known within the Thomas Keller's family of restaurants) in Yountville, perhaps the highest concentration of Michelin stars along a small stretch of a road. Other than TFL, Bouchon, another Thomas Keller's restaurant and Bistro Jeanty both have 1 star and they are all along the same stretch of the road. The 2 nights they spent in Yountville, they tried TFL and Bistro Jeanty. They only made a quick stop at Bouchon Bakery for a quick lunch. Perhaps they would try Bouchon another time.

San Francisco - The Weather

"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."
- source unknown, often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain.

This seriously sounds like a wisecrack until you stand holding on to the handle bar of the ubiquitous cable car at night while wintry gust keep blowing on your hand. The temperature difference between night and day in San Francisco city area is enormous especially when you include the wind chill factor. Outside the city area, you can get scorching sun during the afternoon but you then need to wear a jacket at night. Last week the wine country was bit by heat wave and temperatures got up to 100F (38C if you are used to Celsius). So the single most important thing when you pack your luggage for a trip to San Francisco, get your long sleeves, short sleeves, shorts, pants and a windbreaker. They all come in handy when you are there. Of course, you can use this as an excuse to buy an extra souvenir there.

San Francisco - The Magic of Holidays

Anyone who's been on holiday recently will tell you everything look special. Even the fire engine down the road looks brighter. If you haven't had this feeling during your last trip, you should reconsider where you go next. Mum and dad just went to San Francisco and took a lot of pictures and of course some mandatory souvenirs for us. Let us share with you some of their pictures and experience. And we will keep the treats and leashes.