Before my wife and I had children, we embarked on one last epic vacation with just the two of us. She was already six months pregnant with our first child, so the cruises wouldn’t take us. Instead, we took a plane out to San Francisco, rented a car, and took a 12-day road trip ending in Seattle.
This is a re-posting of the travel journal I published between June 26, 2009 and July 7, 2009.
Day 1: California Wine Country
June 26, 2009, 10:05AM EST
We embarked on our journey to the West Coast on Jet Blue Airlines. The flight was about 5 and a half hours, but Jet Blue was pretty good. They handed out plenty of drinks and snacks at no extra charge, and we had DirectTV on the back of every seat to watch throughout the entire flight.
Flying over the Sierra Nevada mountain range
12:35 PM PST (3:35 PM EST)
Landed in Oakland. The airport looked like a dump because it’s really old and they have half of it blocked off due to renovation.
2:00 PM PST
Picked up a blood-red Nissan Altima hybrid car at Budget Car Rental. No picture of it yet, but it will be our main mode of travel throughout the vacation.
The original plan was to get out of Oakland as soon as possible, but we were really hungry and the reservation lady at the car rental suggested we try stopping in Jack London Square. We got to Jack London Square and found a small strip of really nice, really expensive restaurants that were unfortunately out of the price range we were willing to pay. So instead we walked up the road towards Chinatown looking for something to eat.
Oakland is a dump of a city. The roads are in shambles and scary-looking people walk the streets. We ended up in at a burger joint called Nation’s Giant Hamburgers. It took a 25-minute wait amongst the aforementioned “scary-looking people” to get our food, but it was surprisingly good. The burgers were indeed “Giant” and they were extremely generous with the huge chunks of onion topping the burgers. Afterward, we got out of Oakland as fast as possible.
We arrived in Napa a bit too early for the Wine Train, but a bit too late for wine tastings at the local vineyards. Instead of waiting around for an hour, we looked up a local Jamba Juice that we always wanted to try. It’s very close to the Robek’s we have back in NoVA, but I would say slightly better.
Boarded the Napa Valley Wine Train for a gourmet dinner while we traveled by train through Napa Valley. The dinner was exceptional and the train ride was exciting especially because we were free to roam around the train, having access to the kitchens, lounges, and observation platforms outside the train.
The Wine Train has three price points: the $70 Silverado Car (a-la-carte meal and no AC), the $100 Gourmet Car (fine dining dinner included), and the $130 Dome Vista Car (fine dining dinner in a car with domed windows). I’m glad we chose the Gourmet car. I don’t think anyone chose the Silverado car, as it was empty. The “domed windows” of the Dome Vista Car don’t look as amazing in person as they do on in the brochures.
It’s not cheap, but I’d say the Napa Valley Wine Train was worth the $100 per person price tag. You get a true fine dining meal and a 3-hour train ride through Napa Valley. Here are some pictures of the food we had:
After the Wine Train returned, we set out to find our motel in San Rafael. We got to drive through Sonoma Valley, though it was in the dark.
Day 2: San Francisco by Cable Car
Wikipedia’s introduction of San Francisco lists the most famous attractions in San Francisco as, “its chilly summer fog, steep rolling hills, eclectic mix of Victorian and modern architecture and its famous landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, and Chinatown.” We had the opportunity to experience all of these attractions on the second day of our trip.
We began the day with a “brunch” at an In-N-Out Burger in Mill Valley. In-N-Out burger is probably the best burger chain in California. From here, we drove south across the Golden Gate Bridge (with its $6 toll) into San Francisco for the first time.
To get cable car tickets and then get through the line for the cable cars took about an hour. People have been traveling by cable car in San Francisco for over 130 years, but today they seem more like a tourist attraction than a serious mode of transportation. We took a Powell-Mason cable car all the way to the Fisherman’s Wharf, taking in all the views of Victorian architecture and modern skyscrapers along the way.
It’s really interesting to watch how they turn the cable cars around at the turnaround, and then how the conductors control the cars. The cars don’t have electrical switches. They’re completely operated using mechanical pulleys and levers. It feels a lot like a slow-moving roller coaster when they travel up and down San Francisco’s steep hills.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist destination in itself. It’s the waterfront where tourists jam into seafood restaurants, set up forays into the Bay, and take in the sights of Alcatraz, museums, and urban wildlife.
We stopped by the outdoor take-out stand of the renowned (read: tourist trap) Alioto’s seafood restaurant and had a bread bowl of clam chowder.
Unfortunately, all the boats to Alcatraz Island were booked through the entire weekend, so we had to book a trip on the next closest thing — the Bay Cruise that merely circles Alcatraz. However, the Bay Cruise did not disappoint.
After the cruise, we strolled through Italy-town and had a gelato while passing through (we decided against visiting Coit Tower because the hill up there is mad steep). Then we finally made it up a couple of steep hills to Chinatown.
We ended up eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant whose English name I think was “Broadway Cafe”. For $20 you can get 3 generously portioned dishes and a big bowl of soup. We also bought a bunch of snacks to bring with us on the trip.
We took a cable car back to Market Street and shopped around before heading back to the motel.
There was a long line all day waiting for the new iPhone at the Apple Store. It was kind of funny because there was a street performer standing in front of the line mocking them in song, “You’re waiting in line, THAT’S why you’re a yuppie…”
Back to San Rafael. It was surreal watching the dense mist roll off the mountains at dusk. There was feeling like zombies might attack at any moment 🙂
Day 3: Lunch at Chez Panisse
In 1965, Alice Waters visited France and was inspired by the dishes created from fresh-from-the-garden vegetables and locally caught fish. She was so inspired that when she returned to California, she founded Chez Panisse, now known as the birthplace of California cuisine.
Today we made a pilgrimage to Chez Panisse in Berkeley for lunch to taste what California cuisine is all about, directly from the source of inspiration.
The dishes change every few days depending on what’s fresh, so they don’t have short snappy names. Rather, they are long descriptive names that I can’t remember right now. I had a sea bass dish (pictured closest in the picture above) while my wife had the quail (pictured furthest in the picture above).
The kitchen was small, neat, and fun to watch in action.
I am finding that at fine dining restaurants, the desserts are often the best dishes. Maybe I’m missing something.
Afterward, it took over an hour to drive into San Francisco through the heavy traffic congestion. We tried the 49-Mile Scenic Drive but aborted because the weekend traffic sucked all the enjoyment out of it. Instead of sitting in traffic all day in San Francisco, we decided to head back to Marin County to have dinner and enjoy the afternoon.
We had dinner at Robata Grill & Sushi in Mill Valley. Honestly, I think we enjoyed the food there more than at Chez Panisse (or is that just the sake talking?). It was definitely one of the best Japanese restaurants I’ve ever been to.
Day 4: South to Monterey
We decided against driving into San Francisco to see the “San Francisco Pride” parade because of the intense traffic. So instead we went around San Francisco south through Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland to San Jose. In San Jose, we met up with a college friend of mine, who showed us around San Jose, including a visit to Apple‘s headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA.
After having a sushi lunch with my college friends at Japantown in San Jose, we headed south over the mountain. Santa Cruz was way overcrowded, so we moved on down Route 1 to Monterey.
The Cannery Row in Monterey used to be lined with sardine canning factories. However, the fishing industry in Monterey collapsed 50 years ago and today the street is a nice waterfront district.
We ended up eating dinner at The Fish Hopper on the Cannery Row. It’s a fine seafood restaurant built on top of a pier overlooking the Monterey Bay.
My wife had a big bowl of clam chowder and I had a generous portion of Dungeness crab-encrusted sea bass.
After dinner, we decided to spend the night in Monterey instead of driving out towards Fresno as originally planned.
Day 5: Into the Central Valley
A lot of different wildlife can also be seen during the drive, some of the wildlife being used to begging for food from tourists.
And the most famous view in the drive… The Lone Cypress, the symbol of Pebble Beach.
After the scenic drive, we stopped by Carmel-by-the-Sea for a quick lunch. Clint Eastwood was once mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea for one term. His restaurant is right around the corner from Little Swiss Cafe, where we ate.
Little Swiss Cafe is a local favorite brunch place.
After lunch, we headed out to the dusty Central Valley of California.
Down in Monterey this morning the temperature was about 55 degrees. This afternoon in Fresno it was 105 degrees.
Day 6: Yosemite National Park
Not much time to post tonight, so I’ll just post a bunch of pictures. We drove up to Yosemite today. The next few pictures are from the Mariposa Grove.
The biggest, baddest tree in the forest, Grizzly Giant:
A tunnel tree:
We drove right by a forest fire:
Going under a mountain:
Mirror Lake and Half Dome:
Hungry ground squirrels:
miles and miles of nothingness in the Central Valley:
Day 7: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Not many pictures today because we spent most of the day driving and then attended a Shakespeare play where no photography was allowed. In Sacramento, we found a rare gem of a restaurant. Shoki Ramen in Sacramento was a nice little ramen shop that is very rare to find outside of Japan:
Mount Shasta looks really cool because it is the only snow-capped mountain amid many green mountains. The mountain towers above the town of Weed, CA.
Once we got to Ashland, we tried a local brewpub. Standing Stone Brewing Company is a really unique restaurant and brewery housed inside a historic garage. The food is really fresh, though a little bland. The beer is so-so.
Then finally we watched Macbeth at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. It was an experience that is hard to describe in words. All I can say is that it was a memorable experience and I would recommend all visitors to Oregon to try attending one of the Shakespeare plays in Ashland.
Day 8: Crater Lake
Today we drove out to Crater Lake.
Tame small rodents:
a good view of the west rim
You can see the yellow sulfur in the water. Wizard Island is still an active volcano.
East Rim Drive only recently opened. It had been closed through the month of June due to snow and ice.
The Phantom Ship in a distance:
We had dinner at Sam Bond’s, a popular restaurant in the city of Eugene. It was an interesting experience. Imagine aging hippies, college punks, and bearded tattooed non-conformists crowding into a bar to eat organic vegetarian food and watch live bluegrass music. The band performing tonight was the Water Tower Bucket Boys. Pretty good musicians, but not our style, so we didn’t stick around.
Day 9: The Oregon Coast
We’re spending the night at a motel in Centralia, WA that does not have Internet access, so I’m posting this from the iPhone. We ate at a friendly local restaurant in Salem, then went up the coast to Cannon Beach to see Haystack Rock. Haystack Rock is the same landmark that appears at the end of the cult 80’s movie The Goonies. We ate dinner at a brewpub in Astoria before driving into Washington.
Day 10: Seattle Underground
Seattle has a nice skyline. You can see Safeco Field on the left with the Space Needle hovering over its upper right corner.
Safeco Field, home of Ichiro, Ken Griffey Jr., and the Seattle Mariners:
Smith Tower, once the tallest tower in all the land. Now just the tallest tower on the block:
We took the Seattle Underground tour. Back in 1889, a huge fire destroyed 33 blocks of Seattle. When they rebuilt the city soon after, they decided to raise the city and build on top of the old city. As a result, Seattle has an underground city that used to be the first-floor storefronts of the ruined old city. The Seattle Underground tour took us through some of the old city underground.
The old Seattle had major sewage problems, so the tour focused a lot on sewage and “Crapper” toilets:
Streets of the old city. I think this was the first-floor storefront of a hotel:
One of the original above-ground sewage pipes:
After the Underground tour we took a bus to Pike Place just as everyone was closing shop:
The original Starbucks coffee shop, now a tourist trap:
Day 11: Whale Watching
Today we went on a whale watching expedition aboard the Western Prince II departing from Friday Harbor of San Juan Island. To get to Friday Harbor, we had to take the ferry out of Anacortes, WA. The ferry boats are unbelievably huge, with 2 decks for cars and two decks for passengers that look more like airport terminals. The ferry boat even includes a cafeteria.
Crowds of people wait for the ferry to dock so they can walk off to Friday Harbor. Looks kind of like the beginning of a marathon:
From the Western Prince II, the first wildlife sighting was of porpoises. Then we saw a bald eagle.
Then we found all three pods of orcas swimming to meet each other to form what they call a “superpod”. The guides told us that this only happens about 2 or 3 times a year, so we were very lucky to see this today.
It’s hard to capture the moments when the whales come above water, so the photos are very limited. You kind of have to be there to know how awesome it is. We saw some whales breach completely out of the water or slap the water with their tail fins. The captain also turned on the underwater mic so that we could hear the whales talking. It was an amazing experience.
We briefly crossed into Canadian waters, so we had to turn off all the cell phones to prevent insane roaming charges. There were also two fellas with us from The World cruise ship, which happened to be off the coast of the San Juan Islands. The World is a residential cruise ship for really rich people. Basically, you pay $2 million for a room on the ship and you can live there as it sails all around the world.
Day 12: SubSeattle Tour
Today is the final day of our tour of the Pacific Northwest. We decided to spend today in Seattle. The Space Needle going south from the north of Seattle:
A giant pig serving up BBQ. We originally thought it was an elephant. The food is allegedly awesome, but it drove away before we could get a taste.
A second visit to Pike Place Market, this time during business hours:
We got some fresh fruit in the market because it looked so delicious. Washington is famous for its apples and raspberries:
It was crowded in the early afternoon. We did get to see the famous “flying fish” of Pike Place. When someone orders a fish, the guys would shout out the order and someone would throw the fish to the counter.
I think this place was called Beecher’s Cheese. They have glass panes allowing us to watch them make cheese:
Piroshky Piroshky is a Russian bakery that was so good that we bought from them three times. I also bought a coffee at the original Starbucks store and had chowder at the local favorite Pike Place Chowder.
After lunch, we walked down to Pioneer Square and took the Sub Seattle Bus Tour. The tour was a bit overpriced but was very enjoyable.
The gate to Chinatown:
Seattle as viewed from a vista point:
Safeco Field, where the Seattle Mariners defeated the Baltimore Orioles 5-0 today:
Mount Rainier was not visible today, so our bus driver helped us with the view:
Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana are credited for starting the grunge rock scene in the 90’s. When Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, this park area outside of his home became a Mecca for grunge rock fans:
And Kurt Cobain’s home:
This sculpture is called “Black Hole Sun”. You can see the Space Needle through the center of the sculpture. It is believed to have inspired another Seattle 90’s band, Soundgarden, to write the song “Black Hole Sun”:
And finally, another famous Seattle musician has a sculpture in downtown Seattle, Jimi Hendrix:
That wraps up our 12-day vacation. While we grew kind of tired of San Francisco after 3 days, there is still a lot left to do in Seattle. I hope to have another chance to come to Seattle in the future. We will begin our journey home to Alexandria in a few hours.