Notes from a taster trip to Northern California

Mallory Irene and I went to The Bay Area and drove up the coast this August.

We flew into San Francisco and took the BART up to Berkeley Hills where Irene had booked us an awesome AirBnB. It’s only the second time I’ve been to California and the first time I actually stopped in the Bay Area. (See what happened the first time) So naturally the Canadian in me was in awe at the plant life that seemed to spring up even on pavement-locked front yards along busy streets. And the hills. Oh my but those are real hills.

Mallory and I had five days on our own to explore the Bay Area. And while I would have been fine to tour the town’s bike shops, Mallory had other ideas.

The Embarcadero
The Embarcadero. So much tourism to be done. So little inclination.

Fisherman’s Wharf was way too touristy for me

I found Fisherman’s Wharf to be really awful. It’s may be that at some point there was some way to buy and eat seafood that had just come ashore in some local fishing trawler down at the Wharf. But those days are gone. Long gone. Instead the Wharf is jammed with souvenir shops, expensive seafood restaurants featuring seafood brought in lord knows when from lord knows where and tacky tourist attractions — Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum… I kid you not. And buskers who owe their income to their tremendous staying power more than their talent.

There are, however some neat things to see along the Embarcadero, not all of them seething with the desire to take your money. Or at least they’re a bit more genteel about it.

Mallory trying an experiment at the Exploratorium
Mallory trying an experiment at the Exploratorium

The Exploratorium, for example, is a genuine and earnest attempt to bring science to children and embolden their creative and curious instincts in playful, adventurous ways. Mallory and I spent a couple of hours here one afternoon. And paid $50US for the privilege. We had a couple of on-the-go lunches at the Ferry building where the food vendors purport to be purveyors of genuine local fare, whether cheese, bread, empanadas, soap or perfume. Which is not to say it’s inexpensive.

The Embarcadero is also where you catch the boat tours. There’s about a bajillion different options. Most seem designed for maximum throughput. I think you kinda have to do it. Being out on the bay does afford you an excellent view of the city. Our tour had a canned tour guide offering superlative facts and earnest narrative about all the sites we were seeing. We didn’t book far enough ahead (you need to book many weeks in advance) to actually visit Alcatraz. But we sailed around it. That was grim enough.

Coit Tower: great views, instructive wait

We all went up the Coit Tower. And despite the fog shrouding the city, I thought the views were wonderful. And there was a lot of time spent lining up for the elevator to analyze and deconstruct the murals in the lobby.

Japan Town, San Francisco
Japan Town, San Francisco

Mallory’s on a bit of an animé/Japan-o-phile kick so we visited Japantown. It is a little odd how the neighbourhood can be so… orderly, clean and… well, like I’m told Japan is… when all around it is the gritty chaos of a big American city. We mostly walked around, shopped for cool things and ate lunch in a noodle joint. But when I’m new to a city I can walk its streets forever and not be bored.

Speaking of aimlessly walking streets, we BART/bussed down to the Mission District to see some sites and wander about. Early on a Sunday morning. Which was probably a mistake. Most of the people traffic were either street preachers or people who either slept on the street or ended up there after the night before. Most stores were closed. But we saw the Women’s Building, the murals in Balmy Ave., and got an awesome lunch from a Philipino food truck. We also saw two heavily armed police officers running, weapons drawn, towards a scene where two people claimed to have been assaulted at knife point.

While it’s not the first time I’ve witnessed that sort of police drama, it was for our daughter who spent the rest of the day being a little freaked out.

Balmy Avenue Murals
Balmy Avenue Murals, Mission District

So while it’s quite cringe-worthy, souvenir shopping on Fisherman’s Wharf was a lot less challenging. And we did do some of that. And stopped at Boudin bakery — San Francisco’s original bakery — for a grilled cheese. Quite a feat of crowd engineering that place. Such chaos and yet they move people through ordering, waiting serving and eating with dizzying speed.

Cable Cars: Public Transit as Tourist Trap
Cable Cars: Public Transit as Tourist Trap. I mean attraction.

Cable cars: public transit as tourist attraction

And we took a cable car to get there. But most of that morning we spent waiting to get on said cable car. If you look at a map of San Francisco, and note where the cable car routes are, you quickly see that they’re not at all about moving people any more. They’re a tourist attraction, pure and simple. Just one that happens to be run by the San Francisco public transit authority. But my daughter and I wanted to be able to say we rode one. So we did. Now we can. And now I’m done with that.

The whole cable car wait fest gave me a lot of time to think about public transit in the Bay Area. Can I just say it’s completely nuts? For a city that reveres its history of public transit so much that a form of it as a major tourist attraction, the state of public transit in the bay area is bonkers. AC transit, the BART, Bear Transit, the Muni, CalTrain can all feature in your average trip across town. But they all charge separately and don’t honour each others fares or tranfers. The only exception is this Clipper Card which offers only the convenience of a single card to keep track of and a six per cent discount over the straight cash fare.

Which explains, I expect, a lot of why the Bay Area is a miasma of cars.

So it was a joy to spend the better part of a day with Mallory exploring Tilden Regional Park, just up and over the hill from where we were staying. We hiked through some beautiful forest gawked at more flora in the botanical gardens. On foot. This is obviously a big park in an even bigger city — the lake with a beach has turnstyles and an admission fee — but its trees and forests make it an oasis nonetheless.

Tilden Regional Park Botanical Gardens
Tilden Regional Park Botanical Gardens

We also wandered a lot in Berkeley Hills. I really want to live there but would need to develop serious leg muscles. And, I expect, a much bigger bank account. We talk about walkable neighbourhoods and Berkeley Hills is not. Not necessarily because of the horizontal distances involved but because of the elevation gain. The idea of nipping down to the store for groceries is not a task to be taken lightly if it involves a descent.

But it is charming and commendable in the nature of Berkeley Hills residents that they continue to maintain and expand the network of pathways that allow you to climb and descend efficiently on foot.

They’ve got a nice-ish university there too. They have built an outdoor auditorium where the amphitheatre is surrounded by huge Redwoods, nestled in the campus’s botanical gardens. We saw a concert there which was a real treat.

Mendocino: relentless beauty

After five-ish days in the Bay area we rented a car — and I put a rented road bike in the back — and drove north to Mendocino. About four hours up the coast and quite a departure from San Francisco. I think most people go to take in the geography. The headlands and beaches, the Redwood forests, the rolling hills. It’s a place of relentless beauty.

En route to our Caspar (north of Mendocino) AirBnB we stopped at the Montgomery Woods State Reserve. I’m not even going to try to describe the trees. You have to look at the pictures. And even those come with the caveat that they’re taken on an iPhone and really don’t do them justice. A 40 minute dawdle along the trail at Montgomery Woods left me completely awestruck.

Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve
Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve

The next day Mallory and Irene wandered the beaches of Mendocino and its homely cousin Fort Bragg while I rode the Mendocino Comptche Loop, one of the rides brilliantly documented by Jack Rawlins at The retired english professor has documented his favourite bike rides up and down America’s left coast. And I must say I like his taste (and writing style) immensely. The loop took me up through rolling forested hills, through ranch country, down a redwood-lined road in a state park and finally along the coast where I could gawk at the sea from the comfort of my rental bike’s saddle.

California 128
California 128: the highway runs through kilometres of mature Redwood forest. Breathtaking

It was a real treat to be able to use a great road bike. I rented from Golden Gate Rides in San Francisco because they had the nerdiest write up about the road bikes they had and because the store’s owner was back to me very quickly with answers to my bike nerd questions. That high-touch degree of service continued when I went in to pick up the bike. They put my Stages crank on (I’m lost without power numbers), gave me a tail light in case I needed to ride into evening or out of early morning.

Some day I will go back and ride the other several dozen routes the site maps out.

The next day the three of us hiked and wandered the headlands and beaches. You can spend a lot of time doing this. Mind you, our AirBnB — Brackenfern Cottage — was so amazing we could possibly have happily hung out there. Mallory played in the surf, oogled the kelp (they look like sea creatures to us central contintentals.

Point Reyes National Seashore: spectacular beach, lovely hikes

We spent a night in the hostel in the Point Reyes National Seashore after driving down the coast highway — Highway 1 to its friends. Just the drive itself was beautiful. We did some more hiking and scenery gawking and despite being a little rusty in the hostel-staying department, managed a reasonable night.

I might have been a little more out of it than I imagined the next day because I biked off with the rental car key in my jersey, stranding my family in Point Reyes. Mobile service being not great out there, it took about 40 minutes for them to reach me. And those were some pretty hilly kilometres. So I scrubbed my plan to ride back into San Francisco via Mount Tamalpais and turned around at Fairfax. A pleasant ride, but not quite the epic I had planned.

I got back just before Mallory and Irene returned from their hike. We packed and prepared to drive to an AirBnB Irene had arranged near the airport for our last night. And we discovered that the front, driver’s side tire was almost flat. Mercifully, I had brought a bike pump which, as it turns out, is capable of putting 35 PSI back into a car tire.

We had a tense drive back into the city and never quite resolved the issue with the car rental company. Happily though, Irene’s CAA membership covers travel in the US and she was able to arrange a tow truck to come over and re-inflate the tire for our ride to the airport.

Our last night we spent exploring a bit of the south of the city and eating at a delicious Peruvian restaurant. The flight home was long but uneventful.