San Francisco in Four Days

We recently took a 4-day trip to San Francisco and had an absolutely awesome time. This was our third attempt at going because previous attempts were diverted due to weather. This time we were committed and chose to book flights rather than make the 5-hour drive from where we live in California. Although we’ve been to San Francisco several times over the years, this was the first time we prepared a list of things to see and do, thanks mostly to our obligation in providing useful content on our website. We also chose to go vehicle-less and rely solely on public transportation during our trip to better relate with our budget-minded readers. Additionally, parking a vehicle in San Francisco can be more than the cost of the rental car itself. So we set out with the primary goal of visiting the Japanese Gardens in Golden Gate Park and riding a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. Everything else would be based on whether time permitted.

Our arrival was on Tuesday afternoon. The San Francisco Airport (SFO) was really easy to navigate and we quickly found our prearranged shuttle. Our GO Lorrie’s Shuttle was full which made riding around San Francisco, dropping everyone at their hotels, a tour in itself. We navigated through Union Square and over Knob Hill before arriving at our hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf. Our hotel was the Best Western Tuscan Inn, which ended up being a good choice for its proximity to restaurants, stores and transportation, as well as being two blocks from Fisherman’s Wharf – close enough for convenience and far enough to lose the noise and crowds. A few days later we ran across the Argonaut Hotel at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf. Although a bit pricier than the Tuscan Inn, the Argonaut would be our top choice for stay in the Fisherman’s Wharf region for its location, décor and historical significance being situated in the old Del Monte Cannery, Plant #1 building.

We dined at Scoma’s the first night of our trip. Off the beaten track down an alley next to Castagnola’s, Scoma’s is almost completely hidden from the hustle and bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf. The exterior, with its drab-colored paint and simple-looking building, seemed like a place where the local fisherman would hang out. The reviews we read online kept us moving forward to give it a try. Good thing! It had a more sophisticated interior with dark woods and white-linen table cloths. The service was top-notch and the Italian seafood choices were unforgettable. We found out later that Scoma’s has been around for over 45-years and they get first choice in seafood from the fishing fleet. This is the place that the locals go, from fishermen to businessmen and first dates to anniversaries. Although we had a list of several restaurants to sample, Scoma’s was the only restaurant we returned to twice and worth mentioning in this article.

On day two, we set out for the Japanese Gardens in Golden Gate Park with additional plans to stop at the Painted Ladies, City Hall and the Haas-Lilienthal house. The #47 bus stopped in front of our hotel and took us all the way from Fisherman’s Wharf to City Hall, where we caught the #5 connection to Golden Gate Park. Within a half-hour we were at the park having paid only $2 each. What a deal! Golden Gate Park is huge and we knew we couldn’t visit all of its attractions in a day, so we headed for the Japanese Gardens first with the intent to scope out some of the other attractions for a later visit. The gardens were beautiful with meticulously manicured shrubs, statuary, koi ponds, pagodas and more. We had masubi and unique teas at the Tea House overlooking the garden entrance. Afterwards, we headed over to the California Academy of Sciences where there’s a natural history museum, aquarium, planetarium and rainforest. Unfortunately, we decided to save it for another trip due to the convoy of school buses unloading at the front steps.

We hopped on #5 for a return trip with a few stops planned on the way. Halfway back to City Hall we stopped off at Alamo Square Park for a glimpse of the Painted Ladies. They consist of six similar looking Victorian homes that are the most photographed in the city. The moderately sloped lawn at Alamo Park rises perfectly to reveal the city backdrop behind the Painted Ladies. Many local residents spend time relaxing on the grass as tourists come and go mostly via tour buses. From Alamo Square Park, we decided to walk down Fulton Street to City Hall, which was easily visible in the distance. The neighborhood turned a little less desirable prompting us to stow the cameras from view and pick up the pace a bit. Staying on the bus probably would’ve been the smarter choice for a couple of tourists. Once at City Hall, we broke out the cameras again and traded group photo ops with some German tourists we met out front. City Hall is very picturesque with its Neoclassical dome and columns, adorned with gold leafing. The interior was just as impressive with its grand marble staircase, intricately carved accents and expansive heights. We happened upon a wedding party which seemed an appropriate event for such an architecturally astounding building. After capturing loads of pictures and reenacting the staircase scene from the famous Clint Eastwood movie The Enforcer, we were unfortunately too wiped out to stop at the Haas-Lilienthal House. We hopped aboard the #47 bus in front of City Hall and took it all the way back to the hotel. After taking time to rest a bit and admire the day’s pictures we headed out for a bite to eat at a touristy restaurant and a stroll through Fisherman’s Wharf.

On day three, the plan was to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge and stop at sites along the way. We scoped out a few of the many bike rental businesses situated in Fisherman’s Wharf the night before. We rented a couple of comfort bikes and set out on the 5-mile journey to the bridge. The bikes were in severe disrepair, prompting us to take it easy on hills (a daunting task in San Francisco). It would’ve been nice to have our own bikes with us. The journey from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge was mostly paved bike trail and passed Ghirardelli Square, the Maritime Museum, Fort Mason, Palace of Fine Arts, Golden Gate Promenade and Fort Point. We took what we thought would be a quick stop at the Palace of Fine Arts but ended up spending a great deal of time there taking pictures. The Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Panama-American Expo and remains today as one of San Francisco’s most impressive architectural highlights. We were glad we stopped here first because the lighting is best for photography in the morning hours.

Near the end of the bike trail is a warming hut offering snacks and clean restrooms. From the warming hut we had the choice of either continuing straight to Fort Point for some terrific photo ops of the bridge, or heading sharply uphill to the southern entrance of the Golden Gate Bridge. We chose both. Fort Point is a large brick fortress that was built during the American Civil War to defend against enemy ships. Most of it is inaccessible without joining a tour but it makes for an interesting foreground to the bridge. Some may remember Fort Point as the location where Jimmy Stewart saves Kim Novak after her failed suicide attempt in the classic Hitchcock movie Vertigo. Just a short backtrack to the warming hut put us back on track for the bridge. After a short steep climb on a scarcely used road, we arrived at the bridge entrance along with the hoards of other people that came by car. Biking across the bridge is a very unique way to experience the Golden Gate. It doesn’t take long to cross but requires a lot of maneuvering, dodging and stopping to avoid pedestrians. You can continue on to Sausalito and catch a one-way ferry boat back to Fisherman’s Wharf, but we decided to u-turn and ride back ourselves. We attempted to ride a dirt trail on the west side of the bridge down to Baker Beach for more unique photos but the trail became too riddled with obstacles for our comfort level. Several interesting WWI-era batteries line the cliff edge. They once housed large cannons and ammunitions but today suffer the destruction of weather and graffiti artists.

After a long day of biking and sightseeing, we returned to the hotel for a well-deserved rest. We perused all of the restaurants we still had on our list but ended up deciding to return to Scoma’s for dinner – it was that good. This was our last night of a successful expedition and we needed a sure thing to celebrate. This time we went for it and split a Crab Cakes appetizer, Lazy Man’s Cioppino and for dessert… house-made Tiramisu with 2 glasses of port wine. Their cioppino isn’t the standard cioppino with less desirable seafood choices like mussels, squid and baby clams. Scoma’s cioppino had hunks of Dungeness Crab, large juicy scallops, impressive-sized clams and prawns to match. Portions were not skimpy, which we learned later that many of their menu items are meant to be shared. The service was top-notch, flavors unbelievable and company even better. On the way back to our hotel we stopped at one of many souvenir shops that can be found throughout the Fisherman’s Wharf region and bought a couple jackets, hat and cooking apron, all with some sort of San Francisco emblem. They were all much less expensive than we could find in any store back home.

Come Friday, it was time to leave. We had breakfast in the café on the corner of our hotel and discussed our departure plan. The plan was to take a Classic Street Car through the Embarcadero and down Market Street to Union Square where we’d catch BART to the airport. By 11:00am we hopped on the Classic Street Car just one block from our hotel, with luggage in tow. The Classic Street Cars are part of the city municipal bus system and only cost $2 – the same as a bus. The Classic Street Car is not to be confused with the Historic Cable Cars that everyone relates with San Francisco. We missed our intended exit of Montgomery Street but got off at the next BART junction of Powell Street. We weaved our way through the tourists and street performers to the escalator heading below street level to the BART station. It took a couple minutes to figure out the ticketing kiosk which was fine because there were so many kiosks that we didn’t hold anyone up. It did however, provide enough time for a beggar to make his plea. Overall, the station felt relatively safe for us unknowing visitors with luggage. After verifying which train was heading to SFO, we were on our way and would be to the airport within a half-hour. Once at the airport, a short trip on SkyTrain planted us at our departing terminal. The entire BART process was quick, easy and affordable.

Upon retrospect, San Francisco is a huge city with many sites and attractions. We knew ahead of time that we wouldn’t be able to see and do everything we would like. On our next trip we plan to stay in Union Square or Knob Hill, dine at Top of the Mark and possibly head north to the Marin Headlands, Sausalito and Tiburon. San Francisco has a rich history from Spanish conquest to the 1849 Gold Rush, the Great Earthquake of 1906 and so much more. Remnants of this survive throughout and thankfully are being preserved for our enjoyment. San Francisco is our favorite California big city for its plethora of attractions, transportation system and wide variety of environments from lush coastal forests to inner-city sprawl. For anyone who has never been to California, the San Francisco region offers a varied taste of all that this state has to offer.

California Revealed is comprised of Californians who have spent a lifetime traveling and exploring California. We can give you local insight on popular destinations, but also let you know about the obscure, less traveled destinations that only locals of this state would know about. This is not the most extensive listing of California destinations but instead, an extensive listing of places and adventures that are sure to please you. Simply put, we want you to have a fantastic, unforgettable time in California.

Fun With An Air Hockey Table

Air hockey is a fast, highly competitive game that is a little like ice hockey but doesn’t need an ice rink. The main piece of equipment required is an air hockey table. Following is a brief look at this equipment and the sport it is used for.

The game is usually played by two people, though teams of two people each can also play. As with the ice version, the goal is to get the puck into the opposing side’s goal. Each player has a mallet, sometimes called a sombrero, with which to hit the puck. In official tournament play, the winner is the first person or team to score seven points. Official games have many other rules, friendly games have just the rules that the players agree on.

Most tables have small air holes covering the playing surface. When air is being pumped through the holes, the puck slides over the surface with very little friction. This makes the game very fast and thus more exciting to play. Some tables rely on a very slick plastic surface instead of air flow. They are still called air hockey tables even though they don’t use the air.

There are several active manufacturers of these tables. For competitive play, the United States Air-Table Hockey Association (USAA) currently only sanctions the use of the Dynamo brand, made by Valley-Dynamo. Valley-Dynamo makes a number of models, some designed for home use and some for commercial applications. The commercial models can be setup for coin operation. Those who want to make a little extra cash or prevent excessive use can certainly use this option at home.

The Valley-Dynamo Fire Storm is their top of the line home model. It has all of the standard features, including a high performance air blower and overhead LED score display. It also has black light illumination which lights up the ultraviolet sensitive playing surface, plus graphics and sound to enhance the excitement of the play action.

Carrom makes a number of more economical models. Both counter top and free standing models are available. All are air powered. They have a NASCAR themed table top model for fans of stock car racing.

Innovative Concepts (Ice) has a number of high end tables. Their Double Fast Track model can be used by four players at once as two person teams competing with each other. It also has overhead scoring and sound effects. It is capable of coin operation for commercial use.

The Voit Products 40 Inch Competitor Rod Table runs quite a different game. Instead of each player having a single mallet as in the standard game, each player has five rods, each of which is attached to a swiveling plastic player. There is also a goalie.

Finally, for fans of the television show The Simpsons, we have The Simpsons 4 Foot Air Powered Table. It is basically a kids starter table. The appeal of adding Bart and Homer Simpson’s faces will be left to the reader to figure out.

Air hockey can be a very challenging game when played with someone who has skill and has practiced. Purchasing an air hockey table can be rather expensive, but there are models to fit almost any budget. A game like this can provide a setting for a family to have some great fun together.

How to Plan a San Francisco Trip

San Francisco is the 44th top tourist destination in the world, judging by how many visitors it receives every year. It’s the 6th top tourist destination in the United States. A vacation in here means you’ll see steep hills, cable cars, Chinatown, and Golden Gate Bridge. Planning a trip? Here are a few tips that should help guide your vacation.

Hop on and hop off bus tour

Hop on, hop off bus tours offer the best overviews of the city. I’d recommend taking one on your first day in the city. You’ll learn all about the various neighborhoods. You’ll also get a brief introduction to the popular attractions scattered throughout San Francisco.

Some of the landmarks you’ll see on a hop on, hop off tour includes: Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, Fisherman’s Wharf, Palace of Fine Arts, Painted Ladies, and Chinatown.

I recommend getting a 24 or 48 hour bus pass which doubles as a mode of transportation. Use the hop on, hop off buses to get you to your next destination. Along the way, a professional guide will show you famous landmarks! These tours are usually the most flexible available. With other tours, you’ll have a pre-determined time to arrive at and a preset schedule. Using a bus pass, you can fit in a ride into your existing schedule.

I like to take a “T-shaped” approach to visiting new cities. The horizontal bar of the letter represents a broad overview, in this case a hop on hop off bus tour. You’ll get a quick run down of this amazing city. The vertical bar represents an in depth visit to a few specific attractions that you’re fond of.

The top attractions in the city

No visit to the city is complete with stepping onto the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s 4,200 feet long and a walk across takes less than half an hour. Or spend a whole hour to walk to the other end and back. At the other side of the bridge is Sausalito. It’s a quaint coastal city, but it’s not within walking distance from the bridge. You’ll need a car or bicycle to get there.

Don’t feel like walking across the majestic Golden Gate Bridge? No problem, just make a stop to Crissy Fields. It’s located at the Presidio of San Francisco, also known as the front door of the Presidio. It has perfect views of the bridge and the bay. You can even see Alcatraz from Crissy Fields.

Twin Peaks is the perfect place to get a bird’s eye view of San Francisco. Remember to bring your camera! Twin Peaks is 922 feet in the sky and 100% free to stop by. Just go up the north peak and park for free. Remember, this area tends to get windy so bring a jacket. Twin Peaks is open everyday from sunrise to sunset.

Looking to go shopping on your vacation? Give the Ferry Building a shot. It’s a historic building which used to shuttle ferries across the bay. When San Francisco was first established, the Ferry Building was thriving with business. After the bridges were built, ferries starting going out of business. But the building is still utilized as home to several markets and stores. There’s even a popular farmers’ market three times a week.

Getting around San Francisco

Public transportation is a bit lacking when you compare it to other urban cities, but it’s probably the best system in California. There are several types of transports when getting around the city though.

For a historic ride, hop on a cable car! There are three routes in the city. You can hop on at Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, or California Street. The best station is at the intersection of Powell and Market Streets. This is the final stop where the Cable Car operators have to turn the car around by 180 degrees. I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but there’s usually a huge crowd gathered around to watch.

To actually get around the city, you’ll have to use the Muni. That’s short for Municipal Transportation Agency. There provide both buses and a railway system to get around the streets. It’s the primary public transportation system to use in the city. For a less budget friendly approach there are taxi cabs, Uber cars, and Lyft drivers that can take you around the city.

To get out of or into the city from San Francisco’s neighbors, you’ll be using the Bart or Caltrain. Bart services San Francisco and its neighbors to the East such as Oakland. There are several Bart stops in the city also, so you can use it to get from your hotel to several attractions. There’s only one Caltrain stop in the city. The Caltrain is only used to get to the cities south of San Francisco along the Peninsula, such as Mountain View or San Jose.

Learn more about San Francisco

Check out my guide on San Francisco over at San Francisco Note []. It’s a complete traveler’s guide with top attractions, tours, and travel tips.

The Agony and Ecstasy Of A Bleeding Edge Bike Commute

This is a love story and a cautionary tale of my first bike commute on my new super-light folding bike.

It is safe to say I have a challenging bike commute: 41 miles each way; 7 miles of water to cross each way; and 300 meters of vertical to climb on the way home. Given all that, I leverage public transit all I can to ensure I don’t spend 4+ hours a day commuting. That means going over to San Francisco on BART (Bay Area Public Transportation) and down the peninsula on CalTrain or down the East Bay on BART and across the Dumbarton Bridge on bus. The first option was preferable because the CalTrain system on the peninsula has dedicated bike cars. No other system in the Bay area does.

The Challenge
Therein lies the problem. No public transit, except for CalTrain, is very keen on seeing cyclists around rush hour. BART outright bans them for each of the two rush hour periods.

The Initial Solution
Instead of crossing the bay and then heading down to work, I would head down and then cross the bay. I would take BART south to Union City and either cycle or bus across the Dumbarton Bridge.

Some Bridges Like Bikes
I was astounded and impressed to find that the Dumbarton is the one transbay bridge that has a bicycle/pedestrian lane all the way across. A heartening fact in the face of the recent Bay Bridge reconstruction’s new bicycle/pedestrian bridge from Oakland to Treasure Island, but not beyond (aka a “bridge to nowhere”).

Anyway, for the first few weeks of April, this plan worked fine. If I got up early enough, I would BART down and cycle across the Dumbarton. The whole trip took 90 minutes, but who’s counting when this includes a workout? (aka a reprieve from a gym visit).

Some Buses Like Bikes
Whenever I woke up late, I would bus across with my bike in a bus rack, and the whole trip took 70 minutes.

Neither option was super-fast, but given that a traffic jam could make a car trip last 90 minutes or more, neither wasn’t bad. Not to mention, one could fill the whole time with web-surfing or reading, instead of driving.

The Reality
Then Spring hit. It stopped raining and warmed up enough so that other cyclists started having the same idea for crossing the Dumbarton. This ensured that the Dumbarton Express bus racks were always full. I tried getting to it a little early, but no dice: still full. After all, there were only two racks.

I quickly realized that the Dumbarton bus route was not a reliable option for a cyclist given the limited capacity. This produced a real bind. I didn’t have time to cycle the bridge everyday, and I couldn’t reliably get up early enough to beat the bike crowds to the Dumbarton Express bus.

Hefty Hiatus
Right about that time, someone asked me to carpool so I took a bike-commuting-hiatus. However, this felt more restrictive than all the bicycle curfews I was avoiding. No longer could I stay late at work or run errands at lunch with my bike. Carpooling wasn’t working but, by then, I had really fallen off the wagon with early rising so it felt like I couldn’t turn back. Months passed. I gained 10 pounds. I had failed to replace the cycling with another form of exercise. This wouldn’t do.

The New Solution
After trying and failing to get BART to lift their rush hour bike curfew, I suddenly realized that BART’s curfew excluded folding bikes. I researched those and found almost all to be sorely lacking in sturdiness and speed. The one exception was a new generation of bikes coming from a company called Tern.

The Tern Verge X20 seemed like a great candidate for the kind of folding bike I would need. An incredible bike by any measure: folding (easily I might add, which is more than I can say for many); 9.3kg (that’s high end road bike territory weight-wise); SRAM Red components throughout (the very best road bike components, and a price to match of course); and 1.11 inch wide wheels (picture 23c road tire, but only 20 inches in diameter, aka minimal resistance gliders).

This bike sounded perfect, given all my constraints: 300 meters of high-speed vertical on the ride down the hill from my home; 300 meters of steep climbing on the return ride home; bike curfews; rack space constraints; and time constraints (lighter equals much shorter commute times on bikes).

With a folding bike, I could travel with impunity on any transit system. The bike wouldn’t even need a bike rack on a bus and it would circumvent the curfews on BART. Best of all, because it was ultralight and ultrafast, it would climb hills and cross flats almost as fast my road bike. “Woohoo! What a great time to be a bike commuter”, I thought.

After an interminable wait and after gaining even more weight, the bike finally arrived on the market and I bought the first one I found. It is here where this story really begins. The first day of bike commuting with this bleeding edge commuter bike was both fantastic and horrific (no fault of the bike’s, by the way).

The Ecstasy
The first moments were ecstasy. The bike was very stable while I reached 35 kph going down 300 meters of vertical. I only added about 2 minutes to the first leg of my commute. Not bad!

Better still, I walked onto the BART train for San Francisco with no fear of punishment even though the sign flashed “no bikes”.

Once across the bay, I discovered I had 10 minutes to get to the CalTrain station 2km away. This was a job for the super fast Verge X20. Again, it performed magnificently, I found the small wheels of the folding bike much more nimble at dodging pedestrians and weaving through cars amidst the morning gridlock of downtown San Francisco.

Likewise, the bike cruised along at a respectable 25 kph on the flat, long blocks. All my waiting, planning, and spending on this new cutting-edge commute tool had paid off. I was leaving all the other heavy and slow commuter bikes in the dust.

Beginner’s Unluck
Then fate turned on me. It started when I arrived at the CalTrain station just as the doors closed on my train’s gate. That cost a 15 minute delay. No matter, I thought. The bike was fast, I could still make up time on the last leg in Menlo Park.

The Agony
I hit the ground running in Menlo Park, I got off the train and on the bike in seconds. I charged ahead on one of Menlo Park’s beautiful bike lanes to make up some lost time. Then, 100 yards out, I ran over something weird only to feel that unmistakable rumble from my rear tire. Ugh!!!!!!!! A flat.

One thing I am pretty good at is being prepared for these mishaps. The day before, I had made a special trip to the bike store for spare inner tubes for just such an occasion as this. I had also inquired about extra tires, but all the shop had were unfoldables so I skipped those. I figured I would order them soon.

Not soon enough–the flat was from a cut to the sidewall. That’s death for any kind of tire. So there I was: rendered a pedestrian by a tiny piece of metal with a new foldable bike in tow. I went back and gave the jagged metal a good kick to vent frustration and spare someone else the same fate.

Extraordinary Bikes Require Extraordinary Bike Stores
My fate was just getting warmed up. I’ve been without a tire or tube before. It’s a long walk but eventually you get to a bike store and you are on your way. But this wasn’t just any bike so I couldn’t use just any bike store. I needed a 20″ diameter, 1.1″ wide, tire. That’s Greek to most standard bike shops, and folding shops for that matter.

My mind raced: Where had I seen foldable bike dealers in this area? Only 2 shops out of a dozen came to mind. Also, is the shop open? I am late to work, but it is only 9 a.m. How will I get to the shop in my bike shoes without trashing my ankles? After making a few calls, I discovered the 2 folding bike shops were open. However, the bike was so new that none of the staff had heard of it, much less knew which parts would fix it. Still, after a LOT of explaining, I established that one shop had a tire I could use. Naturally, that was the most distant shop.

Googling for public transit solutions only embellished the need for a working bicycle in times like these. No buses were nearby and no bus would take me anywhere near the shop. Ironically, CalTrain delivered me the closest to the shop, so I walked back to the station, waited a quarter hour, and caught the next train.

The next hour was filled with lots of super-fun walking in bike shoes and having the rare cab swiped from me by a business man while I folded my bike. But I finally got to the shop, got the tire and rode to work. Only 2.5 hours late. Woohoo!

The moral of the story for me is this: like any bleeding edge solution, be prepared to provide your own technological support. The newer the solution, the fewer resources to help when things go wrong. After my ordeal, I even discovered that the shop that sold me the bike had sold me the wrong size of inner tubes. When you are on the bleeding edge, you are really on your own.

Nevertheless, despite my initial lack of supplies and abundance of bad luck, I have no regrets. The ability of this type of bicycle to negotiate both the capricious bike policies of regional transit systems and the capricious streets of downtown rush hours, should ensure these bikes become increasingly popular. That should mean more stores will carry them soon and, in turn, will mean I will have less far to walk for parts.