Tuesday, 12 July 2011

I'm Going Home!

I decide late last night not to take the BART to the airport. I have lugged my suitcase now for far too long. It just seems a whole pile easier to be picked up from the hotel by an airport shuttle advertised in the hotel.  for the relatively cheap price of US 15.00 .

Check out of my room is at 12midday and I am off down the road to have my last bagel and monster size coffee. It is lovely to sit at the cafĂ© and take the time to watch the locals and tourists go by. It’s easy to tell them apart.
In the wonderful way the body and mind works it tells me I am ready to go home. I am looking forward to my own surroundings and sleeping in my own bed. I haven’t thought about it until now but just know I am ready for home.

I decide on a few last minute gifts obviously thinking there is still room in my bag and walk back to the hotel to strategise.  I have tried not to alter  the contents of my suitcase from when I last had it weighed at JFK Airport so I have a bit of an idea of what more can be added. I know …not much. All of my power adapters and cords are stuffed into my jacket pockets along with anything else that is heavy and will fit. My jacket is super heavy. The plan is to casually drape it through my handbag. Once I sort out what is going where I make my carry-on luggage (a plastic zipped bag that weighs nothing itself) try and look half empty. I estimate it to be at least 10kg. Yikes, I just hope they don’t want to weigh it. Nothing else will fit into my now expanded suitcase. I just hope I get away with not having to pay excess luggage fees.

After checking out of my room I store my luggage downstairs in a locker (a great idea but hotels should also have some luggage scales) and go for a last walk around this wonderful city of San Francisco.

It is a stunning day with clear blue skies and the temperature is probably the highest it has been while I have been here. The trademark steep hills and cable cars are well known features of this rather serene city that has heaps going for it.


I love some of the sculptures that are scattered around Chinatown but there is definitely no room to take them home.

 I return to the hotel and have a couple of hours to write some more of this blog and catch up on some news from home. My shuttle arrived on time and as I climbed in I handed the cash over to pay for it. The driver reminded me that it didn’t include a tip! Oh don’t you just love America for that. Arriving at the airport I see that the counter is due to open in 15mins. I decide to meet my fate earlier rather than later and end up second in the queue. As the counters prepare to open I eye up the staff and decide on which one has got the friendliest looking face. I chose a young tall black American guy and thought about how best to humour him if my bags were over the limit. My suitcase weighed in at 23.6 kg and I asked him quite straight faced if I needed to take something out. He said “I am sorry madam” and with that my face must have dropped and he said “just kidding”. What a relief! Even more of a relief is that he didn’t ask to weigh my cabin luggage.  Phew I made it through with no extra charges.

It was an Air NZ flight and it was lovely to be able to relax in an aisle seat and settle down for some in-flight entertainment, a meal and then a lovely long sleep courtesy of the little blue sleeping pills that really do the trick. I was sitting next to two young people who were ski instructors running a camp for 60 American kids on their way to Wanaka. This was their second season and they could not speak highly enough of NZ and its mountains. Fortunately the” big chill” had just swept the country and they were really excited about the huge snow dump. Especially as the week before there was no snow and the parents of the kids coming were putting the pressure on.

It was a great flight and a great sleep and we seemed to touch down in no time at all. Home at last and straight through customs. It was lovely to be greeted by Brent and Charlotte especially as it was only 5.30am and early mornings and my daughter do not go together easily .It has seemed at times a long time to be away and it feels great to be here.

I am amazed at the number of people that have been reading my blog and have been encouraged by the lovely comments that I have received about it. However the blog was intended as a personal record for me to capture the parts of my travel that will jog my memory and  to remind me of the absolute blast that I have had.  I just chose to share that with others. Thanks for sharing my journey.

                                                        THE END

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Bike , The Bridge, The Baseball , The Bon Voyage

A trip over the Golden Gate Bridge is a must do and I decide it will be done on bike. The bike rental company is down at Fisherman’s Wharf and I decide to chance my luck on the cable car that starts with a steep climb up Nob Hill, passing through Chinatown and then plummeting down Hyde Street to Fisherman’s Wharf. I got a hot tip from a guy in the street that told me not to wait in the line but walk three blocks down and I could get on there as they always leave space. He just didn’t say it would be on the running board, so holding on for grim death I did the plummeting from the running board. I guess no other way to ride the cable car in San Francisco.

The bike rental company is a very professional outfit with bikes and helmet personally fitted for you to ensure safety.  I am even escorted over the road and given a trial ride before I set off with a map, directions and a ferry ticket if I decide to use it. The bridge is shrouded in mist and fog as it has been for most of my stay. Glimpses of partial views I see as I cycle through the Marina District, the area that was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake. Here at the northern edge of the city multi-million dollar homes back up against the Marina.

At Fort Point before you pedal the climb up to the bridge entry I can see some surfers trying to catch a wave.

The bridge stretches 1.7 miles and towers 500 feet above the roadway and I am not the only one who wants to cross it today…wits about you as you ride across. There are spectacular views along its span and it does not matter that it is very cool and windy, not to mention noisy from the constant traffic that is zooming past.

I made it!

I decide to ride through to Sausalito (14 miles to there) and as there is a bike trail for most of the way it is a pleasant ride. Well it would have been if it wasn’t a head wind. Sausalito is a lovely seaside town with a beautiful marina but unfortunately today it is overrun with tourists.

I had a quick mosey around and decide that as I am two thirds of the way there and I might as well continue to Tiburon.

The bike path heads north and winds along the bay for the most part. Tiburon is not so crowded but there are another 50 or so riders that have made it this far. Restaurants are two a penny but the ferry will be here in 5mins.

The ferry ride has short stop at Angel Island State Park, a beautiful little island on which you can go camping. I enjoyed my ride back to the bike rental company on a sunny but windy afternoon having biked 22 miles….not km’s.

Getting to the AT and T ball park was an experience in itself, but it really was just follow the orange- the main colour of the SF Giants. The park is built on Willie May’s Avenue – he must have been a famous baseballer as there is a bronze statue of him outside the huge entry gates.

Once inside there is a huge concourse that has food and drink stalls and all the fan gear you can possibly imagine and more. These Americans are passionate about their teams and players and dress accordingly. A news item on TV while I am here in SF tells of a Dad at another game in the country somewhere with his 6 year old son. He reaches out over the barrier to catch a foul ball and falls 20 metres to the ground. Sadly he died in hospital.  Barriers of course would hinder the view but could save lives!

After the obligatory hot dog I go up the 2 escalators to my seat. I had booked my ticket from home and the site gave me a 360 degree view of what I could see from my seat. I was on the 3rd base line and up pretty high (what else do you get for US$25-00) but with stunning views of the diamond and out of the ball park. AT and T ball park is built right on the Bay and from where I was the water is just so close. In fact there is a record of the 57 “splash” hits- where the ball is hit out of the park into the water.

From here I can see the viewing portals. I am told that no other Major League Baseball stadium in the country includes such a viewing section as part of a built-in feature. They are four arches covered in wire mesh to attract passers-by off the adjoining promenade that might not otherwise be inclined to watch. From here you can watch the games for free, reminiscent of the Knothole Gangs of the old-time ballparks.

They provide free internet here (advised in a reminder email to me the day before) and I Skype from my seat. While two of you can hear the noise only, Charlotte was able to have a 360 of the ball park.  I stand for the US National Anthem….an amazing atmosphere. There is plenty to watch as well as the game. I last 6 innings before the cold wind gets to me but now is a good time to leave as I don’t want to be caught up in the 1000’s leaving after the game. Down on a lower level there is a viewing concourse and as long as you stay behind a line (strictly enforced by an official, as you can imagine) you can get a good close up view of the game. I stop here and watch an innings before I drag my map out again to find the way to some transport…not so easy in the dark when everything looks different. 

Saturday shopping is obviously the thing to do here and many are out in force. I pick up some last minute bargains in some of the stores….all label stuff at ridiculously cheap prices. I then head off to catch the cable car to Lombard Street the “crookedest" street. The red brick road hooks through eight switchbacks in order to alleviate the gravity of the 27 degree slope of the hill. There are traffic wardens at both ends of the section as there is a constant stream of cars and pedestrians.

I catch bus up to the base of Coit tower where there a reviews out over the bay. Coit Tower is 210 ft. high perched on Telegraph Hill. It is the result of a bequeath  to beautify the City of San Francisco. I think the designers deserve to be shot! But the views are good:)
I have dinner in a restaurant across the road and order a salad and some amazing salmon and capers flatbread…ah and a mojito …it’s my last night on "vacation".

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Gate and The Rock

Pick up was at 2.30am this morning and the shuttle was early! After dropping off 4 others at La Guardia airport first, I arrive at Terminal 7 at JFK and there are people sitting outside on their bags. It will be another 30 mins before we are able to go inside! We line up and have to put our bags on a scale in front of an attendant…sweat sweat. My bag weighs in at 48.7 lb. not much to come and go on. It strange that they do not seemed concerned about the carry on and I must have 10kg in that…or at least it feels like it.
It was a great flight with very roomy seats but I have a bulk head seat and that helps. Beside me was a woman with a dog being carried in a sports like bag……a strange sight? We arrive in 45 mins early…and it’s hard to fathom that they must have some pretty fast tail winds here. It was pretty easy to navigate the BART train from the airport and arriving in downtown San Francisco I immediately am taken by the slower pace and the cooler temperatures.

My hotel is right in China town and it’s a bit of a hike up hills with my bag and hand luggage in tow. My room is tiny and a direct contrast to NY, very tired. Location is everything though and I take a stroll downtown passing Union Square. Yes another square named for its series of pro-union mass demonstrations staged on the eve of the Civil War. It is the epicentre of the city’s shopping district, Macy’s Saks, Tiffany’s, Armani, Niketown and company are located here and are surrounded by blocks of other high-end boutiques. There are few bargains but its fun to play lookey-loo.

After an average sleep (my body clock has absolutely no idea of what the time is anymore and when to sleep and when to be awake) I find myself lethargic to say the least and decide to take it easy today instead of the attack, attack. attack attitude. 

I have Alcatraz tonight and I am not sure what time that will finish so decide on a cable car ride and to explore Fisherman’s Wharf. San Francisco has lots of one way streets which is confusing at first but becomes easy to find your way around as the grid pattern continues. Chinatown is marked by a large red and green gate and inside is a labyrinth of restaurants, markets, temples, shops and lots of San Francisco’s Chinese residents. It’s at this point that you say goodbye to the world of fashion and hello to cheap tourist Chinese paraphernalia.
I walk down to Market Street and have a bagel and coffee for breakfast. A woman sits beside me and it’s easy to recognise her NZ accent when she asks if the seat beside me is taken. We have a good chat and exchange some travel stories. She is visiting with her husband who is here for work.

 The queue for the cable car is huge…I had been warned and so I decide to take a street car ….a  vintage trolley bus type arrangement that runs on tracks.The streetcar travels along the Embarcadero (skating, biking, strolling route which curves along the San Francisco Bay) and stops at different Piers announced by the driver.
As we pass the Ferry building it looks like a hive of activity so will return here later. The drivers have been hilarious with their “black” humour and they are very helpful to the bucket loads of tourists.

Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist oriented pier with many of the tour boats departing from here. There are heaps of tourists shops (I have seen enough to last my entire lifetime) restaurants and trinket shops but some beautiful views and walkways. I have yet to see “the bridge” it’s been covered in fog….normal I am told.

I catch the streetcar back to the Ferry Building and Framers Market. There are dozens of stalls and a place for some amazing grazing but also foodie heaven with epicurean concierges on hand with guided culinary excursions available. From here I jump on the cable car (there are 3 lines, the most famous one….maybe tomorrow) and take the ride to the end of California Street up some street hills on the way including the delightfully named Nobs Hill. I stay on for the return journey (the MUNI card $21 – 3 days gives unlimited rides on Metro, buses and cables) and return to the hotel to get ready for Alcatraz Night Tour.

The temperature is cool in the mornings and evenings and I decide to dress for it …just as well. This is a popular tourist activity and 300 others join me on the boat out to Alcatraz. As we approach the fog gets thicker and this makes it a rather eerie setting.

 It’s a polished tourist tour and the history and accompanying stories are transfixing. Construction of a fort began in 1853 at the same time as the first lighthouse on the Pacific coast began operation. Alcatraz was an important part of the US western defence plan before it was decommissioned in 1907. It was a prison almost from the beginning in the Civil war era, including a prison for Indians captured during various Indian wars. It was not till 1915 that Alcatraz was renamed “United States Disciplinary Barracks” a military prison. A huge concrete cell house was built with the prisoners providing the labour (I wonder if they heard of go slow?) and it re opened as a federal penitentiary in 1934.

Of the 1545 men who did time on Alcatraz only a handful were notorious, among them Al “Scarface”Capone and Robert Stroud “the Birdman of Alcatraz”. Most of the inmates were men who proved to be a problem in other prison populations and transfer to the undeniably maximum security facility was the answer. Rule 5 of the Alcatraz prison Rules and Regulations 1934 is “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege”

There were 14 attempted prison escapes, the most well-known in 1962 when 3 slipped into the water using raincoats as floatation devices…bodies never found...presumed drowned. It closed as a prison in 1963 but in 1969 there was a 19 month occupation by the “Indians of all Tribes”. Today Alcatraz is a designated part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

The tour took us through the prison cells, shower rooms, dining area, recreational area all very grim and sparse. Stories abound with myths and mystery. Alcatraz has been the subject of many movies and books and has become a symbol of America’s dark side. The walls can tell a thousand stories and I have had my fill! Thick fog had descended and there was a salt laden cold wind as we boarded the ferry and left this harsh environment that many had endured and some had not.


Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Farewell to The Apple

I sneak into Starbucks to use their Wi Fi and hello…there is another weirdo there. He is keeping us all entertained with profanities flying and it sounds like he is on a Skype call but he is not…even though he has a computer in front of him but he is almost shouting. The rest of us “normal “are smirking between ourselves.
Today I take a bus ride to the West side…it is so nice knowing where you are going and how. I want to take a look at the The High Line, a onetime rail line that is now a public promenade that offers views of the Hudson River, the Manhattan skyline and the gardens that adorn this structure. The High Line is a public park built on a 1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure .The freight rail line was in operation from 1934 to 1980. It carried meat to the meatpacking district, agricultural goods to the factories and warehouses of the industrial West Side, and mail to the Post Office. It really is a beautiful part of New York…but there are so many in amongst this bustling busy city.

I visit the wonderful Chelsea markets that are housed in at the National Biscuit Company complex. The factory begun in the 1890's in what is now west Chelsea and the ovens baked everything from Saltines to Oreos. Those ovens went cold a half century ago, when the company moved out, but newer ovens have been working over the last decade in part of the old complex. It is now foodie’s heaven and I partake in some wonderful fresh raspberries and blackberries.

From here find my way via subway to Greenwich Village which breaks out of the strict gridlines that form most of New York’s streets. It is renowned for its artists, musicians and writers and part of its charm is the bohemian vibe the village exudes.
I walk past the narrowest home in NY an architectural oddity at less than 10ft wide and is labelled as number 75 ½.

Number 90 Bedford it is the “Friends “Apartment Building. The show wasn’t filmed here but the exterior of the building was used in setting shots.

I return to the hotel to give myself time to repack my bag ready for a 2.35am pick up. Yuk. On my way I spy a bar just around the corner from my hotel offering $6 cocktails and free Wi Fi.
That’s where I am now toasting a farewell to New York…I love this place it has just got something about it….

What is there not to like?

 Cheers New York!