The next day (in a steady drizzle), we visited the famous beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (not to be confused with Pfeiffer Beach mentioned above — apparently these Pfeiffers were major bigwigs around here). This one we only got to view from far above, but it was still spectacular — a waterfall emerging from the cliffs and falling into the bright Carribean-turquoise waters below. The girls wanted to get their feet sandy, though, so we asked at the booth if there was anywhere nearby that provided access to the water. They directed us to a very different beach (which a subsequent Google search identified as Partington Point). We walked down a lonely trail that eventually led us into a tunnel through a cliff. Emerging on the other side, with the crashing surf on one side of us and steep cliffs rising on all other sides, it was like we were alone in the universe. This was not exactly what you would call a “beach”, as the ground was covered with various sized rocks rather than sand (perhaps a beach in progress?) Past visitors had built cairns from the beautiful and diverse rock collection, and the girls enthusiastically seized onto this activity. By the time we left, I think there were at least twice as many cairns as when we’d arrived.
I have spent a non-negligible amount of time in this forum — and possibly a few others –bellyaching about having to drive a rental car through Italy and a heavily laden van through much of the rest of the civilized world. Someone listened. It was Jen.
For this trip, she informed me, she would be the one signing for the car. She’d be the one taking the wheel when we left San Francisco and headed for the Coastal Redwood wilds of central coastal California. And so it was; and I ate my crow pie. Because when one whines enough about driving rental cars, one puts one’s self in the position of being in the passenger seat in the southbound lane of the Pacific Coast Highway only a hair’s breadth from being thrown into free-fall, and then into the Pacific.
This is what happens when one fails to keep one’s mouth shut.
I was, therefore, prepared to take my medicine and suffer through the vertiginous twists of the PCH. It was me, after all, who did the driving during our last trip to these parts. The fact that we were going northward last time and were thus in the inside lane, a full car’s length – plus the shoulder – from the precipice, does not need to be mentioned here because I am too noble to do so.
Anyway, since spouses are able to share driving duties under Hertz policy, and since Jen didn’t seem to care either way, I wound up driving the last leg south from Tacos Moreno in Santa Cruz, through Monterey and into white knuckle territory. I could do this with a good conscience because it was full dark by the time we reached Carmel. Nobody could see the dizzying heights we encountered not far south from there. It was just a twisty road, like many we have at home in New Hampshire. The major diifficulty was that I still knew what was out there and I wanted to go slow, and most people in California have a lower regard for their own lives and/or a higher regard for their own driving abilities. So whenever I saw lights in my rearview, I sought shelter in one of the many pull-off spots provided for just such a purpose. We eventually made it where we needed to go.
And when we got there, aside from the pleasant experience of seeing huge mountains spring up around us that we had been totally unaware of the night before, I also felt it was my duty to return to the passenger seat for our sorties off the Big Sur Lodge grounds. I had blogged myself into this, I could suffer though the shotgun seat from hell for a few days.
How was I to remember that the much of the road between Julia Pfeiffer State Park and the Big Sur lighthouse is inland and relatively close to sea level? Was it my fault that on the day we travelled farther south it was extremely foggy, and thus the cliff faces seemed to blend into cottony clouds that I could imagine cushioning our fall should we jump the guardrails? It was hardly medicine at all. I mean, there were even guardrails this time. I don’t think there were any last time. It was terrifying in 1999. We all must’ve thought the Y2K thing was going to do us in anyway back then and not worried about our mortality. Jen is remarkably unscathed by the experience.
It was not until our last day in Big Sur – our last day in California – that we got to experience the PCH in all its breathtaking glory. Travelling north, with me at the wheel, we had wonderfully clear vistas of the coastline to our left — often to our left and very far down — and the brown and olive mountains to our right. Once more in the safety of the inside lane, we could enjoy the ride in a manner that would in no way suggest that there is anything I’d rather do than drive my family around in a rental car or any other form of vehicle.
Until we reached Monterrey and I had to find a place to park the damn thing and why are the signs so vague, and they should give you a gps with rental cars, and what’s with there not being any key anyway, and that guy in the white Hyundai with New Mexico plates, I finally figured out what I should have shouted at you as passed me back in no man’s land: you’re a horrible driver who tailgates and then waves his arms when someone goes onto a pull-off to let you pass and that makes you a real jerk in my book, pal. Go back to New Mexico and wave your arms around there.
In Central America, we take the bus.
Even before we started getting tips from Russian Hill Andy (who actually gave us a handful of nuggets that maybe we’ll share some day when we come out with the In the Big Picture Box Set), our vacation had some direction. Of course we are not traveling blindly through the vastness of Northern California We have all of the guidebooks and Web-site information that we (mostly Jen) have amassed over the past few months. We have sketches of memories from our epic California 1999 trip, which took us from LA to San Francisco to Sonoma Valley to San Diego and back to LA. And we have recommendations from friends who have traveled and/or lived in this part of the country. Today was a day that we relied mostly on this last source of information.
The ribbon of coastline that stretches south from the San Fran/San Jose metropolitan area is wall papered with state parks, interspersed with farmland (this area produces ¾ of the nation’s Brussel sprouts and a lot of artichokes as well, we’re told). We might have bypassed all of it to get to our lodge in Big Sur if it weren’t for our friend Trisha, who pointed out one special park along the way. She told us that Ano Nuevo was worth the visit, and she was right.
Like many of the other parks we passed, it’s right on the Pacific. It is a former dairy farm where the cow barn is now the visitors’ center, the horse barn has an interpretive movie, and the farmhouse is home to rangers and base for volunteers.
Hiking trails extend from here through fields and along the beach. All of this, we agreed, would have been enough to warrant a stop, but the real draw for us and the dozens of people we saw along the paths, were the hundreds of elephant seals basking on the shoreline and throngs of California sea lions staking out nearby Ano Nuevo Island. It’s about a mile and a half (some of it through deep sand) out to the viewing platforms above the marine mammals, and most of the viewing platforms are populated by docents with binoculars who can show and explain the situation in more detail.
It seems that a few years after the park was established in the early ‘60s, the seals decided to make it their bi-annual jamboree site. As many as 10,000 seals congregate here at the peak of mating and molting seasons. At the time of our visit, juvenile seals occupy the beach, but in a few weeks, the adults will start pouring in and the whole place will be covered in seal. The ones we saw were between two and six years old and many of them were huge and blubbery. The adults are amazingly large and unbelievably blubbery.
Even though we won’t get to see the colony in full swing, this was a good time to visit. In a month, when mating season starts, the park limits the number of people out there and the amount of time you can spend gawking.
Trisha knew all about this, and was nice enough to relay this information. We owe her a big thanks.
After roaming around the state park (where we also got to see sea otters, the remains of a shipwreck, a bird that might have been a California condor, and seals jumping out of the water, either in celebration or to avoid great white shark attacks), we headed south in pursuit of another tip from a friend. A few years back, our pal Jamie had a transformative experience at a taqueria in Santa Cruz. Given that Santa Cruz coincided with dinnertime on this driving leg (and, surprisingly, we had yet to sample Mexican food since getting to California) we hunted down the place.
It was a little out of the way; Santa Cruz turns out to be a bit of a sprawling community and we were well past the center of town before we started hitting the right numbers on Water Street. It was very inconspicuous — a good sign for a truly transformative taqueria, though if we didn’t have the exact street number we would have definitely driven past it.
And it was good! None of us seem to have been actually transformed as yet. Nadia is not likely to roam the greater Boston are looking for a sauce to correspond with Taco Moreno’s. You won’t see Lanie or Zoe pulling up to gas stations in Revere reputed to sell carne asada with a West Coast savor. But if Jamie ever does find a taqueria that he feels is on par with Tacos Moreno of Water Street in Santa Cruz, we’d be happy to join him for a burrito from time to time.
These Californians are a friendly people. Also, very prone to giving out advice and commentary. Never before have we been approached in a public place by some random stranger who tells us that (a) they approve of something we’re doing, and (b) here’s what else we should do to be even better, but here it seems to happen all the time.
The first one was Andy on Russian Hill. We were sitting in a tiny park at the top of the hill, eating our bits-and-pieces lunch, and he was out walking his dog. He opened by telling us that he could tell we were very good parents. We waited warily for his follow-up, wondering if this was meant for sarcasm (since shortly before the girls had been fighting bitterly over salt and pepper packets for their hard-boiled eggs). Luckily he seemed to have missed that part and was instead impressed that none of the girls were wearing headphones or looking at screens. (Nadia was listening to this speech and clearly barely restraining herself from sighing and rolling her eyes.) He went on to tell us that his grandmother always said that you should do one good thing for someone every day – that’s how you earn your place on the planet – and that we should now pass on the favor to someone else. We have been keeping our eyes peeled for screen-less children to compliment.
The next day it was a woman on the bus, who later identified herself as a teacher. She asked how old the girls were, and then immediately jumped to asking me if I had been able to stay home with the kids at all. It wasn’t clear what she would think of Bob staying home instead, but fortunately she approved. It’s a good thing, because the kids’ behavior on the buses was not always the best, and I imagine she would have blamed daycare.
Today at the pool we met a man who was testing the chlorine level. Maybe he’d heard us yelling at the kids or something, because he launched right onto an impassioned speech on how much we would miss them when they were gone, no matter how much we might look forward to that day. He and his wife had thought they’d be happy, but after dropping their youngest off at college they’d had to pull over to the side of the road to cry. Of course, now they’re living the life, traveling around to various state and national parks as the whim takes them, and volunteering in exchange for room and board. He very much wanted us to recommend this strategy to our parents, and went so far as to come back later with the website address for signing up. (“Once you’re in, you’re in for life!” he told us gleefully. Clearly he is not acquainted with any of our parents.)
Even though I’m making fun of them a little, we did enjoy talking to all of them, and do like being in a place where people don’t always keep a polite distance. We have encountered many examples of kindness here – various strangers helping us without being asked when they saw us squinting perplexedly at bus maps; the cable car operator who beckoned the kids out of the interior of a packed cable car to instead stand outside with him in the back; the woman at the café who pulled kids onto her lap so as to offer us chairs; the couple who were talking to every person on the beach, trying to find the owner of some car keys they’d found on the ground; the many patient souls who have smiled rather than glared when a bunch of noisy children invaded their quiet park/bus/restaurant/street corner. It seems like a happy place, and we can easily see why.
…the life out of you, that is.
We’re not really big museum people, generally. When I was doing a whirlwind tour of Europe during college with my friends Julie and Nancy, we visited a lot of museums. I don’t know why, really – we didn’t enjoy them all that much. In fact, we eventually devised a system where we rated various museums on their life-suck potential – as in, how fast they would just suck the life right out of you, leaving you staggering weakly around, with barely enough energy to get to the exit. And yet the next day there we would go again, marching glumly off to see 15th-century Hungarian equine portraiture or something.
(Sometimes it wasn’t our fault. One time we signed up for a day-long tour of microbreweries in Belgium. After we arrived and got on the bus, the tour guide cheerfully announced that they hadn’t had enough people sign up for any of the three tours they were offering – the aforementioned brewery tour, a tour of WWI historical sites, and some kind of medieval art tour – so they were consolidating them all and taking the whole group to a little of each. I can’t imagine anyone was very happy with this arrangement, but probably no one less so than us. I believe this was the beginning of our collective hatred of those Madonna-and-child paintings with the gold halos around Mary’s head.)
Luckily I’ve gotten past the idea that I must go to all these museums just because you’re supposed to. One of the benefits of going to Italy with the kids last year was that we felt no guilt about skipping the whole lot of them. Instead of queueing up to see David along with 20,000 other tourists, we were happily wandering around the city, looking at fountains and street performers and eating gelato.
There are exceptions, of course. I could have spent all day wandering around the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for example. And there are plenty of quirky little museums out there that are entertaining simply because of their existence. My friend Ken and I once spent a happy afternoon perusing the many fascinating exhibits of the Museum of Medical Oddities in Washington, DC, which features such items as a giant hairball surgically removed from someone’s stomach. There’s nothing life-sucking about that. And of course, we’ll never forget the St. Louis City Museum, which is still my kids’ favorite place in the world. But overall I feel like museums have too much stuff and too many people, leading to sensory overload followed inevitably by life-suck.
So, we’re particular about our museums. And the ones we visited here in San Francisco were all winners.
Zoe has already written about the Exploratorium. There was much that was cool about this place, but the thing I liked best was that you could really tell that the exhibits were put together by various scientists tinkering away in the central lab area with blow torches and hammers. They just had that kind of pieced-together-with-what-was-on-hand feel to them. The exhibits spanned a wide range of topics – from physics and chemistry to a big area about sociological research on sharing – but all were really well put together in a way that made you want to read the walls of text that accompanied each exhibit. Also, they had a drinking fountain coming out of a toilet. Zoe and Lanie tried it; the rest of us passed.
The California Academy of Sciences was more of a natural history museum and aquarium. We had about three hours here and wished it were longer – they had to kick us out at closing time. Among the exhibits were a room that you could go into to see what an earthquake felt like, and an albino alligator.
Finally, a hidden gem only a few blocks from our apartment – the Cable Car Museum. I have to admit that we only went to this place because it was close and it was free. However, it turned out to be so much cooler than I would have expected. “Museum” was a misnomer, really. Although it did have various exhibits on the history and mechanics of cable cars, the real highlight is that the building houses the powerhouse of all four San Francisco cable car lines. The huge open center of the room was all the exposed machinery that keeps the cable cars running along under the streets. You could watch the enormous wheels turning and see the cables disappearing in various directions as the four lines dispersed across the city under the floor. It was loud and a little smelly and fascinating – and we were still full of energy when we headed, a little reluctantly, back out the door.
Eating on vacation is a tricky thing. It can put a sizable hole in the budget, which is not helped by the fact that Zoe, and increasingly often, Nadia, have outgrown the children’s menu. This is one area where our usual efforts to widen our children’s culinary horizons clash with our innate cheapness. We sigh inwardly as we tell Zoe to go ahead and get the $17 fish and chips (which she will completely demolish) rather than the $6 chicken fingers.
On the other hand, food and drink are such important parts of travel. We would no more skip San Francisco’s famous cuisines than we would skip the cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge. So we try to strike a balance. Bob packed his suitcase with some homemade goodies to sustain us — granola bars, beef jerky, pumpkin seeds, almonds. We’ve rented an apartment with a kitchen, and procured some basic staples for breakfasts and snacks. Before we set off in the morning, we load up the backpacks with provisions, and have mostly been enjoying picnic lunches. Our old friend peanut butter has made an appearance once or twice.
Our first day out we stopped at the famous market in the Ferry Building for lunch supplies. We ended up with a large hunk of aged goat cheese, which had a taste and texture somewhat similar to Parmesan. Little did we know that attempting to cut the thing would be the ongoing bane of our existence. Even normal metal knives (never mind the plastic we initially attempted) cower and bend when they encounter this monster. On the plus side, this has proven to really make the cheese last; after cutting off a relatively small amount we have to retire in exhaustion. (The other day Nadia actually managed to hack a bite-sized piece off for herself, and was wildly furious when Zoe then bumped into her and caused her to drop it as she was slowly savoring it.) We may be bringing home the remainder as a paperweight.
Another item we have been enjoying in great abundance is sourdough bread. On our second day here, the girls did a workshop at the famous Boudin bakery in Fishermen’s Wharf. They created their own creatures out of dough, and then got to take home a sizable creature-shaped loaf. We’ve been eating this bread ever since, and still haven’t cracked into Nadia’s turtle. Luckily it goes well with infinitesimal slivers of aged goat cheese. (Also, we found that if you want to use up some bread by making french toast, and you don’t have any vanilla or cinnamon or sugar, a packet of hot chocolate mix that a previous tenant left behind does the trick quite nicely.)
Anyway, going low-budget for a couple of meals a day frees us up to live it up for the last one. We enjoyed a fabulous Italian feast at the legendary Stinking Rose, a garlic-themed restaurant in North Beach, the city’s Little Italy (Zoe’s choice for her 13th birthday). We had an adventurous dinner in Chinatown, where we just told the waitress to bring us a bunch of different dishes (with the stipulation, for certain children’s benefit, of no seafood or spicy food). We had seafood (well, 3/5 of us did) across the street from the Pacific ocean.
We had gelato and pastry in North Beach, hot fudge sundaes at Ghirardelli’s, cappuccino in the Haight, and wine and microbrews everywhere. (We did enjoy one budget meal, at In-N-Out Burger. Nadia’s teacher is from California and he gave her strict instructions to eat there. Nadia was skeptical as she is not a big hamburger fan, but was won over immediately. Bob and I couldn’t believe we were getting away with $20 for lunch for 5 people, and no agonizing over the order — cheeseburgers and fries, the only options.)
One of our favorite meals was at a little place right down the road from us, the Nob Hill Cafe. We’d had a long, chilly day of biking and buses, and were relieved to finally arrive. However, despite its being a Sunday night, the place was packed. Bob and the girls ran home for sweatshirts while I kept our place in line (which, given the size of the place, was outside). In the end, the “25 minute” wait turned into more like 40, but was made more bearable by the fact that we could sit at a little sidewalk cafe table and drink wine while we waited. We chatted with the equally cold and hungry family sitting next to us (people are very nice and friendly here) and the time went by pleasantly. The array of breads, pastas, and pizzas that we ordered to share was well worth the wait, although I think the girls were a bit disappointed with their caramel flan dessert (which they said tasted like alcohol).
Tomorrow we set off down the coast, and already have our next target in our sights — a little taqueria in Santa Cruz that our friends have been raving about ever since they were here a few years ago. After that it’s down to Big Sur, where culinary options are presumably more limited, so we’d better live it up while we can.
On Thursday, our first day in San Francisco and my birthday, we took a trip to the Exploratorium. Before going there, I thought it would be a regular science museum (even with its name), interesting to me, but not so much to my sisters. Some people (Mom) think I never should have taken this view because of the name, but I’ve learned that names can be misleading. It’s a tactic many school-related things have used, giving something a name that makes it sound fun and interesting but turns out to be some long, boring assignment. My math teachers have recently taken to calling tests a “celebration of knowledge” or a “brain bash.” Whatever my doubts, the museum certainly lived up to its name.
The exhibits were basically cool or fun interactive anything. There was no particular order and sometimes no instructions telling us how it relates to science. We just went to what looked interesting. You could power a light bulb or a hairdryer with a giant wheel; watch your own surprise reaction in slow motion; bounce water drops on a machine blowing air at you, and a whole variety of other things. At one point, we walked past the lab where scientists design and make new exhibits. What a fun job that would be!
I think my sisters’ favorite thing was the magnetic sand. In one exhibit, there were large, strong magnets coming out of the ground. The magnets ended up in a tub full of sand. The sand stuck to the magnets and looked like hair. Nadia and Lanie compared it to hedgehogs. You could drop handfuls of sand and watch them stick, connect the two magnets with a strong bridge of sand, or feel the sand jump out of your hand onto the magnet. Nadia discovered that you could also make “hairstyles”. The Exploratorium was a great way to start our trip.
Me and my family entered the museum. The guy at the ticket booth looked at our City Passes. He ripped out the one that was for the California Academy of Science. But he also ripped out another one, too. (ed. note: The mistakenly ripped ticket was for the Bay Aquarium or the Monterrey Aquarium.) Oops. “Sorry,” the man said. “Get the man at the desk to write a note.”
We went to the desk. A man was there. We explained. He understood. He wrote a little note. (ed. note: He actually stapled his business card to the mistakenly ripped ticket.)
Mom told us there was a packet we could do while we were looking around. We went to the man. (ed. note: It was a different man from the two already mentioned. This man was in the coat check area.) The man told us it was free but he had to see our parents’ ID card. Dad showed him his.
First, the man showed us a little pack. It had a ruler, a box of colored pencils, a magnifying glass, a tape measure, a pencil sharpener, and a marker. We got a pin to show that we were junior scientists.
We kept the things in a backpack, but were supposed to give it all back at the end. (ed. note: Except the pin.)
Other things of note from the California Academy of Science:
This was my third time to Alcatraz, and although I seem to really enjoy it and try to pay attention, every time I take the tour again it seems like new information. It’s possible that I have just naturally forgotten things in the 15 or so years since Jen and I visited during our Pacific Coast Highway tour. I would say this is probably the case, but I do suspect that maybe they change up the stories a little. It used to be that one guy maybe escaped but probably drowned. Now it’s three guys who got out on to the roof and disappeared and nobody knows where they went. Also, the Marines stormed the building to quell a riot and dropped grenades through a hole in the roof? I think they have Marvel writers working on the audio tour narrative. Next time it will be Iron Man locking Capone back into his cell after Scarface drinks ionically charged bathtub gin and mutates into The Big Boss who can control minions and melt steel with his brain. (The new cell will be made out of Starktanium alloy.)
Anyway, even if they embellish the story a little now and then, it’s a great tour with gravelly-voiced guards right there in your ears and former convicts chiming in now and then. The place is physically remarkable in its gravity, being plunked in the middle of a scenic cornucopia.
Where they have definitely made improvements on Alcatraz is in the plants. Apparently volunteers have been revitalizing the gardens since my last visit. Hundreds of the specimens planted by guards’ families and inmates alike had survived neglect since the prison closed in the 60s, and these have been brought back into refinement. Currently on the island there is an art exhibit by a former political prisoner from China and I think at least part of the idea is that beauty in a prison is supposed to be a jarring contrast. The rejuvenated landscaping along the walkway up to the prison performed this task at least as successfully as the art exhibit did, the various flowering (even in November!) specimens stood out beautifully against the concrete and rusted metal of the prison and fort installations.
We did not take the gardens tour (I did not think the kids would be up for an hour of hearing about plants), but we saw plenty of beautiful things that seemed even too exotic for California just in the normal course of walking about. Here are some pictures:
I think the girls liked it, too, but it was hard to tell. It is a somber place, even with all the flowers, and the girls didn’t have that much to say afterwards. The weather added to the gravity of it all. It was foggy enough that you couldn’t see the island from the mainland, or vice versa. It was very different from the first day here, when the visibility was excellent. One really felt isolated on that island today, whereas yesterday you could see clearly from half the streets in downtown San Francisco.