Saturday, October 17, 2009

San Francisco – cable cars and stuff

Our last three nights were in San Francisco.  We had booked two nights at famous restaurants but had not planned anything else.  Curiously, we had also not looked at our (by now) trusty Lonely Planet guide and consequently, the last three days felt a little flat.


We arrived in SF with the rental car, due back at the airport by 1 pm.  We made our way there with no issues, aided by our (by now) trusty GPS.  We found the place at the airport where all the hotel shuttles congregated and asked where was the shuttle for the Vintage Court hotel.  This hotel had been recommend to us by someone Peter knew, as being in a great location (it was), reasonably priced (it was), and with good staff (they were).  We had to wait a little while (say, 30 minutes) for the shuttle and people came and went with other shuttles and a small line formed for ours.  Finally it arrived and we were driven into the city.


It’s nice to be driven, as opposed to doing the driving because then you see more.  Once we got out of the boonies where the airport was and into the old city proper, we started to see familiar things, especially street names.  We passed through the Mission District which is a bit notorious for drugs and street people and dropped people off here and there and so we got a little lost.


Our hotel was on the edge of the financial district (where the streets roll up at night – sort of) and also only a block from the Chinatown Gate.  There are quite a few one way streets in the old city and only the intersections are flat.  Everything is either going uphill or downhill.  So getting anywhere in a vehicle requires some forethought.


We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and set out to have a look at the cable cars.   There is a cable car museum which we didn’t go to – it turns out we could have/should have gone to lots of places like this museum.  But we seemed to have lapsed into a strange sort of ennui and mostly just walked around in circles.  It was fine but as this is a travelogue, I would recommend to future visitors to San Francisco, that they do a little more planning than we did.  For example, we thought we would just go get tickets to visit Alcatraz when we got there but they were sold out for at least a week in advance.


Anyway.  The brief history of cable cars really is interesting.  A manufacturer of steel cable witnessed a horrible accident involving horses and carriages on the steep hills and invented a means of getting up and down the hills that wouldn’t have those consequences.  The cables run under the street surface and the cable cars have a mechanical gizmo that grabs onto the cables as they constantly move up the hills.  They travel down hills using gravity and they have multiple brakes for safety.  And they are on tracks, like trains.  Because the cables run in grooves under the street, you can hear them "singing" when they are moving.  We found it fascinating.

Our hotel was on Bush, between Powell and Stockton.  There are only three remaining cable car routes and two of them run up and down Powell (they branch off onto other streets at Washington), so it was totally easy to see cable cars any time you wanted.  It was not however, easy to catch them, especially the one running up or stretch of Powell, as the cars are mostly crammed with tourists.  Later at night or in other areas, we discovered that the cable cars would have fewer people on them and you could catch them as they rested on the level intersections. 


If you want to ride a cable car like a pro, here is how you do it.  Scope out spot on a route that is not filled with tourists.  The California Line doesn't seem so crowded as the other two, maybe because it doesn't have the fancy/fun turntables at the ends.  On both Powell lines, tourists are lined up to get on at the terminus (where, it is fair to say, it is fun stuff to watch the operators manually turn the car on a giant wooden turntable) so the car will be full until they start getting off at other touristy sites like the cable car museum in the middle.  Position yourself prudently along the route and wait for the cable car to come along.

There are designated stops at the curb but when you see a car coming, move yourself into a readiness position and be prepared to run a little into the intersection when the light is red for the cross traffic.  The car will stop on the level intersection while the light is green for the direction it is travelling in and that’s when you jump on board.  Keep your wits about you because there may still be car traffic travelling in the same direction as the cable car and there may also be a cable car coming in the opposite direction.  There is not much space between the cars and when two pass each other, passengers hanging on the outside are warned to keep their heads in if they want to keep them.

If you’ve had the presence of mind to buy a “Muni Pass”, you need only flash that at the ticket-taker and you can go sit down (if there are seats available).  You can get Municipal Transportation Passes at drug stores and we got ones that lasted three days.  They cost $18 but they allowed us to ride on any bus, cable car, or tram in the city, as many times as we liked.  Those hills are some steep and when you have a pass like that, it is so simple to just wait for the next bus and go a few blocks, to save your legs.  Of course, with a name like “Muni Pass”, I started flashing it at Peter and saying “Leeloo Dallas, MultiPass!” which cracked us up.  Maybe you had to be there.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Back to Monterey

Leaving Hearst Castle, and stopping to admire the zebras on the way out, we made for Monterey again, driving the Big Sur coast road.  This time, going north, we were in the lane next to the mountain side, not hanging over the edge of the cliffs.  It was still a maze of twisty passages, all alike.  There was some fog and we could see the damage from wildfires in previous years.
We looked at it a bit differently since it was the second time we drove it.  We didn't stop as frequently but the view was as stunning as ever.  I don't know that I would choose to live on this stretch of coast but I do love a good coast.  This one is really quite isolated - it would take you an hour just to drive somewhere to get groceries.  If you were rich and had staff and could send them out for groceries, then it might be different.  But life would be totally different if you had staff anyway.  I am of course, presaging Pebble Beach.
When we got to the Monterey peninsula, we decided to drive the scenic 17 Mile Drive.  17 miles doesn't sound very long and it isn't but it IS very scenic and there are numbered suggested stops along the way, so you can spend a few hours at it.  There are various entrances to the toll road and it cost $9.25 to get on the road.  There are several golf courses along the road too, not just Pebble Beach.
And there are the houses.  A few were obviously older houses that had been built before it became so expensive.  They fitted in with the landscape and were bungalows with board and batten siding.  They might have been quite large and maybe they had luxurious interiors but they blended.  Unfortunately, like at Hearst, some people with more money than taste have been building monstrous Italianate villas that stick out like sore thumbs.  It's too bad, really.
And then there is the famous "lone cypress".  When you are there, it somehow doesn't look as wonderfully evocative as it does in portraits.  But there are friendly little ground squirrels who make up for it.
Some people think it is worth making the trek for wedding photos.
We thought the entire drive was worth the price of admission, even if it was cloudy and cool.  We left at the gate near the tiny town of Carmel.  It's worth a visit for the carefully controlled look of the town and the street signs that are painted vertically on posts.  On one street, we were trying to get our bearings while walking and I started to read a street sign, having some difficulty spelling it out because it was vertical.  I got to "NOPARK..." when I realized it was a No Parking sign.
Then we walked by the Hog's Breath Inn and Peter remembered that was Clint Eastwood's place, so we had to stop.  Apparently, he still owns the building but someone else owns the restaurant and bar.  We walked down the alley and into a courtyard and then down some steps and into the bar and had a beer.

We had talked about spending another night at the Beachcomber motel we had discovered on the way down but Peter had picked up some local pamphlets on other motels and we browsed through them along the way, finding another motel (the Rosedale Inn) almost within spitting distance from the Beachcomber.  It was about the same price but the room seemed cosier - it had a gas fireplace - and the wifi was free and available in the room.  We decided to eat at the same fish place as we had on the way down and walked over there to see if we could reserve a spot. They had one for us at 7, so we decided to walk along the beach as we had done less than a week before.  It was still cold and windy so we bundled up as much as we could, given that we hadn't taken many warm layers with us as we expected August in California to be unbearably hot.

We didn't see the deer again and the light faded so we were glad to get back to the Fishwife.  They initially seated us at the oddest  table in the corner by a drafty although permanently shut door, but we asked to be seated elsewhere and were glad we had.  I don't think I could have stood the draft for an entire dinner.  The food was good and the local wine was good and we had a satisfying evening, our last night before getting to San Francisco.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

SLO market and Hearst Castle

After successfully navigating our way out of LA, we stayed on the 101 and headed north to San Luis Obispo.  Much of the 101 is along the coast, so we had nice scenery (except for the fog).  We rolled back into the PeachTree Inn right around 6pm, when we had planned to, said hello to the innkeepers we had got to know only a few days before and set out for the market and dinner.  We only had to walk down the hill toward the downtown and then across a couple of streets and we hit the market.  On Thursday evenings, Higuera Street is closed for several blocks and the closed area is full of vendors of all sorts, some street performers, some colourful beggars, BBQs filling the air with smoke - you name it.  Even political conspiracy theorists have booths.DSC_3309





We had dinner again at the Big Sky Cafe and it was good.  They still didn't do reservations but we put our name on a wait list and went back out to enjoy the market for 20 minutes.  It was surprising but good, how many people were still wanting to eat at a restaurant, even though there were so many folks sitting on curbs having BBQ.  It looks like everybody benefits from having the market in town and a lot of the shops lining Higuera Street were open as long as the market vendors were there.

We went to bed at a reasonable hour because we had to be at Hearst Castle for 10am the next morning.  I had booked tickets online before the holiday and had chosen 10am without thinking about where we might  be exactly, or how long it would take to get there from here.  We had even passed by Hearst Castle on the drive down to L.A. and timed the drive from there to SLO and confirmed that it should only be a 30 minute drive.  However, in an abundance of caution, we left the Peach Tree Inn before 9 am.  We did encounter fog along the route, as we drove along the coast road.  We also noticed highway signs that instructed drivers to turn on their headlights and that when we realized that Americans still don't have the automatic-on headlights/driving lights that we do in Canada.  I turned to Peter and said, "How can it  be that we decided this was a great safety feature on cars in Canada and the Americans still don't do this?"  He didn't know.


As (I) expected, we arrived at Hearst 45 minutes before our timed entry.  We had bought the tickets online and ever since the screw-up with the rental car on day one, we were a little gun-shy about unconfirmed events.  However, our fears were unfounded as they had us in their system.  Because tourist traffic was a little light that morning, we got slotted on the next bus up the hill and didn't have to wait until 10:10.  The castle itself is a five mile drive up a winding road that, we were informed in a pre-recorded tour as we rode the bus, had not been paved until the 1930s.


Apparently, Mr. Hearst had kept a zoo full of animals at the time, including carnivores but only a few herbivore species remained roaming wild, like zebras.  We saw some Barbary Sheep on the way up but it wasn't until we were leaving the grounds that we saw the zebras.  I thought it was remarkable that any animals at all remained but apparently, they live their lives, reproducing and doing whatever zebras do when they aren't escaping from lions on the veld.


At the top, we piled out of the highway coach and gathered around our tour guide. She gave us some instructions about not wandering away, staying out of marked areas and told us roughly what we were going to see.  She also warned us about how many steps we would be going up and down, although this was clearly stated on the web site and everywhere else we looked.  They actually do have some tours for handicapped folks but you have to arrange for them specifically.  It turned out, as we went along, that she thought Mr. Hearst was the bee's knees and I wondered what she would say if I'd criticized him.  I chose not to.



I felt that the place was a monument to conspicuous consumption, the very embodiment of more money than brains (or taste, in this case).  Of course, some parts of it really were beautiful - they couldn't help it, like the carved ceilings he had buyers bring back from war-torn and poverty-stricken Europe.  It almost felt like he had looted some churches.  The reception area walls were lined with carved wooden choir stalls that no sane church would have sold unless they were desperate.  And there were huge tapestries hanging on the walls, rivaling the famed unicorn tapestries in The Cloisters for size, if not skill.  When we toured one of the guest houses, I wondered aloud about what appeared to be a 14th century devotional painting and how they managed to preserve it in the heat and humidity, as the atmosphere in the building was not controlled in any way, especially with tours traipsing in all day long.  Our tour guide claimed that the paintings were fine but I have my doubts.


There was a large mosaic that might have been Roman or merely Romanesque, in the entrance foyer and the tour guide indicated that this was now off limits for walking on because it had finally arrived at the too-delicate stage.  Just a year ago, we saw real Roman mosaics in a museum in Arles, France, and I was happy to see that Mr. Hearst had not managed to get one of those.

Our tour guide described how Hearst invited all sorts of famous people up to his castle but then he would lurk in his study and only come down to see them for a few minutes here and there.  She made it sound like he was shy and just wanted his guests to have a good time.  I got the impression he was more like a puppet master and I wouldn't have been surprised to find out he had secret passages where he could spy on them.  I checked some of the oil portraits on the wall for cut-out eyes but didn't see any.


At the very beginning of our tour, when we were outside on one of the many patio areas, a fellow tourist approached Peter and asked if he had a spare SDI card for his camera.  In fact, Peter had one and lent it to him.  I sidled up after and whispered, "How are you ever going to get that back?"  He explained that the guy would take the card back to his laptop that he had left in his car and upload the photos and then come back to the base building and give him back the card.  I thought it was pretty trusting of him.  Then he told me the card was only worth a few bucks so I stopped worrying.  As it turned out, this fellow was from Australia, visiting his brother who was a chef in San Francisco and he did exactly that - uploaded the photos and then went back searching for Peter and gave him the card back.  I know we tend to focus on the negative but I do believe there are more good folks in the world than bad, Mr. Hearst notwithstanding.