Saturday, 22 September 2012

Day 24 - In Search of Nuclear Wessels

We started today with breakfast in the hotel, which turned out to be a huge mistake. Breakfast is included in our rate (it's a ludicrously high rate too - about six times what we paid on the road), and it's supposed to be available until 10am. Not only did they start clearing away at 9.50am, they actually kicked us out of the room at 10am sharp. I wasn't even allowed to finish my cup of tea. I'm not sure they actually understood the implications of kicking out an Englishwoman halfway through a cuppa; I'm far too British to actually complain, of course, but I frowned a bit and will passive-aggressively give them a one-star Tripadvisor review when I get home.

Today was our final full day in San Francisco, so we took a full day's chauffeur-driven tour of the city, picked up from right on the hotel doorstep. A truly excellent service, but unfortunately not one available to every San Francisco tourist as it was provided by a friend who happens to live nearby, who took the day off to show us around. Caren's a fellow Trekkie, so obviously the agenda included searching out filming locations from Star Trek IV. She and Fi wouldn't let me stand on a street corner asking people for directions to nuclear wessels, though. Spoilsports.

Instead, we started off by driving down Lombard Street, the twistiest turniest street in San Francisco. Apparently the hairpins were added because so many horses were falling down, and they were just left that way after cars came along. I half believe it was really just installed for tourists; every car I've seen driving down this section has had someone hanging a camera out the window so I don't believe anyone who lives here actually uses this as a road. Either way, driving down it is a Thing one must do while in San Francisco, and Caren managed it admirably (in a manual car too, which is quite unusual for the US).

Slartibartfast obviously got tired of fjords and decided to try designing a street in San Francisco

Next, she took us to Coit Tower, a monument in the Telegraph Hill area with some pretty stunning views of the city from the top.

Great big phallic thing on a hill
The view looking away from it is better

Incidentally, only one bridge in this city gets any love, but its sibling in that picture is far cooler in my extremely-uninformed-about-bridges opinion. The Bay Bridge is older than the Golden Gate (by a few months), it's longer at nearly four and a half miles, it's a double decker - which is incredibly cool - and its name doesn't lie about its colour.

The underappreciated big brother of San Francisco bridges

We did, however, give in to the tourist impulse to go and get a better look at the over-hyped, not-golden-at-all Golden Gate Bridge, and... okay, I'll concede that's a pretty neat piece of engineering too. It might be a liar, but red's a pretty colour and Red Gate Bridge doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

Best of all, we got to walk along the same path Kirk and Spock trod - sorry, I mean will tread - in STIV!

We may have to fight over which one of us gets to be Spock

After that tantalising view, we obviously had to drive over the thing. That view didn't entirely suck either.

Oh this? This is just my view over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco. No biggie.

That trip over the bridge, of course, is the same one Kirk and Spock took on a bus. Only we didn't get to deliver a nerve pinch to an annoying kid with a boombox, which was disappointing. And also the Sausalito Cetacean Institute is obviously fictional, but that's okay because actual humpback whales in captivity would have made me sad (the scenes were filmed just down the road in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was one of our intended stops on the way up on Wednesday, but we ran out of time. I'll have to dive into a fishtank wearing a bathrobe some other time).

With no whales to see, we went for lunch in Sausalito instead, and I finally got to try Dungeness crab. It was very, very good, but at $21 for a sandwich I'd kind of hoped it would be gold plated. In fairness, the plain old crab sans gold plating probably tasted better.

After lunch, we headed back over the Red Gate Bridge (see, that'll never catch on) to visit Golden Gate Park. This was another Star Trek location; it doubled as the Genesis Planet in The Wrath of Khan for the landing site of Spock's torpedo tube. Not, alas, as the landing site of the Klingon Bird of Prey in STIV, which was in a fake Golden Gate Park.

Since there are no cloaked Klingon vessels hanging around, we headed instead for the Japanese Tea Garden to ogle the garden and drink some tea.

We figured we came this far we may as well tack Japan on to the end of our trip. Sort of.

Neither of us can resist climbing on stuff

For our final evening in San Francisco - indeed, in the US - we went out to the Castro District, with mixed results. We first went to the Twin Peaks for cocktails, which is a very cute bar with very pleasant patrons but an extremely hostile barman who clearly did not want women in his bar (we weren't the only women there, but not far off). We then walked around a bit, and what struck me most about the place was that it had all the vibrance of Soho in London but felt a whole lot safer. Tourist goggles maybe, but that was my first impression. We finished off the evening just around the corner at an Italian restaurant ("I love Italian...and so do you") and then sadly had to part ways with our most excellent and geeky guide.

Today was an awesome day. I'd happily spend another few weeks here (although it would be nice if they could give me access to the city's thermostat) but sadly we're now settling in for our final night in an American hotel room. Unless anyone would like to send us a shedload more cash so we can get our car back and make our way slowly back to Chicago...?

Ah, there's that tumbleweed we've been looking for this whole trip...

Friday, 21 September 2012

Day 23 - Escape from Alcatraz

Today, the first of two whole days in San Francisco, we got up and discussed the terrible view from the breakfast room at our hotel.

Shabby view from the breakfast table.
Venturing out in the direction of Union Square we had a vague notion to do one of the Duck tours of the city and out into the bay.  If you never seen a Duck it's an amphibious vehicle designed originally for military use but now doing a roaring tourist trade in cities around the world where it can take passengers on tours both on land and water in one go.  I'd previously done the London one which was huge fun but Rachael was a duck virgin so we thought it would be a great way to see the city.
A duck.  The only way to do a city tour by land and water.  Well the only way if you don't want to get wet anyway.
We decided to get one of the cable cars from Union Square up to Fishermans Wharf to pick up the Duck tour.  The duck tour does advertise that they also run from Union Sq but apparently thats only if you book in advance, and are obviously psychic because there was no mention of that on their advert.  The cable cars are the old fashioned trolley cars you see in a lot of SF movies and they really are a tourist attraction only.  People who live in SF seem to use the electric trams and buses but the old fashioned trolleys are cool to look at.  We decided after one trip that we wouldn't bother with it again though.  It was heaving with people, you have to cling on for dear life on the steep hills (there were no seats so we were standing) and at $6 for a one way trip it was pretty expensive.  

Getting on the duck we were presented with our very own duck call noise maker.  We were instructed to use it as often as we liked whilst on the tour.  There was plenty of it for the first 10 minutes at which point everyone except a 2 yr old child on our tour got bored of it.
The lizard gains a duck bill.  Not sure it's a good look to be honest.
We had a very friendly and engaging tour guide / driver called Sky who regaled us with little tidbits of San Francisco history as well as pointing out the quirkier things to see on our route.  The duck is almost certainly not the best actual tour because I'm sure there was a lot we passed that didn't get a mention.  But it's a lot of fun especially when it goes out on to the water.

At this point both Rachael and I were experiencing something we've not felt since leaving England.  Cold.  No really, it's cold here.  We both had to buy tacky tourist fleeces because it's COLD. Brrrrr....

After the duck we strolled around Fishermans Wharf and decided to get a late lunch / early dinner.  We headed back to Boudin and had a lovely meal with a great view of Alcatraz island.  Boudin is a San Francisco bakery and restaurant famous for their sourdough bread. This was foreshadowing because we had tickets booked for the Alcatraz night cruise.
The boat over to Alcatraz was pretty quick with a cheerful information commentary about the island on the way.  The tacky tourist fleeces came into their own on the boat trip because with the windchill it was freezing.  We can't work out if it's just that we've been baking like lizards for 3 weeks and have therefore acclimatised to the hot weather further south, or if it's just bloody cold here in SF.

Alcatraz is an eerie place.  The buildings are largely unchanged since it's days as a prison and like Ellis Island in New York, the place has an atmosphere that is part creepy and part momentous. It's like the walls are talking.  The cell block has an audio tour that is part of the ticket and it's excellent.  There is audio testimony from actual wardens and inmates as well as dramatic retellings of some events.  These are accompanied by sound effects such as clanging cell doors and alarms etc. It's all very atmospheric and slightly sinister.  I certainly wouldn't want to do the tour on my own, it would be like walking around in your own personal horror movie.

A cheery message for those entering the cell block.
At least they were going to let us out at the end of the day - unlike these guys.
Rachael already looks worried and she's not even IN the cell.
In Isolation (where the really naughty prisoners go)
The view from Alcatraz back to the city is spectacular.  This is of course all the more strange since the inmates could see glimpses of the city from their recreation area but could not leave to go there.  This was probably an unintentional part of the punishment but an effective one none the less.
We think Chicago still wins the stunning skyline award though.

City skyline as seen from Alcatraz

Returning back to San Francisco on the boat we ran into a huge queue waiting for a taxi. I think sometimes we are spoiled in London because 300 people leaving a scheduled (daily) tourist trap would probably have a tailback of cabs waiting. As it was we had to wait about 45 minutes for a taxi.  SF clearly needs more cabs!

Tomorrow we are going hunting for Star Trek locations in SF since in the future Starfleet in based here.

Live long and prosper!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Day 22 - The Chequered Flag

We left the Peach Tree Inn in San Luis Obispo this morning, which was a lovely little motel. Breakfast was in what felt like a grandmother's kitchen, complete with 1930s music and TEA! And best of all, the stay was cheap as chips (well, actually those would be quite expensive chips, but you know what I mean).

I wanted us to be grumpy old ladies sitting on the porch and muttering at passers by, but Fi wouldn't let me

After breakfast we were back on the road to experience the spectacular Pacific Coast Highway.

Hey, I'm a rock, just sittin' here in the Pacific Ocean
Not the worst view in the world
Hero shot!

We were driving completely blind, our friendly EZ Guide having ceased directing us back in Santa Monica, but fortunately Route 1 is a darn sight better signposted than 66. Probably something to do with the minor detail that it wasn't decommissioned 28 years ago.

Sadly, this sign is not directing us to the World's Largest (But Unusable) Bike. Route 66 has given us unreasonable expectations.

The PCH is by no means the quickest way to reach San Francisco, not least because there is far too much pretty to simply drive past, and we ended up pulling over to gawk at the view rather a lot. At one such stop, we bumped into a large group of bikers who had also just completed a Route 66 trip; apparently we're not the only ones who don't consider Santa Monica a suitably satisfactory ending.

These guys seem to spend all day basking in the sun. Where can I sign up?
Another reason it's not the fastest road is that it's extremely twisty and turny; kind of like the Oatman Highway, except the sheer drops plunge down to a little puddle called the Pacific Ocean.


Am I checking out the road ahead, or am I a meerkat? Who can tell?

I wanted a Thelma and Louise ending here. Fi is such a spoilsport.

Countering the good signage, a disadvantage of the PCH being an active highway is that other people use it. I was very much looking forward to the twisty turny roads, but it turns out you only get short bursts of fun driving in between loooong stretches of being stuck behind nervous drivers. I wouldn't mind if they were just cruising to take in the view, provided they made use of the many passing places (or "turnouts") to let faster drivers pass, but these were clearly people just not accustomed to corners. Watching out for sporadic and often illogical braking quickly becomes both exhausting and infuriating.

That said, I was probably alone in my frustration; Fi is not as fond of the twisty-turny as I am, and was probably quite relieved that I was being reigned in (though for the record I wasn't even speeding: the slow-pokes were braking in a straight line when there were no corners when they reached the dizzying heights of two-thirds the speed limit).

I have decided that each of these drivers needs to be sent to England for lessons on country road driving. They can join the many people we've encountered who need to go to England for lessons on proper queuing etiquette. And the many, many more who need to learn how to make tea. And then America will be empty enough for me to enjoy driving on lonely roads.

I miss the long empty roads of New Mexico

Okay, rant over: one of the plus points was that in the stretches where passing was impossible (and turnouts ignored), the only way to regain a nice empty road was to pull over for a while, and there was lots of pretty to occupy us.

We stopped briefly at Hearst Castle along the way, which we were told was built because a rich guy got fed up of camping. We decided that's almost crazy enough to be worthy of a spot on Route 66, though it would need to claim it hosts the world's largest of some mundane object in order to merit a relocation.
Add the World's Largest Spatula and you can move to Seligman

All too soon, though, we were rounding one of the coolest cambered flyovers I've ever driven on that took us into San Francisco.

Finish line in sight!

Unfortunately we had unwittingly kept to our accidental tradition of arriving in cities at rush hour, so my first impression of San Francisco was of long traffic jams and aggressive drivers and pedestrians. Despite the city's best attempts to get us lost, however, we did eventually find the rental car return, and finally had to say goodbye to our home of the last few weeks. Fortunately, she appeared to be lacking any cuts or bruises from where I reversed her into the giant pole back at the Midpoint Cafe in Texas. 

Anyone who comments on my appalling parking gets a Glare

Our hotel in San Francisco is lovely (thanks mostly to Fi's mum (<3) who upgraded us when we realised all we could afford at the end of our trip was a motel out by the airport). After checking in, we went out for a celebratory end-of-road dinner at John's Grill just down the road, and I found a Coldstone Creamery - one of my favourite things ever and a reason to come to America all by itself - so there may have been celebratory ice cream too.

In Estate Agent speak, our hotel room has stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge

We now have a couple of days of sightseeing in San Francisco. And I originally typed 'Chicago' there, which just goes to show how quickly this trip has gone!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Day 21 - And so we've come to the end of the road...

Today was a little surreal.  We've been planning this trip for a year and living it for nearly 3 weeks now.  So to drive the last little bit from Hollywood to Santa Monica on route 66 and reach the literal end of the road was incredibly bittersweet.  There was elation that we've not only made it but that all our hard work in planning the trip largely paid off.  There was also sadness because we don't want it to end.  As we drove the last few miles we discussed how we might change things if we had the trip to do over again and how feasible it might be just to turn the car around and head back to Chicago.  Our "what we would do if doing this again" plan will probably form a post-trip blog post because we want to share our thoughts on that with people from the future. Our plans for driving straight back to Chicago got pretty quickly shelved on the basis that people might complain not least our bank managers. Spoilsports.

Strangely the official western end of R66 is a block or two away from the ocean on an unsatisfying street and there is nothing to mark it.  So we drove that route and then made for Santa Monica pier where the spiritual end of the road is and where it is marked. Clearly. About 3 times in fact :P
The End of the Trail... *sob*
... oh... actually this one is the end (this one does match the "begin" sign we photographed ourselves with in Chicago)
Or maybe THIS is the end.  Well it's bound to be one of these 3 so we captured them all for posterity and safety's sake.
Very much like our start in Chicago, we ended on a pier.  Technically we visited Navy Pier the day before we set off but it did feel like a full circle moment, if you'll excuse the pun, to go on a Ferris Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier.
Another Ferris Wheel - another sunburn... Look how blue that water is! The Pacific is gorgeous.
Windswept and interesting in Santa Monica.
The Pacific Ocean is beautiful - there really is no other word for it.  We had planned only to spend an hour or so taking pics and marking the end of Route 66 before picking up the Pacific Coast Highway north towards our final stop on this trip - San Francisco.

That was our plan but it sort of didn't work out that way.  Because the Pacific is a siren that demands you stare at it's beauty.  And Santa Monica pier has frozen custard and an old fashioned games arcade.
We had no idea Route 66 was called the Custard Trail until we got to the end.   But we can say this - the best Frozen Custard on Route 66 is Ted Drewes in St Louis - NO CONTEST.
We had huge fun playing childhood favourites at the arcade. Rachael won the driving game (shocker!) but I kicked butt at the pirate zombie shoot'em'up game and we won enough tickets for a cheesy Santa Monica pier fridge magnet.
Our final stop in Santa Monica was the Will Rogers memorial.  Route 66 is also named the Will Rogers highway and so it seemed fitting we pay our respects having spent the last 2 weeks on the chaps road.

Will Rogers Memorial
We left Santa Monica at an inappropriately late hour of the day given our long drive up the coast to San Luis Obispo where we are stopped for the night.  Naturally we hit traffic (boo) and the sun began to set (hiss) so we abandoned the PCH in part for the interstate because it's faster and you can't see the ocean in the dark anyway. Apparently much of the good stuff to see is on the run from SLO to San Francisco we've been told so we are looking forward to that tomorrow.
Sunset from El Capitan State Beach
Tonight we are very comfortably ensconced in the lovely Peach Tree Inn. Tomorrow we drive through Morro Bay and Monterey and then on to San Francisco for the last few days of our trip. Looking forward to all the things we want to do there, but we can't quite believe it's nearly over.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Day 20 - Our Big Break in Hollywood

Today was our first rest day since Chicago, and it felt like a massive luxury. Waking up in a hotel room without having to pack up and check out! The little things make me happy.

Our hotel is mostly lovely, and was great value for the price we got. The room is massive for a city hotel, and we have a balcony with a glorious view of the AT&T building opposite - and if you stand right in the corner on tip toes, you can even see half of the Griffith Observatory, which is quite cool. Unfortunately, though we have few firm requirements for our overnight lodgings, one of them is a hot shower and on this front the Hollywood Hotel fails abysmally. Washing long hair in a freezing shower is doubleplus unfun, and even the delicious omelette station isn't enough to make up for it.

An estate agent would list this as stunning views of Griffith Park

We had a bit of a lie-in and then headed out to Tourist Central to be tourists. As Londoners (or ex-Londoner in my case) we have high standards for public transport, and our experience in Los Angeles so far has been iffy: we took the shuttle up to Griffith Observatory last night and it was late going up and non-existent coming back (luckily we had planned on catching the second-to-last shuttle back!). Today we decided to give the LA Metro a try. The Vermont/Sunset station is only a couple of blocks from the hotel and lies on the line we wanted, so that part was easy. The ticket machines are not entirely tourist-proof, requiring random button-pushes to find the prices, but they seem to have instigated an Oyster card-type system since I was last here, which beats Oyster (for tourists) on the basis that the initial card deposit is only $1.

The platform was easy to find on the basis that there's only one line at this station, but on reaching it we were horrified to note that trains only come every twelve minutes. Twelve minutes! Even the Circle line manages better than that most of the time.

Fortunately, there was plenty to occupy those twelve minutes, as the station is decorated with model constellations!

Vulcan is over there, just below and to the right of Orion

We alighted at Hollywood & Vine, to stroll along the Walk of Fame towards Highland. I have to admit that on my first visit to Hollywood I was hugely disappointed: it's frankly a bit of a dive, and the Walk of Fame is cracked and filthy. This is my fifth visit, though, and I've decided that it's fun if you expect less glamour and more Blackpool for entertainment fans.

It's easy to spot tourists on Hollywood Boulevard: for one thing, they're the people not trying to sell things; for another, they walk along head downwards, sporting cameras and reading out names. Naturally, we stopped to photograph a few of the stars that are relevant to our interests.

Route 66 is also known as the Will Rogers Highway. We're not entirely certain why, but at least it means we've heard of him.

Chekov's brand new star, only awarded a few days ago

Tyrone Power, whose room we stayed in at the El Rancho in Gallup. He was very hospitable.

Don't even start, I won't hear a word against The Shat

Comparing hand sizes with Leonard Nimoy

We ate Khan back in Gallup: he was very tasty

Nimoy's star location is not at all worthy of him

On visit to the Hollywood & Highland Centre for an obligatory photo of the Hollywood sign, we came across our first bubble tea since Chicago!

I have never been so happy to find a bright orange drink that likely contains no ingredients found in nature
Oh yes, and the obligatory photo

As is quite evident from that photo of me, the manicures we had back in Chicago were a little the worse for wear, so we decided to treat ourselves to a little bit of Hollywood pampering and have them redone. The place we went to was called Diamond Nails Spa & Tanning, and I'd highly recommend it. Very reasonably priced, pleasant staff, and the lady who did mine insisted on adding flowers to both our nails.

Sparkly nails! And a tree.

We were then able to head back to the hotel to clean up, a massive luxury when we've got used to moving every day. In the evening, we headed out to Alhambra for Chinese with a few of my fannish friends I haven't seen in over a year (and who turned out to know each other but required visitors from England to get them to meet up for the first time in about ten years). We arrived a little after seven and stayed until gone midnight; getting geeks together is a long and dangerous business.

All in all, a fantastically relaxing rest day, and now we're all prepared to complete Route 66 tomorrow and begin the second portion of our American adventure.