Our Vacation to the San Francisco Area

My wife and I recently returned from our first real “adults only” vacation since we had our first child, over 7 years ago. Some friends are visiting the area soon, and I also wanted to record the trip while it was still fresh in my mind. If hearing about someone else’s vacation sounds interesting, read on… :)

My wife wanted to take a vacation, so I asked her where she wanted to go. She spent some time thinking about it, and eventually narrowed it down to places that are cooler than where we live (Texas) as it’s summer and therefore oppressively hot. After some further deliberation, she picked the San Francisco area, and went to work researching hotels and making travel arrangements.

We decided to spend a couple of days at a resort hotel a bit further from the city, and then move closer to San Francisco for a couple of days to get our urban exploration on. She decided on Monterey, California for our first stop.

Wednesday: Travel to Monterey

First we had to get there, though. Flying sure has gotten terrible, hasn’t it? They don’t even offer complimentary peanuts anymore, and checking a bag costs extra. Ugh. The Austin airport is awesome, (at least as far as airports are concerned…) and it sports many local eateries. San Francisco International isn’t that bad, although waiting in line to pick up our rental car took upwards of an hour. I wish I’d known, as I would have sprung for the “priority” service that many car rental companies offer.

The commute from San Francisco to Monterey started out pretty awful, with tons of traffic. I had forgotten how bad the traffic gets in California, especially around the major highways and major cities. We stopped for dinner at Juicy Burger instead of braving rush hour.

Things cleared up as we got south of San Jose, and the rest of the trip was quite pretty. We crossed the mountains as the clouds were rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, and it was almost surreal how fast the weather changed.

In Monterey, we stayed at the Monterey Plaza Hotel. The hotel is nice, and it’s right on the water. We had a room that overlooked the bay as well as the outdoor fire pit. There were binoculars in the room, although there unfortunately wasn’t much to see outside of the odd seagull or duck.

sanfran-trip-monterey-plaza-hotel

The first night we walked a bit east to the Fisherman’s Wharf, where dozens of sea lions, sea birds, and sea otters were roosting. Some of the sea lions were right up against the rocks next to the wharf, and seemed especially pleased with themselves.

sanfran-trip-sea-lions

Thursday: Big Sur

Thursday morning we set out in search of breakfast. The restaurant at the hotel was pretty typical for a hotel – overpriced, with a small menu. You’re paying extra for convenience, naturally. We contemplated going to Lulu’s Griddle in the Middle on Fisherman’s Wharf, but ultimately decided to head into town instead.

Over on Alvarado, we found a Bagel Bakery and decided to pick up enough bagels to keep in the room for breakfasts on the trip. This made the mornings a lot less stressful, and kept us from blowing a lot of cash on overpriced scrambled eggs. After eating a bagel sandwich, we were tempted by Red’s Donuts down the street. We picked up a couple for just a couple of dollars and thoroughly enjoyed them.

I asked my wife what she wanted to do, and she said she’d heard of “Big Sur” but didn’t know what it was or if we were near it. I did the research, and we set a course south on the Pacific Coast Highway. Big Sur is a stretch of the California coastline where the mountains and the beach meet, making for some interesting geographical features.

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On our trip south, we stopped at Point Lobos Natural Reserve on a whim – we were driving past and my wife thought it looked interesting. We parked and hiked a bit, taking in the sights along the coast. There were several rocks you could climb to get a good vantage point over the Pacific. We saw an island of birds, some interesting looking coves, and more than a few redwoods. The parking was painful, and at one point someone parked our car in! On our way out, we noticed that the park had become so popular that people were being turned away.

We continued south to Garrapata State Park and spent some time there watching the surf crash against the rocks and taking photos. At one point, we saw a salamander. We continued south to the historic Bixby Bridge, and then decided we’d well and truly seen Big Sur.

sanfran-trip-garrapata

On our way back, we stopped at a grocery store and picked up some salad and sandwich ingredients, as well as a small styrofoam cooler. I always like to grocery shop while on trips, as I find it’s a cheaper and lighter alternative to eating out constantly. For dinner, we went down to Cannery Row and had some burritos. It was a very “touristy” spot, and not a lot caught our eye.

Later that evening, we went to the spa and spent some time in the hot tub. It was quite relaxing, and it was less cold out than we’d feared it would be.

Friday: Redwoods & Concorde

On Friday we packed up and began our relocation to the second hotel – the one closer to San Francisco. My wife had also wanted to see some of northern California’s majestic redwoods, so I set a course for Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. It’s not the most famous of the redwood parks in California, but it was on the way and seemed to fit the bill.

sanfran-trip-redwoods

The road that runs through the park was closed, but we did manage to find the start of a nearby trail and called that good enough. We hiked about a half mile down into the valley, until we reached a river. The forest was quite peaceful and quiet. Between the sunlight filtering through the trees and the small streams forming waterfalls, the journey was quite beautiful. The hike back up was uphill and somewhat tiring, but we made it with no issues.

Our next stop was the Crowne Plaza hotel, which was in Concord. Concord is about 30-40 minutes east of San Francisco, which I hadn’t realized while planning the forest trip. Again, traffic was murder. We spent a good couple of hours sitting in traffic. By the time we got to Concord, we were tired and cranky. We decided to stay close by for dinner, so we went to Melo’s. The chicken in the Chicken Parmesan was good, and the pizza and pasta were decent but nothing special.

Saturday: San Francisco & Berkeley

On Saturday, we planned to go into San Francisco. My wife looked at the various sights and picked Pier 39 and Golden Gate Park to visit. Traffic downtown was pretty bad, with a lot of construction and confusing street layouts. We made it to the pier without too many issues, though. Parking was pretty crazy – lots near the pier were $40 per day, flat rate. We found street parking a block or so away that was free, though.

sanfran-trip-pier-39

The pier was kind of a letdown. From there, you can see Alcatraz pretty well, and kind of catch the Golden Gate Bridge, but not very clearly. It was definitely a tourist trap type of place. Lots of tour boats, street merchants, the same chain restaurants you see in every touristy location, etc.

sanfran-trip-golden-gate-park

From there we headed to Golden Gate Park. I think my wife had thought it had something to do with the bridge, but it’s far from the bridge and absolutely massive. Again, parking was a problem. We drove around the park for a good half hour looking for street parking before coming across the parking garage, and even then we had to drive around quite a while to find a spot. There’s a lot to see there, but it was also packed with people. We visited the botanical gardens and the Japanese Tea Garden before calling it a day and heading out.

On our way back from San Francisco, we stopped off in Berkeley. I’d been there once before and knew the local “college food” scene. We ate at Bongo Burger and picked up some bubble tea before heading back to Concord. At the hotel, we briefly considered the pool before deciding on a short trip to the grocery store for dinner and supplies.

Sunday: Home Again

Sunday was our last day, and we spent it mostly traveling. Returning the rental car and catching our flight took most of the morning. By the time we made it home, it was just about dinnertime.

Lessons Learned

There were a lot of things we enjoyed and got right. We picked some good places to sight-see south of Monterey, and Monterey itself was beautiful. The hike through the forest was peaceful and quiet. Stopping over in Berkeley for food was probably my favorite meal of the trip. The little cooler we got in Carmel was quite a trooper, and we were almost sad to leave it behind.

I feel like there were some simple things that we could’ve used that we neglected to bring or buy. For one, mealtime would have been easier with paper plates and plastic knives. I also wish I’d remembered a hat. I also ended up surprised by outdoor adventures and forgot to pack the sun screen when we left the hotel on at least one occasion.

I’d say that I wish we’d been able to avoid the traffic a bit more, but traffic is just sort of a way of life in California, so I don’t know that we could eliminate it entirely. Picking up the rental car was one thing I wish could have been streamlined, though.