Wednesday, December 30, 2009

All About Airports: Dallas (DFW) and New Orleans (MSY)

Flying American through Dallas is always a challenge. They operate out of four terminals there and it never fails I land in the terminal farthest from where I need to be - with 15 minutes to get from one to the other. I have my own beef with American for other reasons (see blog on THAT topic) but DFW just annoys me.

However, on a recent trip we had a very long layover. And really, if you are not rushing, this isn't such a bad airport. Terminal D is where it is at, in general. Near gate D33 there is a dining area with more than just take and go food. Upstairs is Reata Grill and Cantina Laredo. Neither one is "fine dining" but if you need to get out of the chaos and have some drinks and snacks, go here. The guacamole at the Reata was good, the food was just average though. The margaritas use the cheap sweet and sour mix so I went with some cherry vodka on the rocks. Perfect.

Terminals A and B have spa services, though I didn't try them, I love seeing spas in airports! Terminal D gates also had plenty of electrical sockets for plugging in all those yummy electronic devices we cannot live without! And finally, DFW is pet-friendly, meaning your carry-on puppy can be walked in the terminal, on leash and they have pet relief areas outside all terminals. However, these are outside of security so be ready to go back through TSA.

New Orleans is another story all together. Sheesh. Terminal C  felt more like a Greyhound station - hard plastic (teal!! ick!) chairs, dumpy dirty walls, electrical outlets that either didn't work and/or were falling out of the wall (not kidding here) and everything smelled like fried food. The bathrooms had the fancy automatic toilet seat protector-thingies, but really, if that is the highlight of your airport you'd better be doing some work on things.

** Opinions of Greyhound stations are based on walking by the horrid one in San Francisco that smells like pee. Maybe not all GH stations are crappy, but I have my suspicions.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Drinks and Snacks in C-Bus Ohio!

In my mind, Columbus has had a fairly strong reputation for great nightclubs, bars and places to chow down for a good 15+ years. The challenge has been places can come and go  quickly. My hubby and I joke that a big nightclub or flashy new restaurant usually has about a two year run before the fickle people in Columbus move on to something else - and this often ends up being less of a joke and more of a truism. Some places last longer, only to still meet a sad ending: Gottliebs would be one I am still lamenting. And you can see this in whole AREAS dying off: City Center, Northland Mall, Eastland Mall, Brice Rd @ I-70. Like I said - Columbus folks are fickle.

That all being said, on our recent trip to the Cowtown (not so much anymore, huh?) we found some kickass places. Overall, the center of town is the place to be. Starting in Clintonville, Surly Girl Saloon majorly won my heart. Chicken pot pie, red velvet cupcakes, strong drinks, friendly staff and parking! We went in for lunch and were there early - thank goodness - otherwise we'd have been waiting for a table.

Moving on down High Street into the "cap" area by Goodale Park, we went to Eleven, part of the Hyde Park restaurant chain, on the recommendation of a friend. Happy Hour at Eleven is truly, truly a happy thing. The Elderflower Martini is amazing (and cheap at $3 for HH) and the sliders were terrific (and also a happy $4). Loved the decor and ambiance. We tried to get back for another happy hour and just didn't get the opportunity. Sad.

Heading south into the Arena District, you'll find Ted's Montana Grill. Before you get all snarky on me about supporting chain restaurants, I did not expect to like this place. I went in with a perfectly cynical, sarcastic attitude and was pleasantly surprised. The bison short ribs were awesome and the bison pot roast was stunning. Drinks were big and were mixed. The straws (which I did NOT use on my martini, though some people might think I would) were paper and all eco-wannabe-friendly. I'm open-minded: a chain restaurant can be good and Ted's was indeed good!

We also headed over to the Grandview and Upper Arlington areas, and found two new (to us) places and visited an old favorite. Aladdin's Eatery in Grandview was a big surprise! Again, I sorta had low expectations when I saw it was in a sorta strip mall, but everything was good with the exception of the pita bread - it was trending toward the stale side of things. The desserts are huge and delicious! Third and Hollywood gets kudos for having plenty of parking, a big area inside and being open late on a Monday. For the love of all that is good in life, do not order the Prosecco unless you like being tortured. Do order the pimento cheese dip. Yum. Finally, a trip to Columbus isn't complete without a visit to El Vaquero for us. I swear this place probably gets horrible health ratings - the interior has been the same for like 20 years or something and it is always so packed and so busy you gotta wonder if corners are being cut. But - the salsa is still good, the margaritas are still cheap and the whole bill comes in at something affordable.

We went up to Delaware for some vintage shopping (see other post) and dropped into the Mean Bean Caffeine Lounge. Meh. The coffees were OK and they had some pastries there, but just not a good vibe and I was seriously not trusting the couch to be bug-free. The Old Bag of Nails Pub further up the street was exactly what you would expect from a pub - good ales and micro-brews and lots of yummy, fattening, fried food.  

And now our dirty little secret: fast food. Donatos, BW3's (can anyone tell me what the third "w" stands for? I know - do you?) and Skyline Chili. You can bet we visit all three while in Ohio since NONE of these exist in California. BW3 and Skyline continue to live up to memory, but Donatos - not so much.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Vintage and Antique shopping in Columbus, OH

Things change, I know, but so many great stores have disappeared from the C-bus landscape. For me, the most lamented is Avalon shoes. We stalked up and down High Street in the freezing cold thinking we missed something - but it is gone.

Rag-o-Rama on High Street still exists and reminds me a bit of Buffalo Exchange here in San Francisco. Great for used clothes but you won't really find much in the way of vintage here.

Mad 4 Mod - despite the name - has vintage from many decades. The store is clean and well organized, though I was a bit frustrated by the rack system. They had eye-level racks and above THOSE were another level of racks, which for short people, presented a problem. The staff were happy to help get things down for you with a hook and ladder, but still a bit odd. I was able to find some really terrific stuff here and our salesperson was able to negotiate with us on the prices. Everything I found was in good condition and without odd odors, stains or needing repair work.

Across the street is the Eclectiques Antique Mall. This place seemed endless, but in the basement I found racks of vintage clothes - though not in as good of condition as I had hoped (still bitter over the chiffon dress with the stains on the front). Tons of knick-knacks, kitchen tools, furniture, brownie cameras, old photos and tons of jewelry. What books I could find were not in good condition. It was fun to browse and poke around, but in the end we didn't buy anything here.

Down in the southend of C-bus we found the Greater Columbus Antique Mall. Much like Eclectiques, this place needs time and the energy to really be on a treasure hunt. The vendors here seem to focus more on furniture and "stuff", not clothing.

Finally - the mother lode: Captain Betty's in Delaware. She keeps odd hours: Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5pm. However, this small store is packed with good, quality vintage. Feel free to snoop in the boxes and drawers and baskets for more clothes and jewelry. Betty herself is a unique lady - approaching 70 years of age, she knows her business and if she likes you, she will bring styles to you to try on and play dress-up on you. I have heard if she isn't in a good mood or doesn't like you, she can be rude - but we didn't experience this. She worked with us on prices and I walked away VERY happy. For the guys: she has a great collection of mens' suits and clothing.

All about Airlines: Part II - Hell Freezes Over: I can't complain (much) about Continental Airlines!

I haven't flown Continental in many years, and even then it was one of those "must I??" situations. However, they provide direct flights from SFO to Cleveland and on a recent trip to Columbus, this was much better than flying American with a 3-hour layover in Dallas. Even driving from Cleveland to C-bus, our travel time was shorter.

Check-in online was straight forward. No upgrades were available and the flight was packed, but overall no real issues. Baggage drop-off in SFO was fast (as in hardly any line - yeah!) but here comes my one major complaint: $18-20 a bag. No free checked bags. It seems it is $18 online if you pay before you get to the airport, $20 at the airport. This of course leads to all those people trying to stuff their wheelies into the overhead bins on the airplane so be warned - you'd better be able to get your stuff under the seat in front of you, be part of the elite first boarding groups or able to take down other people who are trying to steal your overhead space.

Flight attendants were pleasant and the staff we encountered were overall NOT surly. Shocking, isn't it? The planes were pretty clean (unlike SOME airlines - I'm talking about you United!) and one of our planes had DirectTV at each seat. Seats are average - nothing special there.

Here is the kicker: food. On our 4-5 hour flights, we were given real food. For free. I'm not making this stuff up, I swear. Breakfast was cereal and raisins and a muffin, lunch was a turkey hotdog in a croissant (gobble-gobble in a blanket?) with some salad and a Kit-Kat (which I ate first). I know this sounds lame, but I forgot food and was starving and that turkey hotdog was totally awesome at that moment.

Congrats to Continental Airlines for exceeding my (low) expectations for an airline!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

CNN: All about Airline Fees

This is such a great chart that I just had to share it! Fees, fees and more fees. And since this published, I believe a few have gone up. Quality customer service folks - this is what it is all about (that was sarcasm if you didn't recognize it).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Traveling with Pets

Recently we started planning a long trip to visit family and we want to take our Shiba Inu with us. He's too big for cabin travel (27 pounds) and most certainly will not fit under the seat. Folks with a dog under 20 pounds have some GREAT options. did a fantastic job summarizing these and the top 5 pet friendly airlines for the 2009 year.

I called Continental since fuzzbutt isn't going to fit under any seat, any where. They have a 24 hour desk and the lady I spoke with told me the pets are in cargo, but in an area separate from the luggage. This area has the same temperature and air-pressure as the main passenger cabin. It is kept dark, but no one is down there with the pets during travel. Pet are loaded last onto the plane and taken off first by dedicated staff (not the regular luggage handlers). In talking to friends, I joked that I might almost prefer to travel in the "pet cabin" versus the main cabin (dark and quiet)!

Rates aren't cheap - but we are booking our fuzzbutt and will see how it goes. Stay tuned!

For those who live in some key cities (Chicago, NYC, DC, etc), check out Pet Airways. They ONLY fly pets and seem to have a first class service. Be warned though: they do not land in most of the major airports in those areas. For example, in LA they do not fly in/out of LAX but rather "Hawthorne". No idea. . .

Thursday, October 8, 2009

All About Airlines - Part I


Budget airline. Need I say more? Ok then – I will! My flights were re-scheduled at least half a dozen times in the weeks before my actual vacation. I originally choose AirTran because on a flight from SFO to MCO, they connected through Atlanta, resulting in shorter travel time. By the time it was all down, I was connecting through Milwaukee, my travel time had increased by hours, and I was arriving in MCO much later than I had planned.

They charge for any checked bags. Unless you upgrade to business class. Which brings me to my next rant: I paid for a business class upgrade and when I arrived at the airport, I was told my seat was “broken”. It didn’t have a life vest (which is so clearly needed on a flight across LAND) but OK – I don’t know the FAA regulations. What was I provided instead? A bulkhead seat in coach – not too bad. Except it wasn’t a bulkhead seat. It was a seat right behind a business class seat which could still recline. However, I was not able to put up my armrest. I suppose that make it a “bulkhead”?

My final nits here: no headsets (they were out of stock), no TV, seats are average (at best) and no food or drinks available for purchase. If you upgrade, you get free booze and extra potato chips. That’s it.

What do they do right? Their staff are super nice. I really hate trashing them because they have such nice staff. And their unaccompanied minor fees are lower than most airlines. They do have in-flight wi-fi access that works pretty well.

Virgin America:

I totally heart Virgin America. Nice planes, nice staff, free games, some free TV and movies, headsets. The seats are decent with probably average legroom. The fact that I can order cocktails and food on the screen in front of me and swipe me credit card makes me very, very happy. Flights are cheap, upgrades are available (and reasonable) and your first check bag is free. The staff are friendly and when there have been challenges, they have responded well and handled things in a professional and courteous manner. Their unaccompanied minors fees are high ($75 per child, per direction) but they really go out of their way to help make this a good experience for the kids and the grown-ups.

And they fly to Vegas. Mmm. . . Vegas.

Oooohh. . .they just added a main cabin “select” class with more legroom and free drinks and beverages and dedicated overhead space. Now I’m even more in love!


What happened to this airline? They use to have cheap, direct flights to great places and from coast-to-coast. DirectTV in the flights, decent seats (leather or pleather, not icky cloth seats that are stinky) and nice staff. Now I can never find direct flights and their prices are 2-3 times more than other airlines.Totally sux!


I absolutely hate United. Unfortunately for me, they fly where I travel with the fewest stops and shortest travel time. When traveling coast-to-coast, they often connect through Denver which reduces the travel time. They also have good flights to Asia from the West Coast and they have OK flights to Europe. Their prices are usually comparable to other crappy airlines and they have lots of flights going. However, they crush all that with horrible planes (old, outdated CRT tube TVs? Really?) audio ports rarely ever work, seats are horrid, staff are surly (on a good day) and customer service is total shit. And let’s not forget the baggage fees for any checked luggage.

If you have status with the airline, much of this changes. Free upgrades to Economy Plus, first checked bag is free and their customer service starts to resemble something like customer service - but it is still not stellar by any stretch of the imagination.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Singapore: A few things to know

As you fly to Singapore, you are presented with the entry papers to fill out, nothing unusual there. Until you turn the card over and notice that they are informing you drug smuggling into Singapore is punishable by DEATH. Whoa. . .they do still take their laws very seriously and while they may seem odd to us (no gum), do us all a favor and just obey them, OK? I really do not need to hear about you getting caned in Singapore on CNN. And yes, it does happen - while I was there the news reported on a caning of a local for some offense or another.

About the airport - Changi:
I was a bit caught off guard by the airport procedure at Changi. Everything went smoothly until I arrived at my gate. Each gate has an additional security screening and there was no water or restrooms past this security point. Plan accordingly. There is the standard security screening as you enter into the gate area also – so two security gates.

What to avoid

Hotel Restaurants:
The Raffles Hotel restaurants: overpriced and frankly - just not worth it. The hotel itself is very lovely, but the food just didn’t cut it. We ate at the Long Bar, a steakhouse and it was super expensive and super pedestrian.
One-Ninety at the Four Seasons: Seriously? You are going to charge me that much for fried rice? Puh-lease. It wasn’t even that good!

Unless you call for a taxi, forget about it. The little taxi stands along the streets are worthless (you cannot flag down a cab, you must wait at the stand). We asked a local about this and were told that a cab driver makes more when responding to a call to pick up a specific person at a specific location. We would actually see cabs go by and turn on their “on call” light before passing us at the stand and then turn it back off. Either carry cards for some taxi services, use MRT or be ready to hoof it.

If you have never smelled the horrible stench of this fruit, well, I suppose in some ways you ARE missing something but not a pleasant experience. People are forbidden to buy this and bring it back to hotels and such. The stench is strong, powerful, rotten and carries a long, long distance. Since I couldn’t get within 20 feet of vendor selling the fruit, I certainly did not TASTE it . . . and really, why would you??

One Perfect Day: Singapore

I was fortunate to be staying in the Four Seasons since I was on business travel. For female travelers, you have to realize tank-tops won’t get you into the temples and mosques and will cause you to freeze in the shops and air-conditioned places. I wore a long-sleeved white linen shirt, a skirt and slip-on shoes. Obey the local laws: no spitting, no chewing gum, etc. The upside of all the laws is that Singapore is an amazingly clean, modern city with a very polite culture and excellent service wherever you go.

First stop: “Little India”. It is a bit difficult to navigate Little India – sidewalks sometimes vanish or end up being very broken and sporadic. Compared to the rest of Singapore, this is a bit disconcerting. After exiting the MRT system, we found a great place called Mustards on Race Course Road. The server kept asking me about “gravy” and I never really did figure out what he m
eant, but the food was fantastic!

There is a very notable Hindu temple to Vishnu,
Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road. It is open air and very elaborate, very beautiful. To the Western eye, it may seem like a bit much – but take a moment to realize Indian culture values color more than our culture. Look everywhere and notice everything. There are statues that are just stunning and carvings that are amazing. You must remove your shoes to enter. Continuing along Race Course Road the Buddhist temple, Leon
g San See Taoist Temple, also known as the Dragon Mountain Temple, was just stunning. Even someone as cynical I as can be truly moved by this place. Past the entrance is an open air courtyard. When I arrived the monks were singing a chant to their ancestors. There were birds in cages around the courtyard contributing in their own way to the chant – it was overall just an incredible experience.

Along the same street, there are a couple more Buddhist templates, neither as interesting as the first. The temple with the “great” Buddha (
Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple) wasn’t as interesting as the Lonely Planet book made it seem. It did have an adorable “guard cat” who was hanging out with the worshipers at prayer. If I have my history correct, this is suppose to be one of the oldest temples to Buddha in the city and notable for making slight concessions to Hinduism.

Along the way, we found the Tekka Mall. If you have time, there are plenty of vendors here happy to fit a traditional Indian outfit for you. The shops are amazing and varied – silk, gold, purses, food – definitely a place to visit, though I suspect there is an aspect of “buyer beware” going on here.

Taking the MRT to Chinatown, when you come up out of the subway it is a bit surprising. Chinatown in San Francisco and New York are a bit gritty. The Singapore Chinatown has wider streets and is spotless. It is also very, very beautif
ul! The two or three story buildings are painted a vast amount of colors with shuttered windows and the odd advertisement painting on the building itself. The red paper lanterns strung across the streets must be really made of plastic since they survived the downpour I was trapped in. The streets are paved with brick and stone and no cars allowed. During said downpour, we ducked into a place called “8 Treasures” to get something to eat and escape the rain. Air-conditioning greeted us and we scored a window seat! The place had a colonial feel to it and the staff were fantastic. The food is all vegetarian but extremely good. The spicy Schezwan soup was amazing and the olive fried rice seemed to be missing the olives but was delicious just the same. The chrysanthemum tea was a new thing for me and I loved it!

Skip the Chinatown Complex – completely lame. We ran into it to avoid the rain (which had started up again) and it wasn’t anything special. There is that special fruit that smells horrid – Durian - and there was a vendor here selling it. The smell permeated the whole complex.
Watch out for the jewelry shops. Seriously. They have A/C which draws you in “just to look” and you walk out significantly poorer. However, if you are good at saying “no” (and meaning it) and at bargaining, you can score some good deals here.

At this point, you should be thoroughly exhausted and it is time to call it a day!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

San Francisco: Best of Alcatraz

Alcatraz is a self-guided tour with audio tours available. The boat ride over is short but with gorgeous views (on a clear day). It will almost always be chilly on the water so bring a jacket. If you are around the Pier 39 area and think you are just a very short walk from Pier 33 - think again. It is about a 10 minute walk or more depending on how much energy you have left.

Friday, August 28, 2009

San Francisco: Best of the Academy of Science

The food options are pretty lame for families and overall, the experience is expensive. However, the planetarium is freakin' AWESOME despite the preachy monologue that goes with it. The aquarium is very cool and the rainforest is OK.

Go early in the day and when everyone else is working or at school for the best experience.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cabo San Lucas: Adventures in Lodging

In two trips to Cabo, we've tried two very different lodging experiences.

Our first trip, we rented a condo at Terrasol. If you aren't familiar with the geography of the area, this is on the Pacific side. You almost go through a pass in the hills to get to this area and it very quiet over here. The water is much rougher and swimming is not recommended or even realistic - the water is usually freezing. However, it is pretty quiet over here in general and the beaches aren't crowded and filled with people peddling goods (private beaches - it isn't allowed).

Terrasol is an older condo complex and there isn't really anything special about it. We had a decent place and could see the ocean from our deck. No room service, no housekeeping service but we had a full kitchen, washing machine and a dishwasher.

The second trip, we stayed at the Villa del Palmar. It was part of an overall package and given the price, we figured just do it.

Hmmm. . . .well, you get what you pay for. See my previous post on being stalked in our hotel to sign up for a timeshare tour. Add to that the water went out at least three times, once while I was in the shower. The A/C went out on the hottest day of the week and stayed out for over 12 hours. When we called the front desk, they were surly and unable to give us an ETA on when it would be fixed. Each room does have a sitting room area and a balcony, along with a kitchen (though only burner worked) with pots, pans and dishes.

The pool area wasn't bad, if you stayed at the top pool area. The bottom pool was water aerobics, crazy guy screaming into a microphone, loud music and general chaos pretty much all day. At night - same thing. If you prefer a little less chaos, I would suggest you do not get a room overlooking the pool.

The restaurant on the ocean, Bella California, was average. The food wasn't too expensive but it wasn't thrilling either. Dinner was better than lunch/brunch. The drinks were cheap but not very strong. The staff were very sweet and helpful and the view was stunning, but you did have to watch out for folks stopping below and trying to sell their wares - jewelry, t-shirts, rugs, ceramic works, etc.

Palmar is probably best for people with kids, or college students who want to keep it wild and crazy day and night. We browsed through the neighboring property, Villa del Arco, which seemed much more low key (and had a nice steakhouse!) but I was a little put off by the pirate ship bar. Not kidding - El Buccaneer - a life size pirate ship for your drinking pleasure. Arrrr mateys!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Cabo Pulmo: Snorkel!

This is one remote and very cool place! Be prepared for the journey if you drive it - about two hours from Cabo San Lucas and the last 6-7 miles are on a rough, rutted and bumpy dirt road. We lost a hubcap on our rental car on this road (the driver will remain unnamed) but since it was plastic the rental agency didn't charge too much.

The Cabo Dive Center is the place here. I'm not kidding, it is the only game in ... the village. We went out on the snorkel tour, which lasts about two hours. Bring a waterproof bag with and some supplies: water, snacks, lip balm, sunscreen and a towel. They provide the boat and the wetsuit. Visibility and water-temp vary day to day and they tend to run operations almost on a day-by-day basis. The winds can get strong enough to make visibility near zero and they won't run trips in those conditions.

The first snorkel stop was really pretty damn cool, though there were jellyfish in the area. This was my favorite spot and they gave us plenty of time to fully explore. The second spot was at the rocks of a sea lion colony! It seemed gimicky to me at first, but I have to admit it was pretty cool to see one swim by all of maybe six feet from you. The final snorkel location was over a coral reef and was a fairly short stop due to the water temperature being pretty darn chilly (even in a wetsuit) that day.

If you make the trip, you should realize this is pretty bare bones operation - but the people are phenomenal. The boat is a motorboat so don't expect anything fancy. In fact, you might be asked to help launch it. We tipped our guide and boat captain and they seemed surprised. If you forgot a camera, they have one underwater camera available for renting (first come first serve) at $30 USD – this includes images written to a CD.

Once you return, venture upstairs to the Coral Reef restaurant. Again - is the only game in town but the food is good, the place is clean and the prices are great.

If you are into scuba, they have a ton of scuba spots here and I can imagine it would be truly stunning. Makes me wish I had my diving certification!!

Visiting Los Cabos: the Timeshare Gauntlet

Every time I walk off the plane in Cabo San Jose, I want to scream. This isn’t usually how I like to start a vacation, but it should say something for Los Cabos that I love this place even though my first reaction is to scream and maybe even hurt people.

Why the visceral reaction? The madness begins in the airport (A/C never seems to work) with customs. Find your bag, hand it to the screener, push a button, randomly get screened. OK, this part isn’t too bad and in fact, it is the best part of the airport.
After this you walk into a lobby area where there is a sudden rush of individuals wearing official-looking airport security badges. They all are there to help you find a car, a hotel, excursions, etc. Actually, they are NOT there to help you and I’ve had one flat out lie to me before: “The Hertz shuttle just left, ma’am, so you have time to just step over here and speak with me, I have a deal for you”. As it turns out, Hertz had gone out of business in that airport; hence, there could not be a Hertz shuttle at all. This lobby of helpful folks are all there to sign you up for a timeshare tour. Do not be fooled.

If you are lucky enough to have rented from a rental car company still in business and running shuttles (stupid Hertz – you suck!!!), proceed to the rental car fun. The price is negotiable – trust me. And that free map and guide book they just provided? It has your rental car agent’s name and cell phone number in there so you can contact him for a timeshare tour. By the way, (as you get into your car), would you like to sign up for a timeshare tour? I can provide you a voucher toward your rental car expenses.

The drive to Cabo San Lucas is lovely – take the toll road and avoid traffic in downtown Cabo San Jose. At your hotel, avoid picking up your “welcome package”, your “free” drink coupons and having your ass signed up for yet another timeshare tour. At Villa Palomar I finally had to go down and stand there for 10 minutes and let them show me their favorite attractions on a map, all the while building to the timeshare tour request I knew was coming and had refused several times. However, I realize they have a job to do and they will STALK YOU in your hotel until you at least give them a few minutes. Don’t sit down. Say no, request no additional notes under your door, following of you to the pool or phone calls to your room.

After that, you should be able to enjoy your vacation!

To be fair, if you have the time, energy and the ability to say “no” with a vengeance, our first trip to Cabo we did a tour and got about $200 USD off our rental car. I wouldn’t do a tour for anything less than $200 USD. If you decide to do it, negotiate like a devil – you’ll get what you want. And I realize these folks are just doing a job that (probably) corporate America is paying them to do – I sympathize with that – but damn! No, means NO!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Home is where the Heart is: San Francisco

My first entry - I have oodles of stuff from all over the globe, but my first entry has to be about San Francisco! Stealing an idea from United Airlines in flight magazine, I give you:
One Perfect Day in San Francisco

If you are an early bird and like to run, head out to the Embarcadero. This is one of the few flat areas of the city and on the "warmer" side of town.

If you still have energy, climb the Filbert Street stairs. These are pretty famous, but hard to find. You'll find the entrance on Sansome, between Greenwich and Union St. The famous wild parrots of Telegraph Hill can be found along these stairs and you will see one of the few remaining wooden roads along the climb (can you imagine LIVING there? How do you get the groceries in?). Keep climbing and you'll reach Coit Tower at the top and 360 views of SF.

Once you've burned a few calories, it is time to earn them. The Park Chalet opens at 8am for brunch on the weekends and has some great bloody mary's to help start your day off right. (UPDATE: Recently visited Park Chalet and the Sunday Brunch SUCKS! Visit Absinthe in Hayes Valley instead and ask for Josef. You won't regret it!) Once you have stumbled out of the Park Chalet, head up the Great Highway to the ruins of Sutro Baths. I've been here a dozen times and still love it. There is a cliff to climb, a tunnel, big waves, ruins and bird-watching. How can you go wrong? Of course, this is probably a good time to warn you that at all times you must be ready for huge temperature changes in SF. Sutro gets strong breezes off the ocean and lots of fog. You've been warned.

From Sutro, work your way across Golden Gate Bridge. Seriously, drive slowly across the bridge - locals LOVE it. Well, it isn't too bad if you stay in the right lane. Once you cross the bridge, skip the Vista exit (too crowded) and go to the next exit: Alexander. As you exit, cross back under the highway, follow the road as it starts to go up the hill. Stay to the left if you are presented with a fork in the road. At some point, you will be above the towers of Golden Gate Bridge. I refer to this area as the Marin Headlands - not sure if that is the official name or not. At the top are old tunnels from a military fort and a hill to climb to reach "Hawk Hill". The random ruins are cool to see and the tunnels are fun. (Bring a flashlight - one tunnel has cave paintings in it!). On a foggy day, you may not be able to see the city but standing up there in the mist and hearing the fog horns is just amazing. As you drive back down the hill, take advantage of the turn-offs on this side of the road for different views of the city and the Bridge.

Head back across GG Bridge (don't forget to drive super-slow) and be sure to have your cash ready for the toll booth. Back in the city, head to the parking garage at Sutter and Stockton, near Union Square. You are going to be parked for awhile and this is the largest and best-value garage in the area.

Head out to the Chinatown gate on Grant Ave and just enjoy yourself. There are plenty of places to eat in Chinatown and I would encourage you to just pick one and try it (maybe check first). Two things you really want to see in Chinatown: the Tien Hau Temple (unmarked on the outside, trust the address you have, climb the stairs and have your fortune told) and the Golden Gate Cookie Factory. Chinatown might be a bit overwhelming and I've sent you down some dark alleys for cookies and up scary stairs in a tiny building...but I have always felt perfectly safe in Chinatown day or night.

You are in the area, so it is time to visit Union Square. If you love to shop, this is the place. Of course, our sales tax is almost 10% now, so watch out. The green center in Union Square is a great place to people watch and if you decide to ride the cable cars, stand in line at the cablecar turnaround at Powell and Market. If you are still hungry and the weather is good, Belden Place has tons of cafes, all with outdoor seating. Warning: Sunday until about 5pm is deader than a doornail around here. Forget about Sunday brunch in Belden Place.

Now that you've spent all your money at Prada, Tiffany's and William-Sonoma, time to think about your evening plans. Hopefully you are staying in or near Union Square and have time to change out the hiking clothes for something snazzier. SF isn't a formal-wear kind of city, but people do display a bewildering mix of fashion around here.

Since you are smart and read this blog, you already have reservations and the password for your pre-dinner cocktails at the secret speakeasy Bourbon and Branch. By this time you probably think I'm crazy as you walk along (in your fun night-on-the-town dress-up clothes) a seedier area of San Francisco. Trust me, you are going to be fine. Just don't make eye-contact.

Once you've enjoyed a few cocktails at B&B, catch a cab and head out to Ana Mandara. This place has been around for a while and I recommend going earlier in the evening - they have an odd tendency to break out the disco balls and rave music on the weekends. No idea what that is all about. After you have stuffed yourself on the wokked tournedos of beef and the garlic noodles, cross the street and walk into Aquatic Park. I adore this area at night - the view is great and the tourists leave this place alone at night so it is relatively quiet and peaceful. Oops. You are a tourist aren't you? Well, don't let any other tourists know the secret!

Time to catch a cab and head back to your hotel. Unless. . . you feel like doing something totally childish, foolish and drunk: Seward Street Slides. I cannot be held responsible if you end up touring our city hospital (as a patient) afterwards.