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.