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Far from Home for the Holidays: a San Francisco Travel Log
photo by Studio Rase
Union Square Christmas tree
On December 19, 2010, I’m armed with my boarding pass, slip on shoes—with socks, of course, dears—the backpack I’ve been putting items in for the past two months since securing the tickets, and my Kindle. My faithful partner not only agreed to awaken at 4 a.m., she agreed to drive me to the airport a bit extra-early. Let me tell you, that’s love! I got there extra early, so I breezed through security. If you are not an experienced flyer, make sure to wear socks in the airport. Walking through a scanner barefoot is not a happy experience. Also, put your pocket stuff and your wallet into your shoes. Then you can carry everything to one place and dress again and not worry about whether you’ve forgotten to get everything. Someone left behind her hat, which would have been quite useful wherever she was going.

I found my seat, and discovered I was sharing a row with a nice young woman, on the aisle, who was raised in Berkeley and headed home, and a rather petite young woman, who, fortunately, had the middle seat. We were all polite and quite comfortable. If you’ve not flown for awhile, remember to bring some food with you or a credit or debit card. Airlines no longer take cash, for the most part, and they also no longer serve food, unless you are paying for First Class seating. If you are in Business or Economy, prepare to be prepared by purchasing food in the airport or make sure you’re flexible about what you are eating—the snack boxes and choices are limited. New options like paying $6 for transcontinental Direct TV may be right up your alley. Rather than relying on watching “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” you will have access to a number of different options, depending upon the airline you choose. A few minutes after making these observations, we put our seats in the full, upright and locked positions, fastened our seatbelts, and we were winging our way across the country into a headwind that added 90 minutes to the flight. Airborne, with the rising sun chasing us from the Poconos and over the Rockies, we were off.

Arriving in San Francisco is a treat. It’s also slightly scary if you don’t know ahead of time that the approach before landing is almost entirely over water, till the runway appears as a deus ex machina. Having made that discovery years ago, I’ve found that it’s enjoyable to look around the plane for the first-time visitors. You’ll know them by their white knuckles, as they try to look nonchalant. I admit, though, that the white caps on the Bay made for a bit of wing waggle on the way down.

Like many travelers, my sister and I have a tradition—if we are arriving, we go up to Departures where there is generally little to no traffic. The pick-up vehicle then essentially does a drive-by and away we go! My sister surprised me by being there on pick-up—I thought she had to work! But away we went into what we call drizzle on the East Coast, but in the West, they call rain. Considering they get so little rain and the water takes a while to run off, we’ll go with local terminology.

We headed out toward the San Mateo Bridge, across the white capped, muddy bay and toward the Altamont Pass. The Altamont Pass is near Tracy, California, about an hour from the San Francisco airport. Only about 1,000 feet at elevation, the hills rise as the pass divides Livermore Valley from the San Joaquin Valley. Cattle graze on hills so steep I wonder whether their legs are shorter on one side to accommodate them. Did the hills look greener because of the rain? Paths of even more verdant green make their way down the hills as well. Those hills are crested with wind turbines, including some of the shorter ones that move more quickly, some of the very large ones that move much more slowly, graceful leviathans that remind me that, wherever people are, there’s a thirst for energy.

Later, we arrived home at the three bedroom townhome where Deb and Kris live. Decked out for Christmas everywhere, including in the room that would be mine for my stay—there’s something special about sleeping under a quilt with a smiling snowman that makes a holiday feel more festive! I unpacked and then tucked away for a long winter’s nap.

After a leisurely and relaxing day, the three of us headed off, on the morning of the 21st, for a quick two-day stay in the City by the Bay. San Francisco beckoned us to sample her seafood and look at her painted ladies—the lovingly restored Victorian houses that add such charm to a city that, like Rome, must keep rebuilding herself. In the early 1900s, the Earthquake razed so much of the downtown area that, in relative terms, most buildings are fin de siècle, early 20th century.

Deb and Kris should go into travel planning—Deb got us accommodations that were literally around the corner from the tour company, at Fisherman’s Wharf, for which we had a 48-hour pass. We were three grrls on the town, and we caught the loop that included Coit Tower and the Embarcadero, landing us at Union Square. From Union Square, we transferred to the Park Loop that took us out to the California Academy of Sciences. We had an hour to wait for the Park Loop, so we grabbed a quick lunch in the lower level of Macy’s, then hopped the bus that took us to penguins, planetariums and pythons. There is an actual rainforest environment, and real reindeer were visiting for the holiday. When you can get a holiday picture taken with an albino alligator, I highly recommend the experience! The planetarium show on the origins of life is a must-see and Golden Gate Park itself is amazing.

One of the chief virtues of the bus tours is that you can get a survey of the areas of interest in a town and then determine where you want to go back to visit. We taxied back to the tour office from the Park so we could catch the night tour—San Francisco in her lovely lights is truly something to behold. And lucky us! Our tour guide, Keith, was on the night tour as well as the Park Loop! We had a great time, enjoying his take on the sights and sounds of the town.

Returning to the tour office, we were right at the fringe of Fisherman’s Wharf. This is a working seaport and many of the fishermen’s boats you see are directly affiliated with restaurants. We went to one such place and enjoyed crab pizza and their signature cioppino, featuring garlicky Dungeness crab, clams, mussels, snapper, calamari, shrimp, and tomatoes, braised in a mélange of spices including fragrant fennel. Just the right hot food to take the chill off from the fog and damp that gathered like a smoky veil at the end of the night-time tour. We stopped into a few souvenir shops before heading off to a tasty glass of red wine in the hotel room, Deb and I in matching pajamas, as twins should be.

The next morning started with coffee and bagels on the run as we caught the Golden Gate/Sausalito Loop. Ulrich, our tour guide, said that the fall and winter were great for seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, as the summer heat often shrouds the iconic bridge in fog. Cooler weather makes for more interesting scenes. We certainly found that to be correct. We had beautiful views on the approach and also crossing the Golden Gate. As we wound down into Sausalito, I found myself wishing for an extra day to spend just there. My partner couldn’t make the trip with me this time, so the delights were bittersweet for me, but I would have lots of stories to bring home—including getting stranded in Sausalito, when our open back school-bus type tour bus wouldn’t start! We got a bit of extra time in Sausalito, but it made for interesting commuting for our afternoon at the Smuin Ballet, for which we had tickets.

Take advantage of technology, including the myriad ways to get discounted opportunities for wonderful events. Initially Deb and Kris had two only two tickets for the matinee performance by Smuin Ballet. This young company was founded in 1994 and has been in the Bay Area for the last 15 years. Dedicated to bringing dance to wider audiences, its Christmas Ballet Program had two acts. The first act concentrated on the Classical forms and music, which were beautifully imagined and executed. The second act consisted of dance settings, with many balletic touches, set to popular holiday tunes. A sense of humor permeated the entire program and certain songs really stood out for me—among them, “Santa Baby,” with a siren moving her way through the men of the company, and “Blue Christmas,” where a red-clad Elvis-type heartthrob gently fended off madly fanatic fans with identical blonde bobs and different outfits, each with a different approach and mini pas-de-deux with our hero. The one that really wowed me was his dance with the fan whose first dance move began above his head, and then she would down past his shoulders and chest, his waist, and finally his knees, in a fluid corkscrew motion that is a tribute to the dancer’s craft. What a way to celebrate the holidays!

Deb and Kris and I stopped in at Mel’s Diner on the way back to the car—traffic was going to be a bear getting out of the City on a weekday, so we stopped for some “real” diner food. Fans of “American Graffiti” will find rich rewards in a visit to one of the four Bay Area eateries, as it is rich with photos and the feel of a 1950s diner, and there are lots of photographs of the filming of this iconic movie. Chief among the attractions include the push button jukebox at every table, in the town where jukeboxes were invented! Yup! Jukeboxes were invented in San Francisco!—at least according to our tour guides.

Home again, home again, through the darkened Altamont. and to a good night’s sleep. Could Christmas be so close?

On Christmas Eve, my sister had to work, so Kris and I surprised Deb by putting together a gingerbread train and house and decorating them. Confidentially, I’m not a huge gingerbread fan, but the decorating was fun. I’m also not big on sweets, but I knew Deb and Kris would enjoy the treats long after the Holiday was done. Kris and I also prepared herbs for my sister’s famous stuffing and turkey.

On Christmas Day, we had great fun with stockings and presents. Deb and Kris are very generous and the holidays spent with adults really should include toys and goofy good fun. If you’d like to play Band Hero with me on my DS Lite, join me! We can thank Deb and Kris

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