Sunday, October 16, 2016

Aquarium of the Bay: San Francisco's Underwater Adventure

When I traveled to Seattle in the summer of 2011, I declined a visit to the city's aquarium. Looking back on that decision, I regret it, because the aquarium looks very pretty when I see photos of it online. I vowed not to make the same mistake again when I took a holiday to San Francisco last month. The "Aquarium of the Bay" is a small aquarium compared to most, but it promised a lot from what I saw on good ol' Pinterest, and I am happy to report that it did NOT fail to deliver!

The Aquarium of the Bay is extremely easy to access, as its entrance is located right at the mouth of Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf. You can buy tickets from a kiosk at the base of the escalator that leads up to the aquarium's elevated entrance, or you can buy tickets directly inside the aquarium before going on a self-guided tour through the building. Tickets cost $24.95 for adults, $14.95 for seniors and children aged 4-12, and families of four can get a deal at $68.00. I'm sure there are plenty of other deals, such as special rates for locals and tour packages, but it is pretty easy to navigate their website so I encourage you to check it out for yourself.

A vibrant starfish greets you in the first room of the Aquarium of the Bay

Some quick facts about the aquarium before I take you on my virtual tour: the aquarium boasts over 20,000 sea creatures, of which their most popular assortment of animals includes sharks and mantra rays. As you stroll through the aquarium, you will walk through two glass tunnels that cut through 700,000 gallons of salt water used to house an amazing variety of swimmers. The aquarium has built several nursery and animal husbandry programs since it opened back in 1996, so a lot of the species living in the tanks have been successfully bred in captivity and were never taken from the wild. (I know a lot of people are against aquariums due to the animals being caged. I don't know if it makes you feel better to know that they aren't missing the wide open ocean because they don't know any better? They also aren't being caught in nets and fried up, so that is a plus too, I suppose.)

I see you, little guy!

When you first walk into the aquarium's main building, you enter a series of showrooms that prepare you for what is to come later on in your aquarium tour. Glass floor to ceiling tanks showcase various exotic fish, like 'Nemo' and 'Dory' (clownfish and blue tang respectively). Sunfish, starfish, urchins, and other creatures adorn these tanks, giving visitors an up-close view of reef life. A tall, circular tank in the centre of one of the rooms features a glittering mass of sardines gliding together in the water.

One of the more brilliant fish tanks at the Aquarium of the Bay

One tank was a reality check for me, displaying what the ocean floor predominately looks like today. Sunken bottles, old tires, and other garbage had been integrated into this remake of the sea floor, with coral decorating the litter like rock candy, and fish flitting in and out of the debris. It was very sad, but also strangely pretty.

The garbage display tank - sad but still kind of pretty...

Past these two showrooms, you are greeted by an aquarium employee who offers to take your photo. You are set against a green screen wall, and the aquarium staff will later superimpose you in front of an image of either the Golden Gate Bridge or a scene from the aquarium. We decided to do a silly one, and the aquarium employee was extremely patient and accommodating for us. We couldn't wait to see the results!

Just beyond the photo booth, visitors will encounter an elevator that leads down into the heart of the aquarium. Our elevator operator was a twenty-something So-Cal surfer dude who recited his spiel on the way down both with boredom AND a sense of humour, something that was oddly impressive.

When the elevator doors parted, I was instantly in awe. The first room past the lift was dark, with tanks along the walls and one large ceiling to floor tank directly in the middle of the circular space. Each tank was softly lit, and inside them luminescent jellyfish floated dreamily through the waters. It was beautiful and mesmerizing: I could have stayed in that room all day.

Beautiful and mesmerizing jellyfish at the Aquarium of the Bay

And then, past this beautifully haunting room, was the first of the two underwater tunnels that I had been so excited to see. Standing inside the tunnel, you had an amazing view of sharks, mantra rays, sturgeon, and other large and small fish. Not only did you see them swimming alongside the tunnel, but quite often you got a really neat view of them as they swam right over top your head towards the opposite side.

A shark swimming right over our heads in the aquarium's tunnel

Very strategic lighting made the tunnels dark enough to see everything in the water beyond the glass, but also offered eerie effects, with green and purple lights highlighting certain areas. The only negative thing about the tunnel areas was that they got quite crowded and a little loud - no one wanted to move on and people tended to congest the area.

The tunnels could get crowded and loud at times.

However, I LOVED walking through the tunnels. As I said before, this aquarium is a small one in the grand scheme of things, so there wasn't a TON to see and do there. But the tunnels made it all worth while. We lingered a lot longer in the second tunnel, because we noticed a really fat manta ray just lounging on the bottom of the 'sea floor', and it seemed to be panting. The other manta rays around it were much flatter and much more active. An aquarium employee stopped by to see what we were all pointing at, and explained to us that this particular manta ray was pregnant and had been for a long time. (Manta rays gestate for about one year.) Her panting was hopefully a sign that she might be ready to go into labour, but the employee also noted that it could be a very long process.

My lovely friend Jennis surrounded by floating manta rays

The aquarium employee also said that they had been watching this particular ray in the hopes they would catch her during or shortly after her delivery, because she was in a tank with sharks. As the aquarium tries to replicate real ocean life as much as possible, she told us that newly born offspring can sometimes be eaten by other animals before the aquarium has a chance to send in a diver and remove the babies. Indeed, smaller sharks seemed to be congregating in the area near this poor pregnant manta ray. We were quite sad by this and stood there for about ten minutes, watching this fish puffing in and out, willing her to pop out her little mantra ray baby. It didn't happen and we had to move on.

Manta rays relaxing on the 'sea floor' of the tunnel aquarium

The tunnels and connecting rooms take you on a loop of the aquarium's lower level. Suddenly, you find yourself back at the elevator and zooming back up to the main floor. There you get to have a bit more of a hands-on experience with the aquarium's touch pools. A guide informs you of the proper manner in which to touch the young manta ray that is zooming through the shallow pool (one finger only, and only on the very tip of the ray's wing). Supposedly you can touch a shark too, but I didn't see one in the pool that day.

There is also a tide pool where you can one-finger touch starfish, urchins, and other tide pooly creatures.

I am a marine explorer and excited about it!

Not only are sea creatures featured in this part of the aquarium, but other reptiles and wildlife can be viewed. Frogs, snakes, and lizards creep around in their glass houses, peering out at you.

One part I didn't enjoy about the touch pool room was the dissection booth, where a young man was cutting open a squid to an audience of rapt children. Yes, it was educational, and yes it was interesting, and yes I caught myself listening to him explain how they created their ink, but I was sad to see that little guy getting all sliced up on a table. I hoped he had died from natural causes first.

The squid dissection in all its inky glory

Finally, we turned a corner and entered a room reserved solely for the river otters. This room made me sad. The male otter was just swimming in endless loops in a little pool, back and forth, back and forth. Then he'd stop, leap out, run to check on his mate, who was sleeping all curled up in her den, and then run back to the pool and just loop and loop and loop. I am no expert on river otters, but to me it seemed like a depressing thing and I felt quite sorry for him. If anyone knows more about the topic, please inform me if this is normal behaviour or not for an otter. I didn't stay long in that room.

After the river otters, the path leads you straight to the gift shop. We weren't in the market for aquarium souvenirs, but we did check out our photo booth results. It was hilarious, and even though we looked like total tourists, we bought it. I think it sums up our entire aquarium experience, don't you?

It is so fun to look ridiculous...

If you do find yourself hanging out on Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I suggest you take a break from the hot sun and pedestrian chaos to explore the Aquarium of the Bay. It isn't too expensive, it is air conditioned, and it has some really beautiful features. Just go with the flow!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Baker Beach: The Perfect San Francisco View

When I visited San Francisco in late September, I arrived in town with a giant list of things I wanted to see and do. Some items on that list were of your typical tourist fare, such as crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, but some were a little less glamorous. Dipping my feet in the Pacific Ocean from the sandy shores of Baker Beach was one of those items. And even though poking my toes into cold sand on a windy beach might not sound that fantastic, it was worth it completely!

The amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Baker Beach

Why Baker Beach in particular? There are several beaches in the bay area, so you may be wondering why I had Baker Beach in mind. 

As I had been researching San Francisco before my trip, because I obsess over travel like that, I had repeatedly seen photographs of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge as seen from a distance, all with a fantastic view and perspective. And each of those photos had been taken from Baker Beach. 

 Me, very excited to be at Baker Beach

Not only did the beach have an amazing panorama of the bridge, Marin Headlands on the southern edge of the bay, and the cliffs at the northern mouth of the bay, but it revealed a picturesque snapshot of the ocean. The wide waters were clear until a couple of miles out, where they then disappeared into a bank of fog. 

My ladies and I put our best foot forward at the beach

The beach was nearly deserted when we arrived around 10:30 in the morning, with only a couple of people out walking their dogs and a lone runner dashing through the wet sand. Otherwise we had the place to ourselves. We popped off our shoes, rolled up our pant legs, and made our way to the shoreline. I made life difficult for myself by not-so-gracefully dashing down a steep sand dune, nearly face-planting, while my friends wisely and calmly walked down a staircase leading to the beach. Typical me.

One of my besties, Jennis, and I with the Golden Gate Bridge behind us

We spent about half an hour at Baker Beach, writing in the sand, playing in the waves, taking photos of the bridge and each other, and generally enjoying the relaxing atmosphere. One of the dogs that was out for a walk took a moment to come see us and get some pets and attention.

Jumping for joy at Baker Beach

I wanted to steal away from the beach for a little while to explore the unique-looking treed area near us, where picnic tables and fire pits could be seen peering through scruffy shrubs. The trees were very interesting, and I was curious to see them up close, but the beach and the refreshing waves were too much fun. However, if I were to go back, I might have to pack a lunch and stay for a little longer. For us at the time, half an hour was great and we were ready to head down to explore the wharf.

Dipping my feet in the Pacific Ocean

If you DO happen to attend Baker Beach with your family in the hopes of having a picnic and a splash in the waves, please be aware that Baker Beach is a nudist beach, in a way. (It used be legal to sunbathe nude there, but was made illegal in 2012, although rumour has it people still choose to exercise the right to ‘go nekkid' there.) While we didn't see anyone baring it all on that day, there is a possibility that you might see someone sunbathing ‘au natural’. It was a chilly, windy day when we visited, so that’s probably why we weren’t the odd men out while wearing clothes! 

Baker Beach is completely worth the side trip

So if the thought of visiting a nudist beach for a morning or afternoon of sightseeing doesn’t bother you, then finding your way to Baker Beach is pretty easy. It is a 7 minute drive from the Golden Gate Bridge southern parking lot. I could give you exact directions here, but it is probably easier for you to just Google Maps “Baker Beach” from your location and find a quick route. The best method to travel there is by car, and Baker Beach has a large parking lot that is meter-free, which is nice. You could also take the bus, or bike, or walk - walking there takes about half an hour from the Golden Gate Bridge Information Centre. 

Our San Francisco trip was one memorable adventure

However you arrive, you won’t be disappointed your final destination. For me, the best part of Baker Beach was the incredible sight of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, with the waves crashing and the cliffs looming. I left feeling refreshed and relaxed, ready to tackle the rest of San Francisco with gusto. Enjoy your time at the beach!

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Beauty of California's Muir Woods

One of the places I was most excited to visit during my trip to San Francisco was Muir Woods. Technically titled Muir Woods National Monument, this majestic forest is part of the U.S. National Park Service for a good reason: it contains amazing, gigantic, and OLD redwood trees. I couldn't wait to wrap my arms around one.

To save money, I and my fellow travellers had decided to stay in a hotel in Corte Madera rather than in San Francisco itself. It made for a bit of a trek when we wanted to explore the city of San Fran, but it also meant we were pretty close to the Muir Woods access road, which is north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Muir Woods is an amazing place to visit in California

One of the friends that I was traveling with had unfortunately developed a really nasty migraine and was forced to miss this adventure. This post is as much for her as it is for my faithful blog readers. I want her to get to see some of what she missed, poor thing.

Muir Woods National Monument is located about 42 minutes north of the heart of downtown San Francisco. The access ramp is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but there is a bit of a drive involved. A very twisty, very turn-y drive on a narrow road full of hairpin curves and sharp drops just off the side. Please drive with patience and caution, and if you get carsick at all, take your anti-nausea medication! I don't even get carsick and I was feeling a little pukey but the time we arrived at our destination. Just a word of warning to you all.

Five ladies fitting inside a Coastal Redwood tree

I had read and read to come early to Muir Woods, mainly because of the parking. There are only three parking lots - a tiny one right by the main ticket windows, a larger one just down the road from that, and a third one a little further along. By the time we arrived, on a Monday in late September (so, off-season) at 10:00 a.m., all three parking lots were full and we just found a spot on the side of the road. If you plan on going to Muir Woods any later than mid-morning, I highly recommend taking a tour bus, or catching the shuttle, because you probably won't find parking if you drive yourself, and that's a long trek down a twisty road just to find out you have nowhere to park.

We got lucky, however, and happily made our way to the main ticket windows and the entrance to the Muir Woods trails.

Here at last! We made it to Muir Woods!

It is $10 for adults 16 and older to enter the park. Under 16 and your admission is free, so this is a great family activity. There are select free days, such as Veterans Day, but I suspect those days are also crazy busy. (Another argument for arriving early, I read, was that before 8 a.m. the ticket windows are closed but you can still hike the trails, so early birds get free admission. I am not sure if that is true, or if you will get charged for trespassing or whatnot, but that is something I did read. Don't blame me if you get arrested!)

I have always wanted to hug a giant tree

Once inside the 'park', I was instantly impressed. First, the park is extremely well-maintained and designed. The main path is really a wooden boardwalk, wide and smooth and in excellent condition. It is very wheelchair and stroller friendly, so once again, a great activity for families with any type of dynamic. Information boards dotted the sides of the boardwalk, giving facts about the flora, fauna, and history of the area.

The well-maintained boardwalk that creates Muir Wood's main path

Right away, you can begin to see the giant redwood trees standing proudly. I instantly started filling up my camera's memory.

Some facts I gleaned from the information boards in the park:

1. The trees in this forest are called Coastal Redwoods, not to be confused with the Giant Sequoias that are more common south of San Francisco. I had been flipping between those two terms, thinking they were the same type of tree, until I learned that. The Coastal Redwoods enjoy the cooler, wetter climate north of San Francisco, particularly the famous wet fog that rolls into the bay area from the ocean.

A Coastal Redwood from top to bottom

2. There aren't many Coastal Redwoods left. It makes sense, because the rest of the region has been cleared for towns, cities, and fields. (Think the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, which we also visited. There wasn't a redwood in sight during our Sonoma adventure, I can tell you that!) That's why Muir Woods is so important - it is one of the few remaining areas that harbours these majestic and giant trees.

3. Muir Woods is a relatively young forest. Coastal Redwoods can live to 2,200 years old, but the trees in Muir Woods average about 700 years old. Would that be a teenager in tree years? There are a few oldies that have been dated at 1,200 years, but that's about Muir Wood's oldest crowd. Pretty crazy to think of what the world was like when those trees were just seedlings!

A slice of a tree that was 'born' in 909 AD

Other notable vegetation in the area were the big, lush ferns that carpeted the forest floor beneath the redwoods. I also was very intrigued by a plant that looked a lot like horsetail (also called puzzlegrass or equisetum). Upon closer inspection, this 'plant' was actually off-shoots of the redwoods themselves, called basal sprouts. Apparently, coastal redwoods have a handy ability to set off sprouts from basically anywhere on their trunk. This helps them to quickly recover after damage from fire or insects.

The basal shoots of a Coastal Redwood

My group of ladies and I were originally only going to walk about half of the main trail to Bridge 3, just so we could take a peek at the notable Cathedral Grove, and then head back. We had a big to-do list that day, and didn't want to spend all day hiking the forest. However, it was so peaceful and beautiful there, once we hit Bridge 3 all of us unanimously decided to keep going. We walked all the way to the end of the boardwalk, crossed Bridge 4, and hiked back to the Information Centre on the elevated dirt path, Hillside Trail, that overlooked the main trail.

The trail was by no means strenuous. As I said earlier, the main boardwalk is flat and smooth, easily accessible to all. When we crossed Bridge 4 and made our way to the dirt path, we had to exert a little more energy, as the trail sloped upwards and at one point we had to climb a couple of flights of stairs. But that was the hardest we had to work. Otherwise, the trail is leisurely and easy for people of all ages to complete.

A map of Muir Wood's main trail

To complete the big loop, all the way to Bridge 4 and back, took us about two hours. We stopped for a ton of photos and I made some video clips for the blog, which leads me to believe if one was to just hike the trail, you could be done in an hour or an hour and a half easily. We enjoyed ourselves and took our time, and two hours was the perfect amount for us.

While you hike, remember to be as quiet as possible - there are about 500 signs encouraging visitors to be silent and respectful. Apparently many animals use the area for mating and raising families, and naturally millions of loud visitors would interrupt those processes. We barely saw any wildlife. As my friend Jennis pointed out, it was almost unnaturally quiet - the visitors were quiet, but even stranger, so was the wildlife. We didn't hear a single bird call until Bridge 3. (On a side note, Jennis is the friend who organized this girls' trip and brought all of us down with her to San Francisco. I've thanked her a billion times in person, but I'm thanking her on a global platform now. THANK YOU, JENNIS!)

The spider-isn canopy of the Muir Wood's redwood forest

We completed our hike around lunch time. We popped into the gift shop but it was busy and crowded (there were several tour buses parked in the lot by the time we finished our visit), and the lunch line at the little cafeteria was insane. Good thing we had thought to bring muffins in the car! I highly recommend you bring a lunch or a snack with you, because you might find yourself in that cafeteria line-up forever.

Muir Woods National Monument is something I would definitely like to see again; maybe next time I will attend with my family in tow. I would also make a whole day of it, because there are several more natural trails that branch off the main boardwalk that I would like to explore. Those trails lead you into the heart of the forest, and give you a less 'touristy' interaction with the redwoods.

Look up, wayyyyyy up!

Even so, seeing the Coastal Redwoods in all their glory was completely worth the trip. Muir Woods gets five stars from this girl - I highly recommend you visit!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What to do at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco

Sparkling waters, lazy sea lions, the smell of fried fish and garlic wafting through the air. Laughter, pigeons, wooden planks, and fresh sea breezes. A two-story carousel, and world-famous sour dough. Welcome to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco!

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco is a hub of activity for tourists, shoppers, diners, and sight-seers. It offers a variety of fun adventures for visitors, ranging from eating fresh seafood, to shopping for fun and tacky gifts to bring home, to catching a boat for a bay or Alcatraz tour, to delighting in the talents of street performers and musicians. During my week-long trip to San Francisco in late September, I and my intrepid gang of ladies managed to spend a portion of two days on the wharf to see what there was to see.

A view of the marina just off Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf

Before I go into too much detail, you might want to have a mental picture of the size and location of Fisherman's Wharf. The wharf is a large area, encompassing several piers and their attractions. Visually, the wharf begins at Pier 41 and follows the marina all the way to Pier 35. (The wharf technically begins a bit further west, up the street at Ghirardelli Square, but the main signpost for Fisherman's Wharf can be found on Pier 41, so that's where we began our journey on foot. It also can be said to end a little further east than Pier 35, because the Alcatraz tour boats board on Pier 33 where there are also activities to do.)

However, the busiest and most exciting area of Fisherman's Wharf can be found between Pier 41 and Pier 39. That is the area with all of the restaurants, cute shops, a naval museum, and the aquarium, among other things.

The famous sign for Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco

Be prepared, though! The wharf can be crowded and touristy. The prices in the shops are not that cheap. Later in the day, we discovered that despite the lovely ocean breeze, the wharf can be very hot in the afternoon sun. Pigeons abound, and swoop at your head, especially if you are holding food. (They also walk right in front of you, and more than once I almost squished one as I strolled the boardwalk.) If you are expecting these things, then you can alleviate any shock and/or annoyance you may have, and can then enjoy the experience. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Despite these very few negative points, all of which can be handled easily, Fisherman's Wharf is a great place to spend a day (or two, as we did). My top 8 activities and sights include:

1. Eating fresh seafood

I love to eat. This is no secret to anyone who knows me. But I REALLY love to eat fresh seafood. So tasty. And a great place to do this is on Fisherman's Wharf. From fresh calamari, to lobster sandwiches (not cheap at $22 per sandwich, but it looked incredible), to delicious clam chowder in a freshly baked sour dough bread bowl, the wharf has it all.

Both the clam chowder AND the sour dough bread are world famous on the wharf!

We ate in a variety of different restaurants. Some served us fried fish and coconut shrimp in cardboard containers, and gave us tartar sauce in little to-go packets. Some were more mid-grade restaurants. We made sure to eat at least one meal in a higher end restaurant where I had an amazing seafood linguine riddled with giant morsels of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and scallops. It was amazing.

Row upon row of mouth-watering seafood restaurants on Pier 41

Also, be sure to taste some of Boudin's famous sour dough. There are a few places you can purchase it between Pier 41 and Pier 39.

2. The Aquarium of the Bay

The Aquarium of the Bay is located on Pier 39, and is incredible. It isn't a large aquarium by any means, but it does have two underwater tunnels that put you right in the action. As I have a full post here (COMING SOON) on the aquarium I won't go into more detail, but I highly recommend you take a gander at my article to see what it is all about!

The Aquarium of the Bay is located on Pier 39

3. Watching the sea lions lounge

One of the coolest things on Pier 39 is the colony of sea lions that lounge on the wooden docks just beyond the main boardwalk. Dozens of them pile onto the small docks, packing themselves in like sardines. They sun themselves most of the day, ignoring the throngs of tourists snapping photos and 'oohing' and 'aahing'.

Lazy and large sea lions sunning themselves on the docks at Pier 39

When we visited, the majority of the sea lions were sleeping on the docks furthest away from the viewing deck. But a few big guys had found themselves on 'private' docks closer to us, so we were able to see them up close.

4. The two-level carousel

At the end of Pier 39, close to the water at the last set of shops, stands a pretty, glowing carousel. This wouldn't be an unusual sight in a busy tourist area, as they seem to be a dime a dozen on piers, in shopping malls, and in parks. But this particular carousel struck me because it was a two-story carousel: double the levels, double the fun.

The two-tier carousel at Pier 39

I didn't ride it, nor did I even check the price to ride it, because something even better was happening in the plaza next to the carousel. BUT if I happened to be at Pier 39 again, I would definitely take a spin!

5. Enjoying the talented street performers

We were lucky the day we first visited Fisherman's Wharf. Just past the two-tiered carousel, a huge crowd was assembled, and I could hear them laughing and cheering as I approached. Rounding the corner, I saw a small stage set up in the centre of the plaza, and on that stage, a muscular (and how!!!) man was balanced on a platform, which was supported by four cups, which were placed on another platform, which was balanced on a circular tube, which was balanced on a four-foot high table. It was insane, like something from "America's Got Talent".

This takes some core strength! I can't even handle ladders....

The performer was joking and bantering with the crowd, having people from the audience come up and toss him cups so he could build himself another level to balance on. He crept upwards, high above the crowd, balanced precariously on a cylinder that rolled dangerously from side to side. In the end, he was able to wow us with a handstand, balanced on four levels of platforms.

Moments before I helped myself to his abdominals... Yes, I am a creepy old woman

After the show, I went up to hand him some money - he sure earned it! - and my admiration for his, er, talent, must have been obvious because he posed for a picture with me and a friend (and I snuck in a little feel of his solid abdominal muscles). I think my husband needs to take up acrobatics!

6. Climbing the musical stairs

I walked down these stairs without even knowing it. You can really only tell that they are there when you walk UP the stairs. This little pathway has steps painted like piano keys, but only on the front portion of the planks. They play musical notes as you step on the 'keys', but the sound of the music is somewhat drowned out by the general melee of the wharf itself.

The nifty musical stairs at Pier 39

A couple of the ladies I traveled with went back and explored the steps a little more, but I never did have the chance to go back and play with them properly.

7. The Alcatraz boat tour

As I stated before, if you are planning on going to visit the island of Alcatraz, you must board the tour boat from Pier 33. Once again, I have a separate blog post here (COMING SOON) for this adventure, so I won't talk about it too much. I will tell you that you should get to Pier 33 early, as there is more to do there than just wait in line for your boat.

The model of Alcatraz at Pier 33, as it was during its use as a prison

There is also a big model of the island as it appeared in its hey-day, a gift shop, and a cafe, and if you want to see any of those, it is best to arrive early as the line-up for your cruise to the island begins early!

8. Shopping for souvenirs

The LAST thing I like doing when I travel is to go shopping. I can shop just fine at home, and I have a lovely online store where I get most of my clothes, so wasting precious exploration time in a foreign mall holds little to no appeal for me. I do, however, always grab souvenirs for my family and myself. I always collect a magnet from each place I travel for our bar fridge downstairs, and now that I have children, there are tons of cutie-pie baubles and clothes to purchase.

Pier 39 security making sure we aren't getting into trouble!

I did all of my shopping down at Fisherman's Wharf, simply because I didn't want to waste time doing it anywhere else. The prices were not super cheap, but as we walked around other districts in San Francisco, I noticed the prices down at the wharf weren't way off the mark either. So if you are looking to shop in a locale with a great atmosphere and view, Fisherman's Wharf is your place!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Walking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Perhaps the most iconic landmark in the city of San Francisco is the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Magnets, T-shirts, calendars, and all other variety of tourist souvenirs feature the bridge predominantly. It has been called the "most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world" by Frommer's, and I agree (I thought it was beautiful, and I DID take several photographs).

A view from the Golden Gate Bridge to give you some perspective on its size.

I recently returned from a girls' trip to San Francisco - a week-long getaway with five other women where we all left spouses, children, and demanding pets behind to just have some fun, drink a little vino, and see what San Francisco had to offer. (A lot, as it turns out - I have a giant list of things we were NOT able to cross off due to time restraints, so it seems I will have to return.) Traveling with five other women - two of whom were complete strangers until we met at the airport - could be its own blog post, but for the most part, we all got along famously well and had a smashing good time.

My crew for the week! It was a fun group of ladies indeed!

On our first full day in San Francisco, we all agreed that our biggest 'must-do' was walk the expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had read that parking can become limited if you try to access the bridge later in the day, so we were at the bridge by 9:30 a.m. ready to roll. (It opens at 5 a.m. but six women and one bathroom meant arriving by 9:30 a.m. was a miracle all on its own.) We were staying in Corte Madera, which is north of the city by about ten or fifteen minutes, so naturally we parked on the north side of the bridge intending to walk south into San Francisco.

There are two parking lots on the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Parking is free for up to four hours, and we figured that would be plenty of time. There is also a great lookout point above the bridge on the northern side, called the Marin Headlands, with its own parking as well. It is a bit of a hike from the headlands to the bridge, so we opted not to check that out this time around.

We parked easily in the right hand parking lot and began our hike. The left-hand parking lot is a more direct route to the Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk access, but it is also where the tour buses park and is a bit more busy. From our parking area on the right side of the road (heading south) we were able to quickly walk under the bridge, which was very cool, and up some stairs to the left-hand parking lot and the path to the bridge itself.

Walking UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge gave us an interesting look at its architecture.

A lookout area in the main parking lot on the north end of the bridge offers a spectacular view. We lingered there for awhile, where a very lovely gentleman took a great group shot of us with the Golden Gate Bridge in behind, then went on our merry way.

There are two sidewalks on the Golden Gate Bridge, and each come with a bit of a confusing schedule as both pedestrians and bicyclists are allowed to use the pathways, but only on certain days or at certain times. The main sidewalk is the eastern sidewalk, which we used, and is open to both pedestrians and cyclists from 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. Pedestrians are expected to walk on the outer edge of the sidewalk closest to the water, and bicycles must stay on the side nearest the traffic. (Even with the high guard rails separating sidewalk from traffic, I was a bit jumpy at having such fast-moving vehicles so close to me during our walk, a fear that wasn't totally unwarranted, as I will touch on later.)

HOWEVER, after 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, the sidewalk is only open to pedestrians until 6 p.m. (or 9 p.m., as I read conflicting information). THEN, in the evenings and overnight, the bridge path is only open to cyclists. And repeat. The western walkway is just for bikes, and even then, only when the bikes are NOT allowed on the eastern walkway. Like I said, a bit confusing. We just showed up and started walking the same way everyone else was walking, so that made it a little easier.

Myself and Jyll, one of my oldest friends, in front of the bridge.

We had originally wanted to cover the entire span of the bridge, but realizing how much we wanted to fit into one day, opted instead to walk to the first tower, which is supposed to take about 1 hour (30 minutes there and 30 back). It ended up taking just slightly over an hour, due to us gawking about and taking lots of photos (and one car breakdown!) To walk the entire bridge takes 50 minutes to an hour one way, but what we saw from the first tower was more than enough.

Some of the more notable things I noticed from our walk across the Golden Gate Bridge include:

1. Amazing Views of Alcatraz, the Bay, and the City Skyline

Of course, the first thing anyone is going to admire when walking across the span of the Golden Gate Bridge is the amazing skyline the view from the bridge has to offer. I wasn't able to see much of the Pacific Ocean, as the fog was hovering thickly at the mouth of the bay, but the eastern view of the bay  was spectacular. Alcatraz stands proudly in the middle of the water, with the city skyscrapers glinting in the early morning sun beside it.

A panoramic view of San Francisco Bay's beauty.

Below the bridge on the northern end stand three rocks all in a row, one huge and two smaller. Among those rocks we spotted a couple of sea lions swimming in the waves, which was our first sea lion sighting of the trip (but not the last).

The rocks below the Golden Gate Bridge.

We took our sweet time crossing to the first tower, posing at every nook and cranny to take scenic shots, selfies with each other, and a couple of group shots. Apparently, we were lucky weather-wise that week: typically, fog blankets the bay and bridge area, making clear photos tricky to capture. For us, however, the fog stayed away until the very last morning as we were driving to the airport. All of our photos from the bridge were bright and crisp (except for the aforementioned fog out towards the Pacific).

2. The Crisis Hotline Phones

As we first stepped onto the Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk, one of the first things I saw, other than the massive towers and cables, was a bright blue sign advocating a local crisis counselling hotline and a positive message about hope. I had heard stories about San Francisco's iconic bridge being the second-most 'popular' bridge to leap from, and the large amount of blue signs dotting the bridge's fences seemed to confirm that. I don't want to get too morbid here, and there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the tragic history of the Golden Gate Bridge, but I do want to point out that it is obvious that efforts have been made by the city of San Francisco to offer as much help to people in distress as possible.

There were so many of these signs on the Golden Gate Bridge, for good reason it seems.

3. The Immense Size of the Towers

Something I could not get over the entire time I was strolling the bridge, from the moment we parked to the moment we were standing beneath it, was the size and immensity of the bridge tower. The giant beams and cables steal the whole show, with the rust-colored paint and sheer size.

Each cable was thicker than my hand. (And good thing too!)

As we stood beneath the first tower, I looked up towards the top, getting instantly dizzy. It appeared that there were two more 'levels' above us, judging from the tiny, grated catwalks. One was two-thirds of the way up, and the other was right at the top. Despite the incredible views these catwalks must provide, I knew there'd be no way anyone could get me up there! I don't even like ladders.

Look up, way way up, at the tiny catwalks atop the bridge tower. Crazy stuff!

4. The Efficiency of the Bridge Traffic Services

Remember when I said I had been nervous about the flimsy railing between the pedestrian path and the busy bridge road? It wasn't totally without merit, as we did witness something a little stressful while on our trip across the bridge. As we were leaving the first tower to head back to the parking lot, we heard a bang and smelled an awful, burning, metallic smell.

Someone had blown their clutch while driving to work on the middle of the busy bridge. Not good.

A few moments later, we witnessed a tall man dressed in a business suit jogging swiftly past us down to the tower we had just left. A few moments later he sprinted back to his car, but not before we saw three cars all slam on their brakes inches away from smashing into his stalled vehicle. While the man waited beside his car, a few more close calls and fishtailing vehicles came extremely close to turning his blown clutch into a full blown accident.

We stayed put, watching this from afar. In the event of a pile-up, we did not want to be walking past. The guard rail would do nothing to stop a flying vehicle from crushing us. We even tried to slow down oncoming tour buses by waving frantically at them, except the only effect that had was a plethora of tourists waving right back to us. Both tour buses we tried to warn ended up slamming on the brakes last moment.

The cool 'car plow' truck that swept the inert car off the road.

A couple of people offered their cell phones to the man as he waited, but he declined. We were unsure why, until not five minutes later we spotted a truck with flashing lights headed towards us in the distance, crossing the bridge from the south end. It was equipped with a flat, wide, solid piece of wood strapped across its front, much like a snow plow. After a quick chat with the driver of the car, the operator of the truck hopped into his vehicle and basically pushed the car down the bridge and into the east parking lot. From start to finish, the 'accident' had taken less than ten minutes. It was amazingly efficient.

5. The Lighting

At night in San Francisco, the Bay Bridge lights up a glowing string of pearls, illuminating the waters beneath with an ethereal glow. I was expecting the same thing with the famous Golden Gate Bridge. However, later that day, after we were returning to Corte Madera from our adventures in San Francisco, it was fairly dark on the bridge as we crossed. There were some lamps illuminating the sidewalk paths, and faint spotlights lit up the towers softly. It was hardly brilliant and dramatic, and I was surprised that the lighting on the bridge at night was so muted.

Until next time, Golden Gate Bridge!

That was the only time we walked the bridge, although we crossed it by "mom-van" so much that its novelty quickly faded. I still think it was a fantastic way to begin our San Francisco experience. If I visit San Francisco again, maybe I will have time to walk the entire length and see if we missed anything important!