Monday, January 2, 2012

Travel stories: San Francisco - A love at first sight!

How do you describe your first love? How can you put words to such an eluding memory? Maybe that's why I waited so long to write this but I think it's about time to give my homage to "the city by the bay". San Francisco was the beginning to our love affair with the U.S. Both me and M had been in the U.S before but never together. In 2006 we made the decision to move in together to be able to save the money for a vacation. I can't remember any more how it happend to be that the choice fell upon America, but I'm glad it did. San Francisco was the first stop on our very first road trip. And it would have an huge impact on our future!

In fact we have been in San Francisco twice by know as we went back in 2010 for our drive up the west coast, however in this post I will focus on the first visit in 2007 and leave the latter for another day. Our flight to S.F was a small disaster with both our flights missing out on our vegetarian meals and comping us with gin & tonics. The result was two very confused Swedes in a rather dreamlike mode collecting their bags at San Francisco airport. We were trying to figure out where to go when we and another group of tourist were approached by a taxi driver saying he could get us all to our hotels for only 5 dollars each. We thought sweet and headed out with the driver expecting some kind of shady minivan, but it turned out it was a stretch! What better start? We arrived to our hostel in downtown S.F with Billy Idol blasting in the speakers!

We stayed at St. Paul hotel which has changed it's name now to Hotel North Beach. I cant vouch for it since I don't know if it's good anymore, for us it was perfect as travelers on a budget. Shared bathrooms but spacy rooms and TV if that's important to you. Location wise it was perfect close to the financial district and chinatown. There could be a point to stay further north close to Haight / Ashbury but it does not really matter that much cause it's so easy to get round either by bus or plain walking. We woke up bright and early with a little help from the jet lag and decided we wanted to get breakfast in a cafe my sister told me about, The pork store cafe. It also gave us a first glimpse of this new world for us. It was intoxicating to walk up market street before the shops opened with all these impressions to take in. Everything from street cleaners, to business people and the homeless warming up after a cold night outside coming to life in a symphony of noise, none of to which our european minds where accustomed to.

We had our breakfast at the famous Pork store cafe which you can read more about here and then just went exploring. Nowadays I call San Francisco the "New York of the west coast" a pretty bold statement you might think considering the size of it's neighbour L.A. But in L.A you need a car to get anywhere, there is no real city center and it's hard to know where you should go. S.F has everything in walking distance with distinct areas like mission, Little italy and so on. And all in perfect grids so it's easy to find, just like a smaller Manhattan. So maybe it would be more correct to say it's like the Manhattan of the west coast. Anyways we walked all the way back down from Haight street through random streets and ended up in chinatown and later at the seafront down by fisherman's wharf. Now the city is built on pretty steep hills so you better have the stamina for it if you are gonna walk, otherwise take one of the many buses or cable cars. Plus side of walking is that you get to see so much of that beautiful architecture that the city is so famous for.

Fisherman's wharf is a tourist trap in every sense possible and both me and M hate it. I understand it could be fun for kids but otherwise it's just packed with tourists and tacky shops. There are a couple of reasons to go down here though. One is you can get a good glimpse of Alcatraz from here(and also catch the tour boats that go there) and the others are the hundred or so sea lions that are always(?) here sun bathing. It's hard not to laugh when you hear them all chatting away at the same time. They sound like a mix between a dog and a cartoon car horn. If you are lucky you might even spot the guy that makes money by hiding behind a tree branch and scaring people!

That night we hit a few bars in the area close to our hotel. A blessing in disguise that night is that M lost her wallet at the above bar. As soon as we realized we legged it back there and it was still sitting right under the table. To calm our nerves we bought some 40 oz bottles and spent the rest of the night relaxing in our room. As you can see this is before my deep affection for micro brewed ales instead of generic watered down lager!

We got up early next morning at got breakfast in nearby Little Italy, named so for it's huge influence by Italian immigrants. It was kind of chilly so we got some matching souvenir shirts in chinatown before heading down to the boat for this days main attraction, Alcatraz. The weather in S.F can literally change in a few minutes from hot to cold so it's good to come prepared. The boat ride out to Alcatraz was really exciting and it looked really threatening appearing in the mist. It's not hard do understand that this was the place that broke down the most famous gangster of all time, Al Capone.

The tour of Alcatraz that we took is an Audio tour consisting of that everyone gets fitted with an MP3 player with chapters corresponding to certain numbers through out the tour. You can pause, skip and replay anytime you want and I found it brilliant. A collection of actors and people with real live experience of the prison tell it's fascinating story, including a native american occupation of the island and a prison rebellion ending with the help of marine veterans from ww2 called in to assist. If there is anything you must do in San Francisco this would be it.

After Alcatraz the sun showed itself again and I'm really happy that it waited til after the Alcatraz tour since the weather really helped to frame it's history. Now began a marathon of sightseeing. i don't know if it was that we were on a constant high of happiness exploring this brand new world but we just kept going! First we made it up to Haight/Ashbury which was the mecca of the hippie-movement. It still shows some reminders of this era even though it is a lot more commercial nowadays. This is the place to go vintage shopping for a bargain. It also has a lot of great bars. We continued down to Castro which is the gay area nicknamed "the gayest four corners of the earth". I already several times expressed my love for these areas throughout America cause they tend to be the most tolerant and Castro is certainly no exception. We pushed on through down to Mission which is the hispanic area of S.F. Everywhere you can find great murals depicting everyday life for the population here.

Being the last day we found the last strength and pushed all the way back up to Golden gate park & The Japanese tea garden which is a beautiful Japanese styled garden complete with ponds full of golden carps. After that we took the long walk to Lombard street, the famous crooked street seen in so many movies. As you might guess we were knackered after this and crashed in the hotel getting ready for what lay ahead.

Next morning we said our good bye to this new love of ours and made a promise to be back someday. We picked up our chrysler convertible at the rental shop and off we went. I was still trying to figure out how to drive in a foreign country when all the sudden we found ourselves approaching the historic landmark Golden Gate Bridge. To fulfill the cliche we had a cd with the song California by The Phantom Planet. We blasted it on max volume and I was filled with euphoria. Ahead of us lay the open road and the overwhelming sense of freedom evoked in us the passion that has had us coming back ever since. I dare you all to come experience it yourselves. It might just change your lives!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Travel stories: Yellowstone - an amazing adventure!

I'm so very excited to finally get to share this breathtaking adventure with you guys! In our road trip of 2010 we got to spend two full days exploring one of Americas best kept treasures. After spending a few days with our awesome new friends in Seattle we drove westward through Idaho & Montana and I have to tell you all, WOW! The mountains are spectacular!

So our plan was to find a motel in the town of West Yellowstone and use as a base for exploring the park. We were driving down the 191 which took us through the outer edge of the park when we spotted a group of cars by the side of the road and a lot of excited people pointing at something. We didn't know that then but this is your surest sign that there is wild animals to be seen.  We pulled up and I couldn't believe it. It was a Grizzly! Even though there is probably no other beast I fear as much my excitement took the upper hand and I dashed out with my new Video camera. Hopefully it will make the video I'm editing simultaneously while working on this entry, but I was shaking pretty bad while filming it!

As you can see it is pretty far away but these guys are fast. However there has only been one fatal attack by Grizzlies in Yellowstone for 25 years so there's no need to be that afraid. I'd recommend to keep your distance and always have a good strategy to get back to your car fast. After this incredible lucky encounter we drove down to West Yellowstone to find a motel. The small town is just packed with motels and restaurants. It's quite small and has that old western feel to it. We found a decent motel and took a stroll down main street. We found a great book shop and got some really neat books on American history. We picked a up som local brew and headed back to the motel to do some resting and planning.
These motel nights kicking back with some new microbrews and just relaxing are one of my favorite parts with road tripping. We finally fell asleep and all the sudden it was up and at it again. We felt we needed to go to bed early so we could do as much of the park as possible since we were also doing the rodeo in Cody later that night which was quite the drive. I'm not gonna go into that now since I covered it in a video you can see here. So we drove into the park and it's just amazing how much there is to see.

The first thing we checked out were some of the many thermal pools. Yellowstone sits right on a huge crater of an active volcano, and all over the park there is displays of those violent forces within. Some of these displays have resulted in really beautiful works of art crafted by nature itself. There are plenty of thermal pools and these first ones are nothing in comparison with some I will show you real soon. The park is huge and i s the same size as a smaller landscape in Sweden. There is a bit of driving involved but it's not a big deal since there is so much to see from the park. All over the park we spotted people fishing in the many rivers and creeks. My father in law is quite the fly fisher so I think he would love it here!

The road in the park does kind of a big circle with a road cutting through the middle. We decided on doing the north half circle first and do the southern part the next day. We didn't see any more grizzlies so we understand that we were lucky on the drive down. The main attraction on the north part is Mammoth hot springs. A really awesome formation made by a collection of hot springs that bring minerals up to the surface. All around the park boardwalks let you get really close to the sights without risk of destroying them.

It's kinda hard to describe all what we saw in just words, luckily my wife is a great photographer. She takes almost all the pictures I use on the blog and I'll let her pictures do most of the talking. We explored the rest of the northern parts before driving down to Cody and the rodeo. As I said earlier I'm not gonna tell you about that right now but it meant we had to drive back through the park at night. Very adventurous but nothing I recommend at all. I was terrified of hitting something in the dark. Being stuck in Yellowstone with a bunch of hungry bears is not something I would like to endure. Anyways, next morning it was time for the parks big star, Old Faithfull! We bought breakfast and got ready for a long wait since it's about 90 minutes between the eruptions, however we got lucky. we arrived just when the show went down. And it's a show!

We wrapped it all up by going to the grand prismatic spring which is a huge thermal pool with an amazing variety of colors. It was the perfect ending of a new love affair. Yellowstone, I promise we will see you again!