Monday, August 31, 2015

Day 322: Japanese Tea Garden and Palace of Fine Arts

Despite having been in the area for a few days, we hadn't really explored many of San Francisco's attractions other than Alcatraz. Determined to rectify this, we headed over to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. It's just a short walk from the Botanical Garden but since we only had chance to visit one, we thought the Tea Garden would be more interesting to wander around than its bigger neighbour.


Even on an overcast day, the beauty of the perfectly manicured bushes, bright red pagodas and tranquil koi ponds was fully on show. The centrepiece was a magnificently carved bridge, created by Shinshichi Nakatani in Japan, who then brought it over for the 1894 midwinter fair.






The Tea Gardens are a lovely way to spend an hour or two, or longer if you fancy bringing a picnic. We decided instead to make use of one of SF's many, many, many food vans and picked up some tasty nibbles before heading over to MOMA, the city's main modern art gallery. Well, that was the plan - until a dearth of parking and frustration at the crazy road system made me incredibly grumpy. There was literally nowhere to park. I can't help but think we got lucky on the previous day.

We changed our plans and made for the Palace of Fine Arts instead. Rather deceptively, this is actually a grand outdoor monumental structure built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal.




Since we were in the area, we took a stroll along the Golden Gate promenade, and saw the bridge shrouded in fog. Not an uncommon occurrence, by all accounts.


Also in the area is the Crissy Field Center, a hub for introducing children who have had little exposure to national parks to the delights of the great outdoors. We stopped there for a drink, but it's not really something you need to go out of your way to visit - it is more of an administrative centre and meeting place than a tourist destination.

But since we had been chatting to Lev and Julie on the subject anyway, they had suggested we should take a road trip up to one of the national parks to camp and do some trekking. Bad timing meant that it was Labor Day in the US, the equivalent of a bank holiday over here except with sunshine. It also meant that, like bank holidays, everyone decides to get into their car and head away from where they live in an attempt to appear more active. This immediately ruled out Yosemite Park, since it is one of the most popular in the area. Instead, we decided that the next day we'd go to Lassen Volcanic National Park for a couple of nights because, well, it had volcanoes.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Day 321: Alcatraz

Parking in San Francisco is not fun. Aside from the massive hills which are literally everywhere, if you do manage to get an on-street space it will cost you a fortune. The best alternative is to use something like Parkopedia which will point out the various parking lots in and around the area you want to visit, and the hourly/daily charges. It was a huge help in the sprawling city.




As we lazed about in the park sipping drinks and waiting for the next boat to Alcatraz, we were joined by possibly the cutest collie pup I've ever seen.


But ultimately, we were here to see The Rock. Or, as Sean Connery calls it: "Alcatrash". You pick up a boat from Pier 33 and are ferried along with the rest of the crowds to the island prison. When the weather is awful, I expect the ride can be pretty horrific. We were blessed with bright blue skies thankfully, which is apparently something of a rarity given San Francisco's weird microclimate.

When the island comes into view, it really is something special.





It wouldn't be a proper tour without a tour guide, and whilst this one was nowhere near as good as the hilarious Australian who led us around Fremantle prison, he still knew his stuff. The Rock isn't the only film to have been set here - The Birdman of Alcatraz and Escape from Alcatraz are equally worthy films, albeit with the former making a sympathetic character of a vicious killer. The latter details the true story of three men who escaped the island - but whether they actually survived the waters or not is a different matter. Aside from the treacherous currents, the water is freezing cold and over a mile away from the mainland so although sightings of the three men were reported at various times after the escape, no confirmation was ever made. That said, the reputation of Alcatraz as an escape-proof prison (along with the cost of running it) led to its closure in 1963.





We got to see where Nicholas Cage duked it out with a bad guy to try to stop nerve gas being launched at the city, as well as some funky tunnels carved out under the island. Bullet holes and marks from the actual escape attempts are also still visible in the windows and floors.



These days, the penitentiary has fallen into disrepair, and has been mainly left to decay naturally. Even so, at the height of its usage it must still have been a pretty bleak place.


The cells ranged from dingy to almost homely - prisoners who behaved were given books and games but others had more sparse surroundings. The final breakout by the three convicts was made possible by fashioning papier-mâché heads and putting them in their beds to look like they were asleep when the guards did their rounds.




Looking back at the city it's odd to think how close it seems, and the waters look pretty calm from up high. Capone et al must have found it torturous to see freedom dangled in front of them every day.



It was a fascinating visit, which I could highly recommend. The place is big enough to allow plenty of tourists without feeling crowded, and the view of the mainland is fantastic. On the way back, we found a hill road which afforded us an even greater appreciation of the landscape as well as the famous city fog shrouding the bridge.




In the evening Lev and Julie took us to TGI's Sushi (now renamed to Sushi Blvd). I will hold my hands up - I'm not a fan of raw fish. The idea of it just doesn't appeal at all. But they loved it and were keen for us to try, and whilst tuna still isn't my thing, I have to admit I'm a bit of a convert now - especially with prawn rolls. It was a lovely way to end a pretty tiring day.


Sunday, August 09, 2015

Day 319 - 320: Stanford, Palo Alto and

We bummed around with Lev and Julie for a few days and took a well-needed break. Julie had some time off, so was able to show us around the area whilst Lev was hard at work at First stop on the tour was Stanford, home of the renowned university. As can be expected from a place filled with geniuses, a walk around the grounds wouldn't be complete without an excess of Rodin statues.




Whilst we merged seamlessly in with the Three Shades, elsewhere you can encounter The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, the latter probably being my favourite bronze. 

If there's one thing we came to love about California, other than our wonderful hosts and the fantastic surroundings, it was the weather. Bright, hot sunshine greeted us almost every day and our time in Stanford was no exception. It also gave us great views across the area from the university tower.







Lunch was calling, so we stopped into Palo Alto and Gilly grabbed some food at the Crepevine whilst I hit up The Prolific Oven. 

Since Lev was the only one actually doing any work, we decided to go and visit him at Box. Palo Alto, being the hub of Silicon Valley's tech corporations, hosts everything from HP to VMWare. Like most of these companies, much emphasis is placed on employee satisfaction. It's one of the key differences between the UK and US business ethoses - in the US they want people to treat workplaces as a second home, engage with their colleagues, and enjoy working so much that they willingly stay late, go on excursions together, and generally drink the company Kool-Aid (as the saying goes). Box is no exception. 

Entering the building, you're greeted by unicorns and scooters. The former is the company mascot. The latter is what you use to get around the place. It's HUGE. They provide racks and racks of food, refrigerated and otherwise, for free. They have arcade machines, ping pong and pool tables, games consoles and swings. And if that isn't enough, they have a fricking slide connecting the floors. Yes, if the lift isn't that exciting enough for you, why not hurl yourself down a bright green tube to the ground floor instead?











Amazing. Oh, and if you know you're going to work late, you can order in a full evening meal, professionally cooked, and delivered to your desk. Because, why not?

All the food was making us hungry so when Lev clocked off work the four of us ended the evening at a swanky Indian restaurant named Shiva's, which was lovely.


The next day we headed over to Trader Joe's, which is now Gilly's favourite food store (and typically, one we don't have in the UK), to pick up some ingredients. We'd cooked and baked for a few people on our travels as a thank you for putting us up, so Gilly couldn't resist the opportunity to whip up some muffins. It was nice to just sit by the pool and do very little - we had plenty planned for the next day, including a visit to Alcatraz.