Our first American National Park of the trip. It’s a good place to start.
The sun was shining and the morning was fresh and new. We had begun the habit of getting up pretty early, and thus enjoying some of the best weather, and most peaceful times and giving us the scope for some long, action-packed days. Breakfast was adequate and substantial. Next stop was the general store at the hotel for restocking the water supply and acquiring the raw material for a packed lunch. How very English – sandwiches, Pringles and soft drinks. And the gas station in El Portal was open, so now we’ve enough juice to venture to most parts of the park.
After a number of days of relative inactivity by our standards, the first excursion of the morning just had to include some walking. So after parking up in Yosemite Village we took the shuttle bus up to the top end of the valley and began the moderately strenuous hike up to Vernal Fall. This one still had some water coming over it, unlike Yosemite and Bridalveil. August is a little late in the season for big waterfalls in Yosemite, but Vernal Fall was nevertheless impressive, as the water flow was sufficient to cause a full double rainbow at the foot. The granite plateau above had a fairly small looking stream at the top ( presumably there’s more water in the spring ) which just sort of falls over the edge. Further up the same trail you can continue on to Nevada Fall, and also the hike up the back of Half Dome. However, if you want to get up there and back in one day you need to set off seriously early, and when I said we got up early, it wasn’t THAT early.
By the time we got back and did some planning over our lunch and decided that today would be the best day for going to see some big trees. We hadn’t really decided where we were headed the following day except that we wanted to exit the park over the Tioga Road. We decided this was a long day if combined with going to Mariposa Grove, so off we went.
We decided on the tram tour rather than walking around Mariposa, and managed to just about arrive in time for the last trip of the day. The tour guide sounded like he had spent a lifetime chewing razor blades and drinking sulphuric acid. Gruff would be an understatement. Rougher than a roofer’s glove is closer to the mark. He also had a bizarre turn of phrase and outlook on life which seemed to indicate a man who was entirely comfortable with his place on the planet, whichever planet that was. Meanwhile, back at the tram tour, we saw some big trees, and some more big trees. A couple of times we stopped to look at some very big trees.
Some of the specimens in this grove are staggering in size. There is the famous one that once appeared in the Guinness Book of Records because someone put a road through the middle just so he could get a photo, completely neglecting the fact that this would kill the tree. What was it the guy said about sequoias ? They have very few natural causes of death. Fire just scorches the lower parts and opens up the cones so that new ones start growing. Snow doesn’t hurt, because lets face it, big ones have their very own snow line at the top for most of the year. Small animals live in or around the things and large animals give up and decide that they’re just too big. And they grow from seeds which are smaller than a gnat’s nadgers.
Their only real natural cause of death is boredom. Trees have a high boredom threshold so a good one will last a few millennia, but eventually they kind of just drop off to sleep and fall over. After this their roots can no longer get up and go to the shops to buy food, so they starve. But you wouldn’t want to try to dig a grave for one, so they just lie on the ground for another few millennia while a whole forest ecosystem flourishes around the abandoned trunk.
If only had humans found it more difficult to get rid of them, then there might be a few more close to the Yosemite Valley. Sadly, however, humans have wiped out most of them in ultimately fruitless attempts to find a commercial use, before finally realizing that their greatest use is actually to make us feel inadequate. Mariposa Grove is a fairly long trip out from Yosemite Valley, but the trip is well worth it just for the views from the Wawona Road looking down to the western slopes of the sierra, and the size of the trees in the grove once you get there.
Back home at the hotel saw us munching away in the bar and sampling what to us was a bit of a novelty beer – Newcastle Brown Ale out of a barrel. This is only the second time I’ve seen it drawn from a barrel, and the other time was 8 years earlier in Flagstaff, Arizona. In England, even in Newcastle, it normally comes in a pint-sized bottle with a half pint-sized glass. I mean, it’s no longer brewed anywhere near its home town, but it’s still rare to see it served from barrels. The clear glass pint-sized bottle is the delivery mechanism of choice. The brewery used to produce special double-sized beer mats so you can keep your glass and bottle close together.
I seem to remember a fairly long discussion with the barmaid about nothing in particular, and then retiring to bed with the happy glow of people who drank more beer than was strictly necessary. Let’s get some sleep, tomorrow we’re off exploring again.
It’s not far out of the big city to reach one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
And so arrived the day when we would leave the big city and head for the countryside, and wouldn’t you just know it, the sun was out, not a cloud in the sky and getting warm already. Typical! I guess that makes it perfect weather to head out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way.
We started our day with more homemade granola and chocolate muffins at the place on the corner of Powell and Sutter and prepared for the always entertaining game of collecting the rental car. The usual game is to guess what upgrades the guy is going to try to sell you. In this case, Holiday Autos ( www.holidayautos.co.uk ) had got us a deal with Hertz to collect from their downtown office, which was conveniently just up the road from the hotel. When the nice man from Hertz realized we had already bought all the possible options for upgraded insurance he was left with no choice but to try to sell us a bigger car. His main line of argument was that we’d never get the luggage in the car we’d booked. So he suggested we upgrade from a standard to full-size saloon/sedan. This didn’t seem to give us any advantage, so the next option was a 4×4 for the same price as the full-size sedan. Oh, go on then, just this once. At about $5 a day extra it’s hardly worth even talking about it.
And behold, a jolly nice new Toyota RAV4 was ours for 19 days, with unlimited mileage and insurance against everything except abduction by aliens. One downside – it had only just come back in, so they cleaned it but hadn’t filled up with fuel. In fact, the gauge was so low that the engine nearly cut out going up hills. Thankfully, however, both the hotel ( and luggage ) and the freeway were downhill, as was the closest available gas station as advised by the valet at the Westin.
So came the first of very many stops at gas stations, to fill up with motion lotion and stock up on essential freeway consumables like Pringles and Coke. We might have got something healthy like sandwiches as well, but those have been purged from the memory. Just round the corner was the access ramp up to I-80, and Kas’s first experience of my driving in the USA. Over the Bay Bridge and in to Oakland, a few bits of shuffling and I-580 beckoned us away from the suburbs and into farming country. No time to linger though, because we had an urgent appointment with the National Park Service ( www.nps.gov ), and more specifically with Yosemite ( www.nps.gov/yose ), home of the famous cartoon character called Sam, and life’s work for the guy who invented landscape photography, Ansel Adams. It was a slow ride up Highway 120 into the park, followed by a brief stop at the entrance gate to buy our NPS annual pass – a great idea for this kind of holiday, as one fee gets you into any NPS site, for any number of times for a whole year after the date of issue. And you can buy them at the entrance station to Yosemite. Formalities complete, so bring on the landscapes!
Nothing prepares you for the beauty you encounter as you enter the Yosemite Valley, not even the helpful NPS website ( www.nps.gov/yose/ ). Sheer granite cliffs rise up 4000 feet from the green meadows on the valley floor, waterfalls cascade over various precipitous drops, it’s just Spectacular with a capital S. If we had the cash we would jack it all in and move up here. We can fully understand why Ansel Adams never tired of the place.
However, you do get plenty of opportunity to look at the scenery as you drive in seemingly endless loops and sub-loops around the one-way system on the valley floor. Watch the signs folks, or you end up on a 10-mile loop to get back to somewhere which is 200 yards behind you. Either that or just plan your route in advance.
First stop, late lunch and a wander around Yosemite Village. Eventually, we decided that the next priority was to find somewhere to sleep for the night, so we went to the free phones in the Park HQ and stood in line behind a guy doing the same thing. Our job was made much easier when he told us he had already called this one, this one, this one and this other one, and all are full. But he got a room at the Cedar Lodge just down the road in El Portal. That sounded good to us, we’ll have some of that, thank you very much. The price seemed fine and it looked close by, so two nights accommodation a mere 20 minutes away were ours.
This left us with a good 3-4 hours of decent, useable time in the afternoon. Neither of us was really dressed for hiking, and we hadn’t had time to read the free papers that the NPS provide, so we deemed hiking to be off the agenda today and headed off around the one-way system to find the road up to Glacier Point. From here, you can see a good proportion of the valley floor, although it is a long way down, and you also get the much-photographed eye-level view over to Half Dome. As its name suggests, it’s a mountain that was dome-shaped until the glacier in the valley cut half of it away, leaving half a dome and one humungous sheer cliff face.
A Park Ranger on the top was doing free 10 minute talks on the background of the park. It’s a great service that the NPS provides, and really helps to put the view into context. One aspect this ranger covered was fire. We had noticed on our drives through that there are some apparently quite large areas which are burnt. Some of these were caused by natural lightning strikes, and some were started deliberately by the Rangers, whose policy has recently changed from protection at all costs ( which results in lots of tinder-dry detritus on the forest floor ) to an active policy of simulating what nature would do, including “controlled burns”, the purpose of which is to remove all that flammable material in a controlled way rather than the more dangerous and damaging uncontrolled way. Controlled burns also mean less possibility of severe damage being caused by inconsiderate oiks who insist on discarding cigarette butts and glass bottles into the bone dry undergrowth. Fire is natural, and the rangers are now trying to manage it so that they do more good than bad. For instance, did you realize that the tiny seeds of the sequoia are partly dependent on fire to initiate the germination process?
There was still a bit of time left before wanting to go to the hotel, so we decided to try a short hike around and up to the top of Sentinel Dome, slightly back down the Glacier Point road. This proved to be a large circle, with a steep section at the end, and then a staggering view. A thoroughly fine place to sit with your loved one as the sun dips over the back of the High Sierra. Shame it was slightly on the cool side, but then you are a long way up. There is a very arty dead tree on the top which proved ideal for silhouette photos. And so it became dusky, and we decided it was a good time to find our hotel. Down to El Portal, passing the gas station, which was now closed for the night, and on to our hotel. It’s a traditional American motel style, with a number of two-storey blocks and multiple parking areas. One block for check-in, one for restaurants/bars, and several for accommodation. The room was pretty good, and after a quick clean up we decide food is very much on the cards. The hotel had a kind of Mexican café, a bar serving a selection of other kinds of food, and a separate ( and quite posh looking ) breakfast room. We tried the Mexican café – the first of many Mexican meals on the trip – and enjoyed some good, very fresh enchiladas and a couple of beers, which were cold and wet. We were, by now, a bit knackered though, so the temptations of the bar were skipped in favour of bed.
It’s apparently very difficult to escape from Alcatraz.
We woke up to another grey and cold looking day. This time, the overcast windy conditions reached inland to downtown as well, so we both donned long trousers and long sleeved shirts before venturing out.
Breakfast was consumed at the (apparently very famous) Sears just up the road at Powell and Sutter, and once we were suitably stocked up on bacon, pancakes and coffee it was time to hop onto one of those cable car thingies and head off to prison for the main event of the day. After a further short break for coffee, and photographing seals at Fisherman’s Wharf, we jumped on one of Blue and Gold’s finest for the trip over to Alcatraz. A cautionary note to future travellers – if you take this boat on a cloudy windy day, don’t go on the upper deck, it’s cold.
And there we were at Alcatraz ( www.nps.gov/alca/ ), one of the most infamous prisons ever built, and the setting for many a good film staring Clint Eastwood and Tyne Daly. I have to admit that the actual prison part was slightly smaller than expected, but we felt the self-guided interpretive tour was well worth the few pennies it cost to rent the headset. Our retrospective view of the place is further enhanced by the fact that Kev only took photos in black and white. Somehow the place comes out better in black & white, and it suited the grey and cold conditions perfectly.
After the tour we toyed with the idea of walking round further bits of the island, but quite frankly, we were freezing, so we opted for the wimp’s option of catching the ferry back and engaging in some retail therapy at Pier 39 instead. This began with a jolly nice warming drink and lardy lunch, and culminated with Kas buying a silly hat in anticipation of us moving on to somewhere where there would be enough sunshine to justify an avoidance strategy.
Next stop was that top tourist trap known as Lombard Street, or more specifically, that bit of Lombard Street that has the bends in it. Surprisingly enough, loads of other people were walking or driving down it at the same time as us. Most inconsiderate of them, spoiling our photos like that.
At this point we reached a difficult juncture in the day. Too early to go back to the hotel, and too late to head off anywhere else of substance, so we plumped for a bus back downtown to investigate photographic opportunities offered by the larger buildings there. Obviously, any good photographic expedition needs to be meticulously planned, especially when you’re cold, so we renewed our acquaintance with the Starbucks organization ( www.starbucks.com ) at one of their many sites downtown. This one was in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid, and we were less than surprised to discover they had exactly the same coffee menu as the ones back home, although the selection of cakes, cookies and other foodstuffs was different.
The best photographic positions seemed to be the Transamerica Pyramid and 101 California Street. At the latter, Kas seriously asked a woman standing at the bus stop if she wouldn’t mind standing slightly further to her right, so that she was out of shot. Cheeky madam !
Having satisfied our photographic desires it was sufficiently late to go back to the hotel for beer, snoozing and a clean up before heading off for a well earned dinner. This night we chose a retro-American themed diner on Powell called Lori’s ( www.lorisdiner.com ) just one block south of Union Square. It’s apparently very famous. What we remember about the place is some top notch American burgers and a room full of genuine retro American icons. Once again the food was good and plentiful and the beer was cold and wet.
A wander through San Francisco on our first full day of the holiday.
Isn’t the weather in San Francisco bizarre ? It’s 60 oF and this is a mini heatwave, apparently. We were warmer at home. Anyway, it’s sunny and there aren’t any clouds, so it can’t be that bad. We dressed for a summer day and headed off to find out what San Francisco has to offer the recently arrived tourist.
The first thing it had to offer was breakfast at a little coffee shop on the corner of Powell and Sutter. This was our first introduction to the American concept of choice in its full glory. We spent ages holding up the queue while we were working our way through the substantial menu. We can’t remember the name of the place but whatever it was, the home made granola was excellent, and the muffins amazing ( especially the chocolate ones ). Translating the various forms of milk into English from American was the next challenge, but once we established that half-fat = semi-skimmed, we were well away.
Suitably stuffed, we began the next phase – shopping that we might have done at home, but thought might be cheaper in the US. Kas wanted a telephoto lens for her Minolta, and I wanted a wide-angle zoom for my Canon. Some trudging was done in the downtown area, and a number of suitable emporia located. However, the huge price savings promised on several websites proved to be entirely fictional, and we were also introduced to the American practice of showing a price on the labels and then adding on the tax afterwards. It’s not that this is a bad practice, or a particularly shabby one, it’s just that we Brits get used to the labelled price being the same as the amount you pay, so it’s confusing when Americans do it differently. Eventually we both got what we wanted for about the same price we would have paid back home, so I suppose we ended up neither winning nor losing, and it occupied a portion of the morning with an essential learning experience which proved useful in the following three weeks.
Did we have lunch somewhere here ? Neither of us can really remember. However, we did go into a tourist information office and ask about buses to the Golden Gate Bridge. The guy thought we were insane because we walked from downtown ( but it’s only a couple of miles and most of it is downhill ). OK, so the walk isn’t the most prettified, touristy part of the city, but we’ve been to worse, and anyway, you have to pass through the average, quiet, residential bits to truly to appreciate the spectacular bits.
As we walked the several blocks to find a bus going towards the bridge we passed Fort Mason, and then drifted around a bit until we found a very helpful local lady who advised on how to pay for the bus.
By the time we got to the end of Golden Gate, we had descended into a blanket of fog. And it was cold. As we were both dressed for summer, we decided that trying to walk across the whole of the bridge wasn’t the brightest idea in the world, so we just walked ( quickly ) over to the first tower and took a few arty photos of bridge, fog and wind. The wind on the bridge was strong enough to be photographed.
Another bus was caught and we found ourselves back in the sunshine, and back at Jackson Square, which we had passed on our great downhill hike that very morning. Both of us needed to be reintroduced to the warmer, caffeine and calorie-laden aspects of American life, so a small independent coffee shop on the corner was too much to resist. OK, so we didn’t exactly try to resist very much.
Whilst drinking our skinny lattes and munching on our sticky cakes, we discussed the plans for the rest of the afternoon. Just outside, Coit Tower looked very close, and yet somehow on top of a very large hill. Undaunted by our earlier experiences and suitably warmed and refuelled we decided that we might as well climb the hill on foot. Public transport seemed convoluted and we both had good sensible shoes on, so off we went.
Tell you what, it was chuffin’ steep going up that hill, but our decision to walk up proved sound as we turned a corner and were greeted by a large queue of cars, buses and other malcontents trying to get up into the rather small car park. Maybe the occupants had actually just abandoned their vehicles halfway up the hill and decided to walk. There wasn’t much evidence of motion.
So we went up into the vaguely phallic thing and attempted to take photos of the downtown skyline, but the Perspex windows and general haziness outside meant that the photo shop had a devil of a job getting the prints to look good. Doh !
We then rounded off the afternoon with some more walking, this time trying to find a criss-cross route down the hill, up through Chinatown and back to Union Square. The walk was a bit smelly and sticky and busy, but we got home eventually.
Dinner was provided at a random location in Chinatown , selected by the tried and trusted technique of looking at the window menu, and peering through the window to ensure that there were enough people for it to be good, but not enough to make us wait ages for a table. From what we remember, the food was good and the beer was cold and wet. We felt satisfied with our first day’s efforts, and retired to our room without a view for a much needed snooze.
Not much to say really. We got up a bit early, drove to Heathrow, stood in several queues and eventually got on one of BA’s finest big aeroplanes bound for San Francisco. 10 hours of flying later and it was still only mid afternoon when we arrived. Oh yes, jet lag !
San Francisco airport was uneventful, as was the taxi ride downtown. We had one of those American big city moments. Miles and miles of suburbs and wide roads, then suddenly your view is blocked out by all these big buildings that someone very thoughtlessly left in the way. Downtown San Francisco just rises out of the suburbs. So we arrived at our hotel, the Westin St Francis ( http://www.westinstfrancis.com/ ) on Union Square. Right in the middle of downtown, and certainly deep in the middle of the one way system.
Westin St Francis[/caption]We were both equally excited and tired. We were looking forward to a quiet dinner and some sleep prior to our first day of actual holiday. However, the hotel room wasn’t ready so we lounged for an hour or so in the lounge, drank some drinks, nibbled some nibbles and listened to a jolly nice chap tickling the ivories ( he was fairly friendly with the ebonies as well ).
Suitably checked into our room, we were slightly disappointed with the lack of view, but I guess that’s the downside of cheap deals – someone has to fill the not-so-plush rooms. Undaunted, we snoozed for a bit and then got ready to find that nice quiet, simple dinner.
A couple of blocks round the corner was a sort of Italian bistro place – quite possibly Puccini & Pinetti at 129 Ellis St ( http://www.pucciniandpinetti.com ). It wasn’t quiet, and we didn’t get a table, we sat at the bar, but the service was good, the beer was cold and wet and the food was very good. It was full of people and was as good an introduction to San Francisco as you could want. So all in all, dinner made up for the long day spent sitting in a big metal tube. We went to bed, even though it was only about 9pm. Our bodies thought it was six in the morning, so it was about time for some zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzs really.
So, we’d planned a fly-drive but hadn’t planned any specific route. So what do you need for fly-drive in the USA when you haven’t decided where to go or what to do ?
Simple really, you just need the following :
Somewhere to stay on your first night – We figured we’d pre-book somewhere in San Francisco prior to departure, so that we didn’t have to search around in an exhausted stupor when we arrived, and (partly) because it is easy to find reasonable deals on nice hotels in San Francisco. We chose a special deal at the Westin St Francis from a random travel website (take your pick).
A means of transport when you leave your first location – We pre-booked a car through Holiday Autos ( www.holidayautos.co.uk ), to get a known price for a known package – no shocks wanted on check-in. Holiday Autos did a fine job, were easy to use and they gave a standard contract which included everything you could ever want up front, no surprises.
A target list of places to go – We drew up a wish list of places primarily from the National Parks Service website ( http://www.nps.gov ).
A map and some tour books, so you know where the target places are – Many thanks to Moon Travel Handbooks ( www.moon.com ), without whose invaluable guides we wouldn’t have known where to go or what we were looking at, although we would have had a lot more space in our luggage. And many thanks also to Rand McNally ( www.randmcnally.com ), without whose tremendous road atlas of the USA, we wouldn’t have got far outside San Francisco.
A bunch of documentation – There’s no point in saying what you need by way of visa, insurance and the like. Things change – so check with your airline and buy some good insurance which covers everything you take with you, including yourself. In the USA you don’t get a lot of medical help unless you can pay. We bought an annual worldwide policy through American Express, whose policies are useful because they give a card to carry which hospitals take on trust without demanding immediate payment with your credit card.
Some means of supporting yourself – In fact, take lots of different types. We took a selection of different denomination dollar banknotes, some American Express dollar traveller’s cheques and a stack of credit cards and debit cards. Remember to take only dollar denominated traveller’s cheques. Not that we sanction use of particular organizations, but American Express ones work best in the USA. At one point I asked someone if they wanted ID with the traveller’s cheque and was told that the American Express logo on the cheque was all that was needed. This wouldn’t happen with other brands.
Oh, and don’t forget your passport
- Or your toothbrush