Friday, June 13, 2014

San Francisco with the Girls

San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
Last year at about this time, James and I took our nieces Caelan and Emma on their first plane ride to San Francisco, one of our favorite cities.  We know and love the City well, and planned what we thought would be the perfect traditional kid-friendly first trip.  I think we did a decent job.  Not only did the girls fall in love with the City, but it gained some ground on me too.  
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
Fresh off the plane we made a beeline for - where else? The Ferry Building! Honestly, I probably go here about as often as I would if I still lived in the Bay Area, given the lines and the hassle of getting there. They now have Disneyland-style dividers to corral the queuing crowds at Blue Bottle and the new Humphry Slocombe ice cream outlet.  Good news is there is a Humphry Slocombe - it replaced the Ciao Bella stand.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
While James and the girls got in line for burgers at Taylor's Refresher I ran around the corner for an Out the Door Bahn Mi. Holy Roast Pork Goodness. Juicy pork, nuoc mam marinated cucumber, carrots and cilantro on a french roll.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
We stayed at the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin - not because we love the neighborhood so much, but because they have a parking lot right out front with *hooray!* FREE PARKING.  In San Francisco that is huge. Not only that, but they have a pool, and the girls luurvve to swim. They also have relatively cheap rates if you book ahead.  The beds are comfy, they have a trendy bar and restaurant onsite and the staff is unfailingly polite - but the coffee is weak, the bathrooms are shoddy and the renovated motel thing only goes so far toward covering up the fact that the place is - in fact - a motel.  With kids and a car though, it was the perfect place for us.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
That night we had tickets for a Padres-Giants game.   It was our first time at Pac Bell park, and we were thrilled to discover that among the concessions at the park is a mobile Ghirardelli hot chocolate vendor complete with whipped cream.   While James and the kids ate hot dogs in the seats, I scarfed one of the popular crab sandwiches with a plastic flute of champagne.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
The next morning we headed off on one of the most de riguer San Francisco adventures, the trip to Alcatraz.  Book early - they sell out several days in advance.  The concession has changed hands since the last time I went about five years ago, and they've made changes for the better.  The facility is better maintained and the self-guided audio tour is more informative and entertaining than I recall. We could not have asked for better weather, that's for sure.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
I loved how carefully curated this little display cell was, for example.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
The gardens that were once maintained by the staff's wives were planted with blooming flowers.  They grew lots of vegetables on the grounds when the island was operational and the grounds are lovely - it's too bad the former residences for the warden and other senior staff weren't left standing - they must have had some amazing views.  
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
After the tour, we hopped down the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf to another venerable institution, the Franciscan crab restaurant. In the 70's and 80's my parents considered the Fisherman's Wharf restaurants tourist trap ripoffs, and when I lived in the Bay Area in the 90's I only ever went to Scoma's twice (where I once overheard a tourist from Texas say loudly in her twangy drawl  "You could hammah nayles with that bread!")  Needless to say, I had never been here before - but the visit quickly turned into a looping repeat of  "where have you been all my life?!"
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
The Franciscan is housed in a lovely art deco building - you walk up a staircase hung with vintage black and white celebrity photos to and an old school white marble bar and soaring open dining room with unobstructed views out to the bay.  
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
We *might* have overdone it on the crab - in someone's view.  Not mine.  We started with an appetizer of crab crostini with smoked salmon and avocado, then moved on to crab sandwiches and a crab louie - with a side of crab claws.  (I made up for the fact that this wasn't a food-centric trip by eating crab every chance I got.)
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
The girls were disgusted - they can't stand seafood - but I was bouncing up and down in my chair.  The Schramsberg and the amazing view were icing on the cake. I love to crack crab but James hates it, so I went to town on these suckers.  Cracking and pulling those fat pieces of dungeness crab meat out of the shell and dunking them in melted butter is an experience everyone should have at least once.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
After lunch it was time to do what the girls wanted to do - the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum and hot fudge sundaes at Ghirardelli.  The museum was a hoot for the girls - there isn't much to it, but they loved the funhouse at the end, and I enjoyed listening to them shriek with laughter and crash into the walls.  The line at the original Ghirardelli on the east side of Ghirardelli Square was a block long - so we continued into the complex to the second location which was huge and nearly empty, with views looking out over the park to the bay.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
That night we continued the "San Francisco Cliche" theme with a trip to the Stinking Rose.  It was memorable only for the decor in the front room. The food was mediocre at best, but you already knew that, and so did we.  It was still fun.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
The next morning we stopped at the Dynamo Donuts kiosk at the Marina Green - a great way to enjoy a gorgeous morning. It's easy to get in and out (and to park) and the donuts and coffee cannot be beat. They have a few tables and chairs overlooking the water and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge beyond the trees.
San Francisco with the Girls
We had Maple Bacon, Lemon Blueberry, Vanilla Bean and Spiced Chocolate - they were all delicious and they pull a gorgeous macchiato.
San Francisco with the Girls
Next up was the Exploratorium - the science museum in its new location on the Embarcadero.  It was expensive and crowded, but definitely worthwhile.  Give yourself a few hours to make sure you can see it all, because you will have to wait for a turn at many of the exhibits.  They had a fun little workshop for kids where they can build things with motors, etc. and an excellent gift shop with a lot of fun and smart kids toys.  We had lunch in the cafe, which was expensive with long lines and lackluster food.
San Francisco with the Girls
After spending most of the day there, we took the girls out to Golden Gate Park to one of my favorite places in San Francisco as a kid - the Japanese Tea Garden.  They fell asleep in the car on the way there, but they were able to revive enough to enjoy walking around the beautiful gardens and have some tea in the pavilion overlooking the koi pond.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
I felt pretty good about the fortune in my cookie.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
It was quiet around there and they were closing up the tea pavilion since it was late in the day, but we were able to walk around the garden and take some pictures, etc.  It's a really lovely, contemplative place - the perfect antidote to all the crowds and chaos we had been experiencing thus far.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
We still had a little time to kill before dinner at the Beach House with friends on the Solstice, so we went over there and had drinks at their downstairs bar while the girls played in the park.  The Beach House isn't exactly a pillar of grande cuisine - but it was a perfect spot for a fun group dinner to kick off summer.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
The next morning we headed over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Muir Woods (after a stop for breakfast at Mel's Diner.)
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
We gawked at the enormous trees and did a beautiful short loop hike that took about an hour, then headed into Mill Valley to pick up a picnic, which we took to this beautiful beach location and then had to eat in the car because it was crazy windy. Oh well.  
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
On the way back, we popped by the Divisadero Bi Rite Creamery - all the fun and flavors of the Mission location with zero line.  Win win.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
Dinner that night was at the Tonga Room.  Yeah, don't do that.  We knew better and we did it anyway, and paid the price.  My parents took me here to the bar as a kid and I LOVED it, and I knew the girls would at least get a kick out of the rain storms, the paper umbrellas and the music, and I think they did, but the food was flat out awful.  I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu in an effort to lessen the pain.  It didn't work.  At least James got to drink a cocktail out of a real pineapple.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
We capped off the night with a cable car ride down to Embarcadero on the California line.  We practically had it all to ourselves - and we almost had a tragic accident when Niece No. 2's glasses fell off and she tried to jump off to get them. I sprouted a few gray hairs on that one - thankfully our cable car operator was a nice guy and stopped so James could hold up traffic and retrieve them.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
Our last stop on the way to the airport was Chinatown, so the girls could pick up some souvenirs and presents for friends and family - just like I did when I was a kid. They picked out a few trinkets and I wished we were driving home instead of flying, so I could buy some Chinese firecrackers.
San Francisco with the Girls 6.13
People always say we're so nice to do things like this for our nieces, but really, it's as much fun for us as it is for them. Not only are they just awesome, well-behaved kids - it was amazing to watch them fall in love with the City - hanging off the cable car for the first time, taking in the breathtaking vistas from the hills, looking up at the massive redwoods in Muir Woods, talking about how they want to go to college there when they grow up.  It's one of the best and most beautiful cities in the world, and I felt lucky to be able to show it to them.


Monday, June 02, 2014

Italy, 2013 - Capri

Positano 2013
If I'm being honest, I have to admit I don't really have THAT much to say about Capri - mostly what I have, are lots of pictures.  We were only there for a few hours, but I think I learned enough about it to warrant a blog post, even if it's mostly just telling you how much I want to go back and stay longer next time.
Positano 2013
The allure of Capri is undeniable. Even now, as overrun with tourists as it is - it's still one of the most popular vacation spots for people who can go anywhere they choose.  Just the week before we were there, Beyonce and Jay Z had anchored their yacht in the harbor for a few days, and major Hollywood moguls are regularly spotted in the local restaurants.
Positano 2013
When you step off the boat, you're in an area called "Marina Grande."   Marina Grande consists of the funicular station and taxi stand, and a row of shops and souvenir stalls where we found this gentleman making sandals.  Capri Town is up the hill - you have to get there by taking the funicular or an open air taxi.  The funicular had a long line so we decided on a taxi, and then hired the driver to take us around the island all day for two reasons: one we had a three year old with us, and two, I had given myself a terrible neck spasm that morning.  Luckily, it didn't dull my enjoyment of the day, it just gave it a slightly blurry around the edges quality.
Positano 2013
At the center of Capri Town is a small town square or "Piazzetta" with an assortment of cafes, a lemon ice stand (heavenly) and a number of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating. We sat down at one of the cafes for some fresh lemonade and iced coffee (cafe freddo) which cost about 3x as much as it would have anywhere else, but was worth it just to enjoy the people watching and relax in the shade.
Positano 2013
Just off the square is a little bakery and gelato stand called Buonacore.  They're famous for a type of lemon almond cookie - sort of a cakey macaroon.
Positano 2013
We had gelato.  It was hot that day.  So hot that at lunch, I asked the waiter for some ice for my neck, and just let it melt all over me.
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A warren of alleyways and arcades leading to the boutiques, shops and restaurants extends off the square in every direction.   To help you find your way, they have these lovely tiled signs up at the entrance to each tiny alleyway.  It would be fun to get lost in these for a few days.
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There are innumerable boutiques selling gorgeous clothes, shoes, bags, etc.  Everything is very expensive, but really lovely - enough that it was fun just to look.  This was the Valentino boutique. I didn't get a photo of the boutique where I actually bought something - Carthusia. It's a sweet little parfumerie where everything they sell is scented by botanical products of the island - lemons, flowers, olives.  Their Fiori di Capri perfume was worn by Jackie O.
Positano 2013
Speaking of Jackie O. - they still talk about her here. A lot. We visited the shop where Jackie bought her Capri pants, and lo and behold - they still sell them.  They are beautiful and everything about the shop was impeccable.
Positano 2013
I thought this silk pattern was especially fetching.  These cost around $300 a pair - not completely outrageous.
Positano 2013
Of course, there are also the Capri sandals. Canfora is where Jackie bought her sandals that launched the trend around the world.  There are imitators everywhere but this is the original.
Positano 2013
Prices range from around $200 for the most simple pair, to upwards of $500-600 with embellishments.
Positano 2013
After walking around Capri Town, we had made arrangements for our driver to pick us up and take us to Marina Piccola for lunch.  Marina Piccola is on the other side of the island, and offers views of the famous trio of rocks known as the Faraghlioni.  It's also where that famous Slim Aarons photograph was taken.  
Positano 2013
We had a nice but not terribly memorable lunch at an open restaurant overlooking the famous view at Marina Piccola and then he took us to Anacapri - the island's "second town." It's a little quieter, and it's where most people live who actually live and work on Capri.  There are a few nice hotels there, one of them being the Capri Palace.  We killed most of our time in Anacapri relaxing in the lobby there and taking advantage of the air conditioning.  The three year old napped, and we drank a cold bottle of Pellegrino.
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There are definitely worse places to spend a couple of hours.  I snapped a few pictures of the artwork in the lobby and the pool area which was gorgeous.  It's a really pretty place.
Positano 2013
We popped back into Capri Town on our way out to pick up a package of those famous cookies for our hostess, and some painkillers for me. (Ketodol is good stuff.) Then we hopped on the boat back to Positano.  One funny thing about visiting Capri for the day - the last boats leave around 4:30 or 5. It must be really nice to be there after the day trippers leave. I plan to try it next time.
Positano 2013
I'd also really like to do the hike to the ruins of Tiberius' palace, Villa Jovis. This link tells you how to get there, as well as how to visit the famous Grotta Azzura (Blue Grotto) and Bagni di Tiberius - Tiberius' seaside villa.  One day was definitely not enough.