Posted by: mrkinski | October 10, 2013

San Francisco 2013

The September 2013 visit to San Francisco was my 7th USA holiday, and my second holiday in California. I was going to write Sunny California but we found out that San Francisco is often cool and breezy California!

The Journey

We flew with Virgin Atlantic on their aptly named Tubular Belle 747.  As is usually the case with Virgin Atlantic, the seating and in-flight entertainment (especially the Sky Maps that I am addicted to) were excellent, but on both legs of the flight the food was absolutely terrible this time. Note to self – take snacks! With the cost of flying, I would expect better quality food, and I hope this was a one-off.  British Airways food is much better, so reasonable in-flight grub can be provided on economy flights.

View of the Bay

We left pretty much on time from London Heathrow at around 1pm, and after a long flight arrived at San Francisco International Airport at around 4pm San Frantime. A warning if you haven’t flown into San Francisco before, you approach very low over the water, and it looks like you are going to clip the wall as it’s so low. I really enjoyed the part of the flight that went over the main body of the USA  – with views of  some wonderful rugged landscapes.

We picked up our pre-arranged transport, which was called by the Virgin Holiday rep at the airport, and were dropped off at our hotel for the next 9 nights, the Sheraton, Fisherman’s Wharf. Our room was a good size, with modern furnishings, a good sized TV (with a wide range of channels) and a nice-sized bathroom.

The staff were excellent – from cleaning staff through to the helpful reception staff. I would definitely recommend the Sheraton, as it has the perfect location – a few minutes walk from the main piers, the plentiful pier-front restaurants and shops.

Our first evening was spent having a quick mosey around the Fisherman’s Wharf area, grabbing some snacks in the local 7-Eleven, as we were too tired to go out for a meal after our long transatlantic journey.


I didn’t stick to my pre-holiday plan of writing daily notes (a big mistake when you try to remember what you did and when several weeks later), so I’ll just talk about the highlights in a disorganised kind of way.

View of the Golden gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, California.

Early on we decided to get the two day hop-on / hop-off open-top bus ticket. The journey started about 5 minutes from our hotel, and for our first trip, we followed the Virgin Holiday reps suggestion and did the whole city circuit. This was a great way to get our bearings, and decide where to visit during the rest of our stay. We passed through most of the areas that we would visit later on during our holiday.

We passed through the Tenderloins District (which we also drove through on our airport transfer), and on both occasions it was obviously an area not to be visited by tourists.

Another area we did not get to visit was the Golden Gate Park – we went through on the bus, but did not get round to visiting the park and it’s gardens / museums.

The open top bus ride gave us lots of trips (8 in total) across the Golden Gate Bridge. Make sure you hold onto your hat and wear warm clothing, especially at night, as it’s freezing cold crossing the bridge in the open. We were treated to an amazing view of the city and the Bay from just over the Golden Gate, at the rest stop.

The Rock

Three days into our 9 day San Francisco trip we took the boat ride to Alcatraz Island. We pre-booked this online before leaving the UK, as the tours sell-out pretty quickly. This was one of the highlights of our holiday.


Alcatraz cell block

It was an eerie experience peering inside the tiny, cramped cells and walking the corridors where prisoners and guards lived (and sometimes died) in such close proximity.

The sound of the cell doors shutting was quite frightening.

The audio tour really brings Alcatraz to life – you hear the stories told by the voices of those incarcerated or working in the prison.

There is clearly a lot of work being done to preserve the historic buildings (many of which were short-sightedly destroyed in the late 60’s / early 1970’s) – and there is an excellent shop on the island, with the profits going towards the refurbishment work.

Shopping and Dining

We made a couple of trips to the main shopping district in downtown San Francisco, at Union Square. One of the best parts of these trips was lunch in Bristol Farms, in the Westfield Mall. I enjoyed wolfing down a delicious beef, cheese, onion and salad toasted sandwich, with a side of mash and gravy.  The beef was so fresh and mouth-watering, and I get hungry just thinking about the sandwich porn.

My favourite place to eat in the USA is usually Applebees, so we visited the newly opened San Francisco branch.  The food was great, the wildberry frozen lemonade was to die for, but on two of our three visits the service was awful. Either rushing us, or bringing the wrong drinks and not rectifying it. I filled the post meal survey on both bad visits, with no comeback. Bad customer service Applebees!


Bubba Gumps, though more expensive, was a much better experience, with wonderful views of the Bay if you are able to get a window seat.

Inside Cafe Zoetrope

Our first San Francisco breakfast was in Joannie’s Happy Days Diner, with the enthusiastic owner outside beckoning you in from across the street!

Our favourite breakfast place was Johnny Rockets Diner. We had three breakfasts here – and the food and coffee was always hot and prepared well. The breakfast was topped off great 50’s / 60’s music playing on the jukebox.

The best coffee we drank was in Cafe Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s restaurant in North Beach. Unfortunately we didn’t eat here, but it was wonderful taking the load off on our walk back from Union Square, and drinking a lovely latte whilst looking at the pictures from Francis Ford Coppola movies.

Another great place for a caffeine and cake fix is Boudins, where you can stand in the street and watch the baking through a window. Or pop inside and have food and drink as a variety of (mostly animal) shaped breads are moved by an overhead conveyor system from bakery to shop. There are also a couple of spots to eat and drink outside Boudins, and it always smelt so nice passing the bakery everyday. I love the smell of baking bread (isn’t that a song by Nick Lowe?)

Getting around…


It doesn’t really hit you at first how most places are within walking distance. Pick up a free map from your hotel, and it’s easy to navigate your way to most places, or jump on the easy to navigate public transport.

The street cars are wonderful – cars from all over the world, restored and displayed in wonderful colours, they make each journey a unique experience.

Every visitor to San Francisco has to ride on the cable car. We rode the Powell-Hyde line (taking it in turns to hang off the side, as you do!) which took us from the Ghiradelli Square turnaround to just past Union Square. It’s noisy and slow, but great fun – especially when the driving is giving a running commentary and ringing his bell.

We took a night bus ride through the city, driving through the Presidio towards Golden Gate Bridge, then back through the city towards the Bay Bridge, which we then crossed. Sitting on an open-top bus, being driven across a 4.5 mile long bridge high above the water was a terrifying experience. I was convinced we were going to topple over the edge and perish in the freezing waters below. Luckily we didn’t.

We spent about 15 minutes on Treasure Island (no pirates sadly), with a wonderful view of the lights of San Francisco across the bay. Then back across the bridge, but no-one told us that on the way back we were on the upper lane, even higher up. Still, we didn’t die (again), so all’s well that ends well.


Where the girls have flowers in their hair

We decided to visit Haight-Ashbury, the part of San Francisco famous for being where the hippy “Summer of Love” movement started in 1967. The main reason for visiting was to pop into Amoeba Music.  So many goodies in there, it was so hard to keep my wallet snapped firmly shut. Box-sets, vinyl, cheap CD’s, how I resisted their beautiful wares I’ll never know.

Peace & Love

The hippy vibe was still intact, and it was clearly a gathering place for dead-heads of all ages. Sadly it was also a place where open drug dealing went unchecked, and outside of Tenderloins, the place with the largest population of homeless people.

The one negative of our visit, that we found difficult, was the noticeable difference between the haves and have nots. We weren’t hassled by anyone begging, though I was mistakenly recognised as a long lost Australian friend (I’ve never been to Aus) by a young homeless guy who was as high as a kite, and who proceeded to give me a full hug!

But the sheer numbers of homeless people on every street, and the amount of clearly troubled people (of all ages) struggling with their mental health, was more noticeable than anywhere I have been in my life, and makes me so glad we have a National Health Service in the UK, to help people when they need it.  It’s not perfect, but so many people seem to slip through the cracks in San Francisco. That’s enough moaning, I don’t want dreary politics to creep into my blog.

We stayed in the Bay area for the whole of our holiday. The furthest we ventured was to the town of Sausalito. Even though it’s only a few miles from the city, being tucked around the corner means it’s much warmer. We had a nice meal yards from the bay, with wonderful views in the warm autumn sun.

Sausalito, San Francisco Bay



The America’s Cup was taking place during our holiday, and although we were not in San Francisco for it’s conclusion (we were there when the Kiwi’s were thrashing the USA), it was great to be able to find a spot and watch the boats race by.  And it was free entertainment too!

I left my heart…

We had a great time in San Francisco, and it’s a very vibrant, diverse city, with something for everyone. Apparently September / October is a good time to visit, as it’s quieter than the peak summer months but the weather is still pretty good. The city is certainly in my top 5 (joining New York, Engleberg, York and Kissimmee) and I would love to go back in a few years time.

Visit my Flickr page for more San Francisco pictures.

Posted by: mrkinski | September 3, 2011

USA 2010

Well, I thought it was probably about time that I started using this blog – as it’s been lying dormant for two years. I planned to use my blog to write about holidays and other stuff that has happened in my life, either to me or my family, as often the small details get lost as the years roll by. I love looking at pictures we have taken, but its often difficult to remember what happened outside of the moment.

I had planned to write about our family holiday to the USA as soon as I got back, but of course, life and work took over, and over one year later, I’m having to dig deep and try and remember what we did and where we visited. So, here goes…

This was our 5th visit to the USA, but our first to the West Coast. We had previously visited Florida as well as a couple of 3 day breaks in New York (which is probably now my favourite city). We decided to have a two-centre holiday in 2010, with a week in Las Vegas and a week in LA. We flew out from Gatwick with Virgin Atlantic, who had a great selection of inflight entertainment, including The Disappearance of Alice Creed – which was a good low-budget but quality scripted UK film, & Hot Tub Time Machine – not so good but provided a few giggles & helped pass the time.

After a long flight (over 10 hours), we arrived at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, and were soon all packed into our 7 seater mini van (the American driving experience is so much fun – bigger cars and calmer roads). We were staying in a villa in Silver Rain Avenue in Las Vegas, complete with swimming pool and loads of bedrooms. Although the villa was smaller than the ones we were used to in Florida, it was still a good size and with everything needed for a good stay, including wi-fi and a good selection of cable channels on the obligatory huge TV. For the first two nights, I suffered from bad jet-lag, and was getting up at about 4am, unable to sleep, with nothing to do but watch weird shopping channels as nothing else was on TV at that godforsaken hour. At one point, I swear I watched someone cooking something called “Angel hair” in a huge wok. I shit you not.

Another highlight (excuse the pun) were a couple of Eco-i-Lite’s scattered around the villa (cool gadgets that act as night-lights / torches). I was tempted to buy one, but knew I would have problems with them back in the UK. The villa was about 20 minutes drive from the main Vegas Strip – and we soon found a wonderful radio station called “The Groove” that played 70’s and 80’s funk (favourites included Strawberry Letter 23 by The Brothers Johnson, Outstanding by The Gap Band and Prince’s Erotic City). Not my usual musical cup-of-tea, but the songs sounded great cruising down the strip.

We visited most of the hotels / casinos in the strip, not to gamble, but to see the sights, the gondolas, caged tigers in hotel foyers and replicas of various landmarks. Tacky, yes, but no-one goes to Vegas for a classy holiday, surely. The weather was hotter than hot during our stay, so we were glad of the pool to jump back into in the evening. The picture on the left shows the temperature outside at 6pm – 115 degrees!

One night we drove to Old Town Las Vegas to see the Fremont Street Experience. On the way we drove past wedding chapels, decaying vacant lots and saw close-up the more seedy side of the city. Not the side of town to visit on foot at night, with sex in your face (walking down the street having call-girl cards given to you and your family is not really that subtle). At Fremont Street (the first paved street in Vegas in 1905, fact fans) we watched the show that played out on one of the World’s largest screens, with a musical history of the USA set to American Pie playing above everyone’s heads. We also saw a drug deal going down before the show – a real drug deal, not a street show! Viva Las Vegas indeed.

We ventured out of Vegas a few times. It was too expensive to get a helicopter trip over the Grand Canyon, so we drove to Hoover Dam. On the way back we stopped off at Boulder City, Nevada. With its picket fences, it looked like a town from 1950’s America. We called into a lovely antiques shop (8th & Pearl Antiques) where I could have spent so much money on the memorabilia from the 50’s and 60’s – as well as older stuff from the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century. Sadly I can’t find a website for this antiques store, as I’d love a virtual browse, our visit was too short. We also stopped for a drink in Boulder City, and drank the best cream soda known to man in a cafe opposite the antiques store.

We also visited Bonnie Springs Ranch, to see the Old Nevada Town, a replica of an 1880’s mining town. The journey to the ranch was wonderful, driving through the hills and seeing some of the real Nevada countryside.

After a week we all piled back in the car and set off on the long drive from Las Vegas to Anaheim, California. This was one of my favourite parts of the holiday, and was a nice way to spend my birthday.

The scenery on the drive was fascinating, and we drove for most of the day with the music blaring (plenty of classic rock!) soundtracking some lovely views, as we passed vast open spaces, abandoned towns and dust-devils in the far distance.

Just over the border in California, we visited Calico ghost town in San Bernardino County. Located in the Calico Mountains of the Mojave Desert region of Southern California, it was founded in 1881 as a silver mining town, and at its height had over 1000 residents. Today it has a few original buildings with the rest made up of replicas built on existing foundations. After a couple of hours spent in Calico, we finished off our journey to Anaheim, soon spotting the palm trees that are everywhere in LA.

Compared to our luxurious villa in Las Vegas, our home from home in LA was a real disappointment. Our budget for the second week did not stretch to a home with a pool, and we ended up having to compromise and the house (it was no villa) was drab, dated and stale. It had the lingering odour and decor of a poor quality care home. Anaheim is just over an hour outside of LA, and very close to Disneyland (about 15 minutes drive), but not quite the 5 minute walk our travel agent promised! So a disappointing start to the second week.

We ate out a lot, as there were plenty of places to eat (like the delicious Applebees). I can’t remember us cooking at all during the whole week.

We drove to LA just once, and as we got near to downtown LA, I’m sure we drove past the area where Falling Down was filmed (where William ‘D-Fens’ Foster gets out of his car and starts his violence spree).

We decided to do a mini-David Lynch pilgrimage, and visit the diner used in Mullholland Drive (the “monster” scene). Known as “Winkies” in the film, Caesar’s restaurant in Gardena, South Central LA between Hawthorne and Compton, served us a damn fine cup of coffee, and we spend half an hour chatting to the friendly waiter who informed us that lots of movies were filmed in Caesar’s (us – “really?”). They even served coffee in the same mugs as in Mullholland Drive, only a Lynch geek would notice that minor detail.

Whilst we were in LA, we decided to visit Hollywood, which was a big disappointment. It was run-down, dirty and pretty desperate. We also did the obligatory drive down Hollywood Boulevard, and viewed the stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As Disney freaks, we had to visit Disneyland, it would have been rude not to. The Californian Disneyland was much smaller than its Floridian cousin. Even the castle was tiny, but one definite improvement was the Tower of Terror, which we preferred to the Florida ride.

We visited a couple of beaches – my favourite was Dana Point, in Orange County. I know we went to at least one other beach, but for the life of me, I can’t remember it’s name. But it was sandy.  With sea.

I’m sure we all did much more, but the old grey matter isn’t what it once was, and I’ve clearly forgotten lots. It was a good holiday, but if we were ever to return to California, it would be do visit a different part of the state, such as San Francisco.

We are already planning our next holiday, a return to Florida. Note to self – make some notes this time.