Day 13: Match Day

While we had no plans to go to an American Football match when we planned the honeymoon, when we found out that the 49ers were playing at home on the Sunday we were in San Francisco it seemed to good an opportunity to miss. Dom was able to purchase some last minute tickets for the New York Giants at the San Francisco 49ers from a ticket exchange website.

While the weather was lovely when we set out for Candlestick Park, Dom also went to great pains to advise us that since the stadium was next to the Bay, the weather was bound to change for the worse and we could expect freezing fog to roll in.  Accordingly we all wrapped up warm and set off for the match.

Needless to say, the weather remained bright and sunny all day and we found ourselves stripping off the layers as we sweltered in the sunshine.  It was so hot Dom had to go and buy (yet another) 49ers cap to stop his head burning!

We arrived at the stadium we encountered the usual car park carnival that is found at most matches.  The car park was full of happy Americans throwing a trailer party.  Essentially this involves attaching a BBQ to your pickup truck and consuming half a cow while drinking your own body weight in beer.

Inside the ground we found an amazing atmosphere with the most eclectic mix of fans that I have ever seen.  Directly in front of us was a huge, but very friendly, Latino man who just could not sit still: he just kept bouncing out of his seat every time the 49ers did anything.  Across the aisle from us was Mr Redneck (wispy ginger beard, stained vest and a John Deere baseball cap) while ruling the roost was a little white haired lady, covered in 49ers merchandise, whose job it was to boss the other fans around.

The Americans, or at least those who live in San Francisco, have a very different approach to watching sport than I’m used to.  We get to our seats early and stay to the end. Here, many fans were still arriving at their seats late in the second quarter, then they would wander around and chat with their friends, go for drinks, before leaving early in the fourth quarter to beat the rush home.  It seems a bit strange to pay quite a lot of money for tickets to a match that you don’t watch.

The game itself was quite exciting with both teams moving the ball and scoring.  I found myself in an odd position as I was cheering for the 49ers to win, but also cheering for one of the Giant’s receivers (Victor Cruz) who I had on my fantasy football team. Luckily, both the 49ers and Victor did well so I had the best of both worlds! The final score was Giants 20 – 49ers 27 and we joined many happy 49er fans leaving the stadium for the slow journey home.

After the match we left Dom and Jes (thank you both for your very kind hospitality) to a quiet night in, headed into the centre of San Francisco and checked into the Handlery Hotel on Union Square for a final night on the town.

After wandering around taking in the night life and more of the sights, we both had a hankering for pizza and followed the concierge’s recommendation to eat at Uncle Vito’s pizzeria.  It was (and still is hopefully) a lovely, down to earth, family-run restaurant which does fantastic pizzas.  We slightly underestimated the size of the pie that we ordered (it was massive, about 16 inches across) and while we did our best, we left the restaurant defeated (but happy and very full) for a relatively early night – we were planning an early morning trip to Alcatraz the next day.  Bring on the Rock.

The date was 13 November 2011. Next day – Day 14: Alcatraz.

Day 12: Hanging out in San Francisco.

We had an absolutely lovely day hanging out in San Francisco. Although we were only in the city for a couple of days, we really got the feel that it’s a fantastic place to live. The brilliant sunshine probably helped! I understand that’s not typical.

Dom and Jes very kindly offered to show us around for the day and we started out with a drive up to the Twin Peaks to take in the views across the city.

San Francisco from Twin Peaks

I don’t know whether Twin Peaks are the highest points in the city, but the views are fab. We tried to figure out the names of the various hills sticking up and got ourselves orientated.

After Twin Peaks we went on a whirlwind driving tour of some of the most famous areas of the city: Castro, Haight Ashbury, and Golden Gate Park. It was cool to see the murals in Haight and the bison in the Park. We ended up at South Beach and dropped into the Beach Chalet for refreshments and to watch the surfers! The sea was pretty lively so we didn’t go for a walk on the beach.

Mini beer sampler at the Beach Chalet

On the way back to drop off the car, we tried to track down the famous picture postcard street of painted Victorian houses, but we must have taken a wrong turn. We saw plenty of gorgeous old houses though and we were all looking out for where we’d like to live if money were no object. We also stopped for a quick view of the Golden Gate Bridge:

View of the Golden Gate Bridge

Dom and Jes looking cool

We dropped the car off, jumped on the tram and headed into the city centre to take a a wander through Union Square, Chinatown, Market Street, the financial district and down to the Embarcadero.

One of the famous tourist attractions in San Francisco is, of course, the cable cars which are actually powered by clamping on to a cable running in a loop underground – this pulls the cars up and down the hills.One end of the cable car routes is near Union Square at the Powell Street turntable. The cars can only go forward and so at the turntable the operators have to push them by hand on the revolving platform. The queue of cars and the even bigger queue of potential patrons convinced us that the engines pulling the cables can’t pull too many cars at a time.

We didn’t attempt to take a ride, but we managed to grab a quick photo:

Cable cars in the city centre

Aside from the cable cars, San Francisco has an extensive tram network. Some of the downtown tram routes run vintage trams (or ‘streetcars’) which come from all over the world and still have their original livery. It’s the Municipal Railway’s “Museum in Motion”. Here’s one example, but there were many more:

In the brilliant sunshine, we might have forgotten that Christmas was coming up:

These skaters looked like they were having fun!

We carried on through Chinatown and the financial district to the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. There was an ‘Occupy’ tented village outside, but politics could not distract us from our goal: lunch.

The Ferry Building

Inside The Ferry Building

The Ferry Building used to be a transport hub, but now it’s full of cafes and food shops. We had to wait for a bit, but we managed to grab a table in the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant for some bread and cheese, charcuterie and, of course, a bit of wine tasting. With all this choice, it would have been rude not to (plus we needed to get into practice for Napa):

Inside The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant

Tom was very brave to be wandering around SF in a Packers shirt!

Some time later…

Later again, Dom and Jes headed home and we went for a wander down towards Fisherman’s Wharf. We wanted to scope out the Alcatraz tour and to see what else was going on.

Blurry picture of palm trees on the waterfront

I love a carousel, but this one was for kids:

Carousel at Fisherman's Wharf

What a busy day! In the evening we had a rather lovely dinner cooked by our rather lovely hosts and a little more wine!

After dinner

And to round things off, here’s a cute kitty!

I confess I don't know if this is Killer or Jules Verne!

The date was 12 November 2011. Next day – Day 13: Match Day.

Day 11: Driving to San Francisco

Another (mainly) travel day!!

We got up relatively early, raided the the Yosemite Lodge food hall for breakfast and then hit the road to San Francisco, stopping only to visit the Bridal Veil Falls on the way out of the park.The Falls were quite stunning with the mist blowing one way and then the other as the breeze changed.

Bridal Veil Falls

To be honest not much happened on the way to San Francisco. The highlight of the trip was passing a truck carrying two Bat Mobiles.

Holy smoke Batman - that's the Bat Mobile!!

Other than that it just rained for the whole journey. A lot. All the way until we were crossing the Bay Bridge, when it stopped. Oh and our sat nav (optimistically called “Never Lost”) got slightly confused by a change in the road system which meant that we went in small circles for a while.

In San Francisco we met up with Dom and Jes (and their cats Killer and Jules Verne) who had kindly agreed to put us up for a few nights.

Killer and Jules Verne (oh and Dom and Jes)

After quaffing a few glasses of champagne we adjourned, via a nice bar or two, to a Peruvian restaurant called Limón where we ate fantastic chicken and other tasty dishes, before wending our way back home via some more (increasing seedy) bars and retiring for the night in a happy frame of mind.

The date was 11 November 2011. Next day – Day 12: Hanging out in San Francisco.

Day 10: Yosemite

We had the whole day walking around Yosemite Valley seeing the main sights. We didn’t step in the car all day, which was a nice change, although later in the day we took the shuttle bus. Despite some snow on the ground here and there, the weather was actually sunny and mild.

We walked into Yosemite village to post some postcards and then for a walk to see the Ahwahnee Hotel and the trail to Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake

The water in the lake was pretty low because of the time of year, but it was beautiful and there weren’t that many people around. After the rocky hike up to the lake, we decided to take the road back down and we wound up at Curry Village where we caught the bus to the Yosemite Falls trail.

Yosemite Falls

After that we were pretty tired so we checked out the art gallery in the village and went down into the meadow to take some pictures in the late afternoon light before propping up the bar at the Lodge for a good session of wine, snacks and watching the football.

Tom in Yosemite lodge bar

Please see the gallery for more photos! (NB: click on the photos for larger versions/slideshow.)

The date was 10 November 2011. Next day – Day 11: Driving to San Francisco.

Day 9: Kings Canyon and Yosemite

Woke up early (again), packed our meagre belongings into the Tank and then went for breakfast in the finest (only) restaurant that Grant Grove has to offer!! Eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast all round. Yum yum yum.

After breakfast we drove down the mountain. Out of the snow and in to glorious sunshine – much more pleasant than the drive up!

Leaving Kings Canyon - view from the road down.

The drive from Kings Canyon to Yosemite was fairly uneventful. The only real highlight came two hours into the journey when Jenny discovered that we had left the John Muir Lodge without returning our room keys. When we rang, the hotel staff were very understanding and were happy for us to post the keys back to them. What nice people.

On the edge of Yosemite National Park stands the Mariposa Grove – another grove of huge Giant Sequoia trees. Again they were magnificent – although we did manage to get lost (as a man I can only blame the poor sign posting on the routes – nothing to do with any general ineptitude on my part obviously) which meant that we spent much longer at the Grove, and walked a lot further, than we intended.

The Grove contains, amongst other things, the California Tree through which an early entrepreneur carved a tunnel (which is big enough to drive a Model T Ford through) as a tourist attraction. That guy obviously knew what he was doing as the tunnel is still attracting tourists (i.e. us) to the present day 🙂

The California Tunnel Tree - believe it or not you can drive a Model T Ford through the tunnel (we've seen the pictures).

One of the really surprising things that we noticed is how many of the trees have suffered fire damage. Because the trees are so tall they act as natural lightning conductors and often a lightning strike will set fire to the unfortunate tree. However, as long as the fire doesn’t destroy all of the bark around the base of the tree, the tree continues to grow. It is remarkable how much damage the trees can sustain and still live.

Fire damage to a Giant Sequoia (with Tom for scale)

When we eventually left the Grove we drove the last 30 miles to Yosemite along twisty, windy Highway 140 before emerging through a long tunnel to a wonderful view of Yosemite Valley with Bridal Veil Falls off to the right and Half Dome in the distance.

Entering Yosemite - looking across the valley

On arrival we checked into the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and, once we had removed everything from the Tank (to avoid any bear incidents – by this stage, because of the lurid warnings by the park rangers, we assumed that bears were hiding behind every tree and/or rock just waiting to break in to our car to steal our food (aka booze), before mugging us and possibly take us hostage for a ransom), we went for dinner at the Mountain Room Restaurant which forms part of the Lodge.

The Yosemite Lodge at the Falls

The Mountain Room Restaurant is decorated is a funky mix of 60’s modern architecture meets log cabin chic and is known for its spectacular views of Yosemite Falls. I’m sure that we would have enjoyed these views if it hadn’t been pitch black outside. While my food was lovely, Jenny’s dish had obviously been kept on a very hot, hot plate and was burnt on the underside. However, after one quick word with the waiter, we secured a complementary meal – kerching!!

Please see the gallery for more photos! (NB: click on the photos for larger versions/slideshow.)

The date was 9 November 2011. Next day – Day 10: Yosemite.

Day 8: Kings Canyon National Park

Yesterday we woke up in the desert, today we woke up to snow at 7000 feet!

John Muir Lodge in Grant Grove Village - our lovely hotel

There will be a lot of photos of trees in this post because we’d come to see the giant sequoias. The first thing we did after breakfast was to head down to the Grant Grove.

The General Grant Tree

The fallen roots of a hollow sequoia

In General Grant Grove

The size of them is astonishing, even though you are expecting it.

Sequoia!

Sequoia - Jenny included for scale

Before we go any further, I must digress into the important topic of Bears.

Black Bears

In the National Parks you are constantly confronted by signs and warnings all over the place about the threat of Bear attacks, particularly if you’re carrying any food or if you leave anything in your car. All the available literature (e.g. guide books, National Park guides) includes dire warnings about the danger of Bears and the high probability of death.

English: American Black Bear in Yosemite Valley.

A Bear we didn't see. (Image via Wikipedia)

Unsurprisingly then, I was a little bit nervous about walking in the forests when there weren’t all that many other people about. Tom teased me for looking around every time I heard a noise (i.e. constantly) and for scanning the hillsides for signs of Bears.

Needless to say, we didn’t see any Bears and all my vigilance was for naught.

Later, and on the excellent advice of the lady in the gift shop, we drove the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway stopping for ‘hikes’ around Zumwalt Meadows and Hume Lake.

On the Kings Canyon Scenic Highway

Zumwalt Meadow

Hume Lake

There’s not a lot to do in the evening up in the mountains – we had some dinner at the restaurant (there’s only one), then sat around the big fire in the lodge chatting to some of the other guests and reading.

Please see the gallery for more photos! (NB: click on the photos for larger versions/slideshow.)

The date was 8 November 2011. Next day – Day 9: Kings Canyon and Yosemite.

Day 7: Desert to Mountain (aka Dia de los Muertos)

Tom taking over for today’s blog for reasons that will become apparent below.

Day 7 was a driving day – all the way from Death Valley, round the Southern end of the Sierra Nevada and then up into the mountains and Kings Canyon National Park. A little over 400 miles driving and taking 6+ hours from start to finish.

While some of the scenery that we drove past was spectacular (we didn’t stop to take photos as we had so much ground to cover – you will just have to take my word for it – you can trust me I’m a solicitor), much of it was, to paraphrase General Melchett, quite literally a barren featureless desert, while the rest of it was merely long, straight, tedious roads.

Before we set off, however, Jenny and I had planned (over a few beers the night before) to retrace our steps and visit the Devil’s Cornfield and the Mesquite Dunes which we had driven past the in dark.

Unfortunately, due to drinking copious quantities of fine Ka tequila (the stuff stored black skull shaped bottles – the clue is in the presentation) Jenny was suffering her very own “dia de los muertos” and was feeling too, er, tired, to get up and see the sights.

Jenny's nemesis: 'Ka' tequila. We had to bring some home!

Undeterred I got up before dawn and drove back along Hwy 190, as the sun began to rise behind the mountains, to see the Devil’s Cornfield – so named because the arrow weed looks a bit like sheaves of harvested corn – and the Mesquite Dunes. The photo doesn’t show the true extent of the Devil’s Cornfield – it went on for miles and miles out across the valley floor and you can see why the first settlers to discover it gave it its name.

The Devil's Cornfield in Death Valley - not much like a cornfield but pretty wierd to look at . . .

The Mesquite Dunes were pretty spectacular and, once you walked more than about 100 feet from the car park, were unspoilt. The dunes are described as being Sahara like and I have to say, having spent some time toiling up and down the dunes, I never want to be stranded in the Sahara! It was really hard work and I was building up a healthy sweat – and this was before it started heating up for the day! Anyhow, I took about a million photographs (so that Jenny could see what she missed) and headed back to Stovepipe Wells for breakfast.

The Mesquite Dunes - these are suprisingly big when you try to walk up them

After a hearty American style buffet breakfast (for me at least) Jenny and I hit the road. Jenny’s dia de los muertos was continuing and she promptly fell asleep on the passenger seat. A state in which state she spent most of the day which meant that she missed such highlights as:

  • long straight roads with only the occasional farm house (often abandoned) to break the monotony;
  • the Bakerfield ring road; and
  • more long straight roads.

Jenny only really started to recover after we went past Fresno and stopped to take on fuel – regular gas for the small tank we were driving and burgers and pepsi for us.

After a pint of Pepsi (and 6 hours sleep) our patient makes an amazing recovery!!

After Fresno we began to climb into the mountains. We left behind fertile farmlands and climbed into woody hills. Unfortunately this meant that the roads became increasingly small and windy.

This would have been great in the Audi but in our car, which cornered about as well as an oil tanker, meant that driving became a little challenging. A challenge which was compounded by night falling, snow on the road and fog! Eventually we found ourselves doing about 10 mph and hugging the centre line of the road to ensure that we didn’t drive off the sheer drop that started about 1 foot from the side of the road and which would have put a real, if not terminal, dent in the honeymoon.

Eventually we arrived at the John Muir Lodge at Grant Grove Village (elevation approx 7,000 feet) where we were to spend the next few days. It was really surreal to have started the day below sea level wearing t-shirt and shorts in the desert and to finish the day at 7,000 feet surrounded by 5 inches of snow and wearing ski gear!

Please see the gallery for more photos! (NB: click on the photos for larger versions/slideshow.)

The date was 7 November 2011. Next day – Day 8: Kings Canyon National Park.

Day 6: Death Valley

Our route today took us from the big city of Las Vegas to the hamlet of Stovepipe Wells in the Death Valley National Park. It’s another tiny settlement consisting of a motel, store, restaurant, saloon and an RV park. It’s a bit theme-y, but we found it fun and quite charming.

'Historic Courtyard' (?!) at Stovepipe Wells

We started our day by visiting a stunning viewpoint. ‘Dante’s View’ is at 5475 feet above sea level – that’s 1000 feet higher than the top of Ben Nevis, yet you can drive right to the top! There are views right across Death Valley and we got some great pictures – including our blog header!

Panorama from Dante's View

At Dante's View

From Dante’s View at 5475 feet, we drove to Badwater at -282 feet. It’s the lowest point on land in the USA or the Western Hemisphere. There’s even a sign high up above on the valley wall marking sea level [can you see the white line in this photo?]

Badwater - can you see the 'Sea Level' sign?

Badwater

Badwater gets its name from the Badwater Pool – a very salty spring which has created an extensive salt flat.

Badwater Pool

We had to have a go at some perspective photos, although we were the only ones doing so – perhaps it’s a British thing?

Perspective at Badwater - that's my tripod Tom is 'balancing' on!

You might expect that Death Valley is going to be very hot at all times. Not so! We were there in November and it was pleasantly mild.

After Badwater we took the scenic ‘Artist’s Drive’ back towards Stovepipe Wells.

Stripy mountain in Artist's Drive

We had dinner at the restaurant (which was much better than the guidebook suggested – Lonely Planet, take note, the business has changed hands since your last update) and settled into the bar for the evening to watch the Sunday night football.

Everyone was very friendly and we got chatting to the owner and the barmaid. This led to Jenny asking about one of the novelty bottles decorating the bar – a black glass skull decorated with Dia de los Muertos-style patterns. It turned out to be ‘Ka’ tequila and the owner offered us a taster. It was very good tequila and Jenny ended up having two glasses (one was bought by a member from a group of British cyclists who were doing a charity circuit of Death Valley). This wasn’t perhaps one of the best laid plans…

Please see the gallery for more photos! (NB: click on the photos for larger versions/slideshow.)

The date was 6 November 2011. Next day – Day 7: Desert to Mountain.

Day 5: Grand Canyon and Las Vegas

Today’s main activity was one of the highlights of our trip – a helicopter trip to the Grand Canyon!

We had to get up really early to get the minibus shuttle to Boulder City. The casino wasn’t at all quiet though – there were still people gambling at 7 a.m. I guess they’d been up all night!?

Our helicopter pilot was Chuck who used to fly Black Hawks, but he said he left the Army because he got “tired of getting shot at”. It was such a good line that he used it several times to all of us! It was good to know we were in experienced hands though, as it was my first time in a helicopter.

In the helicopter - I don't look nervous do I?

As part of the flight, we passed by the Hoover dam.

The Hoover Dam

What is there to say about the Grand Canyon, except ‘wow’?

Strangely, it had snowed in the night, giving a slightly surreal look of white tops to the surrounding hills and desert.

Grand Canyon

View from the helicopter

We had time in the Canyon to wander around a bit and get some photos, as well as having a mini lunch. All too soon it was time to be going again. We’ve already been saying we’d love to go back and explore more of the Canyon, including the ’Skywalk’ (a glass platform projected over the lip of the Canyon – we could see it from the landing site).

In the afternoon we took a walk down The Strip. We didn’t get very far – everything’s really far apart. We managed to make it as far as the Bellagio – we wanted to check out the glass sculpture and the conservatory. We didn’t see the fountains unfortunately as we couldn’t find the show times.

Glass sculpture in The Bellagio foyer

In front of The Bellagio

We’re not sure whether Vegas is entirely our scene. We didn’t do any gambling (not even the slots – you had to have some sort of prepay card and we couldn’t be bothered to queue up!) and we didn’t much like the seedy side of it. On the other hand, it’s a great place for people-watching! We loved seeing cowboys at breakfast (in full boots and Stetson).

Our evening: drinks at Salute watching the dueling pianos; dinner at ‘I Heart Burger’; the Treasure Island pirate battle show; and the ‘Mystère‘ performance by Cirque du Soleil. Phew! Cirque du Soleil was fantastic, but no photos allowed unfortunately.

Please see the gallery for more photos! (NB: click on the photos for larger versions/slideshow.)

The date was 5 November 2011. Next day – Day 6: Death Valley.

Day 4: freight train video

The railroad with its freight trains passes close by the hotel – this video* was taken standing on the front porch. It’s probably less than the 100 feet I mention in the video (I was a bit sleepy at that time of day, which also explains the shaky camerawork!)

It was actually quite a short train as they go!

The date was 4 November 2011. Next day – Day 5: Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.

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* If the video isn’t showing, please see the original on YouTube: Video of Freight Train