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San Francisco & West Coast California
August 03, 2005

With 45.8lbs of camping gear (according to the airport scale) we hopped on a jet plane bound for San Francisco. Our plan was to spend 3 nights in San Fran, then rent a car, and travel down the West coast of California, camping occasionally along the way.

The only camping items we couldn't fit in a giant duffle bag were lawn chairs, small propane cannisters for the stove, and a cooler. That was easily resolved with a quick trip to the local K-mart.

Arriving in San Fran, we were lucky to locate a shuttle driver that couldn't speak a lick of English. This was fortunate because I couldn't speak Mandarin and ensured that our journey to the San Remo Hotel involved a lot of sight seeing.

The San Remo is an old school European-style hotel, with bedrooms that can barely fit a bed, and the bathrooms are down the hall. However, it is also clean, friendly, cheap, and in a great location about 3 blocks from Fisherman's Wharf.

The night of our arrival we walked around Fisherman's Wharf, which we expected to be a little more lively on a Friday night. The wharf area is pretty much just one giant tourist trap, with shops that close early at night, and chaotic by day without very much to see.

The next day we took a 1hr boat cruise around the famed Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Luckily for us it was one of a handful number of days that San Francisco wasn't enveloped in fog and we could see everything quite clearly.

Armed with some great sandwiches from Trader Joes we toured some of the streets. We stopped in for chocolate and sundaes at the famous Ghirardelli Square. Ghirardelli will remain forever in my heart, not only because the chocolate is so damn good, but also because they gave me a discount for doing an impression of Sloth after noticing my 'Goonie's' t-shirt. "Chuuuuunk!"

We continued on to San Fran's Chinatown, the largest population of Chinese people outside of Asia. It's definitely an interesting place to check out, especially when you're a 6'3" white guy wading through the crowds. Of course we also had to go see Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world.

For dinner that night we ate at L'Osteria del Forno, a great Italian restaurant in the North Beach district. It was recommended in 3 of our guide books, and in the local newspaper. We weren't dissapointed, great food!

We checked out a nightclub called Ruby Skye. It was large, loud, and quite nice inside, although maybe I expected a little something more from a club that charges $20 cover.

More of San Fran

The next day we checked out the Exploratorium which is an interesting science centre, geared towards kids obviously, but still fun for adults. If you've ever been to a science centre you're probably familiar with the type of things they have set up inside. However, the Exploratorium is more impressive from the outside. It looks like a great palace out of India, set in a beautiful park. A lot of San Franciscoites have their wedding photos taken here.

Next we headed over to the gigantic Golden Gate Park. There are free shuttles that can take you to various points in the park, including the Japanese Tea Gardens, conservatory of flowers, etc.

Lastly we checked out the Mission and Castro districts. The Mission district is full of some of the more interesting-looking people you'll find in San Fran. It's a very alternative, re-emergent community, with lots of great cafes. The Castro district is San Fran's largest gay community, and we walked a bit around there.

Santa Cruz

After renting a car, we loaded up our camping gear and suitcases, and drove south towards Santa Cruz. We stayed at the Sea Breeze Inn, which I found to be the best deal of all our accomodations on the trip. It was only $65/night, which is very cheap for Santa Cruz in the summer. It was also literally across the street from the Santa Cruz beach, I don't think you could ask for a better location. The rooms were more than decent, and it had friendly staff.

Santa Cruz is an interesting little beach town, with a great amusement park right alongside the beach, kind of a throwback to the 50's. The 'Giant Dipper' is a classic wooden roller coaster from 1924. It's much more thrilling than it appears, and is actually one of the better roller-coasters that I've been on. There's a handful of other great rides, and you can drink beer inside the amusement park. What more can you ask for?

The rest of Santa Cruz is full of interesting shops, and even more interesting people. The people are much more laid back than their uppety neighbors in Monterey to the south. All in all we really enjoyed Santa Cruz. One or two nights is enough, but I'd definitely go back.

Big Sur

Jumping in our car, we headed even further south along the California coast to Big Sur. The drive along the California Route 1 highway is beautiful, with waves crashing against the shore. Along the way we took the '17 Mile Drive' around Pebble Beach and Monterey. It costs $7.00 to do the drive, as if these people need any more money.

It was really nice though, and kinda cool to see some of the famous Pebble Beach golf courses. (Along with the multi-million dollar homes that line Monterey Bay).

Big Sur is along the coast of California, at about the midpoint between Northern and Southern Cali. The forests here are full of giant redwoods, and campsites are highly sought after, many of them reserved up to 7 months in advance. We had a site reserved at the Ventana Campground, and although fairly pricey for a campsite ($28/night) it was a gorgeous campground. The sites basically wind around a sloping hill full of magnificent redwood trees, a great place for sure.

The first afternoon we hiked to Pfeiffer Falls, and then went to find the widest tree in Big Sur, the 'Colonial Tree', which has a circumference of 27 feet!

The following day we went and checked out McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. McWay Creek drops 80 ft. off a cliff onto the beach, just in front of a cove. We also went to Pfeiffer Beach, an incredibly scenic beach, that's worth the trouble getting to.

If you ever get a chance to check out Big Sur, do it now, before developers come in and ruin it all. It's perfect just the way it is now.

Monterey, San Jose & Saratoga

Heading back north, we stopped in Monterey to check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's a world-class aquarium, with some cool exhibits, including a million-gallon tank with the world's biggest aquarium window.

Moving on to San Jose we checked in at the Howard Johnson Express Inn. It was decent, cheap, and fairly close to downtown San Jose. (Although many believe San Jose doesn't have a downtown, they're working hard to change that).

Our only real reason to stay in San Jose was to see comedian Lewis Black, of 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart' fame.

Lewis is a bitter, bitter man, and he was performing at the Sarataoga Mountain Winery. The Mountain Winery is set at the top of a large hill, and has an ampitheatre for performances. It's a nice setting, although leaving is a bitch, since you have to wait for everyone to wind their way down the mountain road.

On this particular night, Lewis was quite drunk, which may not be so particular for him. He even stormed out into the audience to berate someone who booed at his George Bush joke.

Oh at this point I would like to give you a handy travel tip. Always get *complete* directions. Especially if the place you're going to isn't listed on major highway routes and you you drive 80 miles out of your way before realizing you should stop and get *complete* directions.

Yosemite National Park

About 3 hours east of San Francisco lies Yosemite National Park. It covers a huge area of 900 square miles, or approximately the size of Rhode Island.

We stayed at the Yosemite Bug Lodge & Hostel. It was recommended in many of our books, and got rave reviews online. It didn't dissapoint, they serve delicious meals at a reasonable price, and has an excellent overall atmosphere. They also have 2 reserverable campsites, yes only 2, and we managed to nab one before we left.

We met a cool Italian dude from Naples named Alberto, and offered him a ride to Yosemite. The 3 of us spent the day mostly driving to the major sites, Bridal Veil falls, Yosemite Falls, Half-Dome, and the incredible views of Glacier Point.

The next day we decided to take on the challenge of hiking to the top of the highest waterfall in North America, 'Upper Yosemite Falls'. At 2425 feet, it's the 5th highest waterfall in the world, and well beyond the range of hiking I normally attempt. (Usuallly from the car to the ice-cream stand).

Our guide listed it as a 'strenous hike', and the 104F weather didn't help our cause. It's almost entirely steep switchbacks, and along the way we encountered many people who didn't bring enough water to make it to the top. With over 5 litres of heavy water on my back we trudged on.

I'm proud to say we made it to the top, and it was a great way to cap off our trip. As a reward we swam in the beautiful Merced river that flows through Yosemite, which was just the chill we needed.

Overall it was a great trip, and I would definitely recommend all of the sights and places that we saw. Northern California is an incredible place!