Piers near Fisherman's Wharf

Our final entry for San Fran, is two of the other famous landmarks, Fisherman’s wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Boardwalk near Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman’s wharf

If you’ve ventured out this way for Alcatraz, then you might as well take the short walk west to Fisherman’s wharf. Only if you’re suffering an injury should you pay attention to the pedi-cabs gathered around the Alcatraz exit, it’s a short, easy 10-15min walk along a scenic path.

I was half expecting to see a bunch of little market stalls here but instead it pretty much an outdoor mall on wooden slats. Shops are the usual tourist fair and of course there’s a million tourists. The Aquarium by the Bay, countless restaurants and the big carousel are highlights but otherwise only a short stop of about an hour is required.

It is also across the road from a transport hub so getting to and from the downtown area is no problem. A lot of the trams/trolley cars run from here too so if you haven’t been on one yet, now is the time. Not exactly comfortable or fast or quiet but a whole bunch of nostalgic fun non the less (:

Fisherman's Wharf

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Like with a lot of tourist attractions that are a bit out of the way, a simple alternative is to book a “tour” ie. A bus picks you up and takes you there, but also like a lot of these attractions, its way cheaper to spend a little time researching, making your own way there and saving a bunch of dollars. There are plenty of places to view the bridge up close but we thought we’d try something a little different and take in a docks/beach walk along Marina Blvd to Crissy Fields. During the warmer months this would’ve been very pleasant, unfortunately on the tail end of winter the winds made short work of the few layers we had on.

Travel/Photo tip: always pack at least a wind breaker, even in warmer months. Depending on how long you intend on shooting, a plastic bag and a full water bottle or some weights for your tripod to minimise shake and some form of cover (another plastic bag will do) for the camera as well to keep out the sea spray, sand and grit will be a good idea.

Golden Gate Bridge

Unfortunately the sub-par conditions made for rather pedestrian photos and it wasn’t too long before the wind chilled us completely to our bones and we scurried off in seek of warmer pastures.

Arriving back at the CBD around 11pm (sun sets late round these parts) we returned to a Japanese restaurant we discovered on our first night and quickly became an instant fave, Maru Sushi not just for the food but for its late night trading hours and close proximity to our hotel. It was also conveniently just up from Lori’s Diner – a 50s inspired diner complete with mini jukebox on the tables and a 1959 Ford Edsel inside. It was a fitting breakfast stop for our last morning in SF and a perfect way to see off the great U. S of A.

Lori's Diner

Lori's Diner

As we made our way from the hotel to the BART station and out to SFO it began to bucket down, no doubt pre-empting what we could expect at our next stop…. London!

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

Alcatraz

Besides the Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz would have to be one of San Fran’s most notable landmarks, even if you’re not a history buff, heading out to view the period architecture is worth the trip alone.

First things first though, the sooner you book the better. I recommend making a booking at least one month before travelling, preferably more if you want your choice of days and times. We chose Alcatraz cruises after reading glowing reviews, sure enough they didn’t disappoint, exceptional service and quick responses via email. However, due to their popularity, as mentioned, tickets sell out long in advance, so get in as soon as you can.

I would also recommend getting the earliest ferry out there, that way there’s fewer people on the island. We caught the second ferry out and it was already starting to get a little busy. See the website for more information on best times of day/year to travel.

Getting to the pier early is essential as well, as the ferry leaves right on time. Even if you get there 5-10min early its still not enough as they begin queuing the next boatload at least 30min prior, so you’ll have to try and get through that crowd and security. We saw more than a few people turned away because of their tardiness. The good thing is, buses regularly travel from the downtown area, it takes less than 30min and there’s some nice scenic views and pretzel and coffee kiosks on the wharf to help pass the time while you wait.

Don’t worry if you missed out on your cuppa or snack before hand, there’s plenty available on the ferry. Its also your last chance of something to eat as no food or drinks (other than water) is allowed in the facility other than at the ferry dock. The ride is about 30min where you get to see the whole of the city framed by both the Golden Gate and the Bay bridges.

Alcatraz - dock

Alcatraz - changing area

Once on the island, you will be greeted by one of the volunteers and given a brief run down of the facility before being able to freely roam the island. The walk from the dock to the actual prison is a bit steep but nothing too strenuous. Once in the main building there is an audio tour set available which steps you through the cramped cells and production line style clothing and shower facilities. If only jails were more like this today, it would deter alot more criminals!

Alcatraz - main cell block

Alcatraz - prisoner cel

There are cells that are open so you can get photos but access to the upper levels and a lot of the other buildings is restricted so this cuts the viewing time down considerably. Exit through the gift shop for the usual merch and a wall of some of the (in)famous inmates. Night tours are also available for the thrill seekers. There is no time limits for staying on the island so you can be as quick or take as much time as you like. Ferries depart approx. every half hour.

Travel tip: as per the website, weather conditions vary a lot since its essentially a little island out at sea. Always take at least a windbreaker and something warmer if you’re going later in the afternoon, even in the warmer months. The notorious San Fran fog can also play havoc with your visit but could very well make for some interesting photos.

While we were out that way, two other must see’s were on the list, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Golden Gate bridge, they’re up next.

Alcatraz - watch tower

Alcatraz

Complete Alcatraz 2011 photo gallery here

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

Japantown - Peace Pagoda

Japantown is a short bus ride from from Union Square, catching just about any bus on Geary St. will get you there. Arriving earlier in the morning will give you free run of the place, even though it didn’t seem to get very busy. The “town” is based around a couple shopping centers sharing the Peace Plaza, an open area with the unmissable Peace Pagoda. Surrounding blocks house smaller businesses mostly restaurants and eateries, but having just had a big breakfast there was only one thing on our minds… TOYS!

It is definitely one of the best spots in SF for anime and collectible vinyl figures, I will just list the major ones but in general, the place isn’t -that- big and can easily done in a couple hours of slow browsing.

Japan Video and Auto Freak

Japan Video – as the name suggests, lots of dvd movies and animated series, plenty of JDM stuff for sale and rental. Small selection of toys but a healthy range of plush items.

Auto Freak – if you need to “Asian” up your car or if you want it to look like an EKKA showbag exploded on/in it then look no further this is the place with all manner of novelty knick knacks to do just that. Pedals, gauges, neon, covers, stickers, air fresheners, tissue box covers… you get the idea. They also have a range of die cast model cars and sponsored and novelty race/drift inspired shirts.

Amiko

Amiko – complete cuteness overload in this store with a fair portion of it dedicated to child and baby wear. Small range of men’s tees but the rest is all girls or kids. A few plushes but focus more on practical items based on popular characters like Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Domo-Kun etc.

JPNToys

JPNToys – much more along the lines of a traditional collector toys store with all the staples – blind boxes, vinyl figures, action figures (Revoltech, Figma, Transformers), plushes and plenty of themed tee’s. Prices were pretty average, but there was a small clearance section and selected items on sale so resistance was futile when it came to a Gloomy bear wall clock for $18US.

Moritaya

Moritaya – another explosion of plush with extra Rilakkuma and Pickachu and adaption of these characters to accessories like pens and keychains and household items. They also stock a selection of imported make up.

Katachi

Katachi – this store had a lot of different bits and pieces but focused mainly on Japanese ornaments and souvenirs in the way of Kimono wearing dolls, framed artwork, lanterns and replica and full sized Samurai swords. There’s also a good selection of chef knives and pocket/hunting knives. This was also one of the few places we saw in SF that stocked Toki Doki shirts.

Kinokuniya bookstore – is huge. Not just Japanese/Asian related either, there’s plenty of quirky arts and craft and cooking books. Downstairs has Manga galore, a huge range and more than likely the ability to chase after selected titles/issues for you. Ample stationary and a small selection of toys and clothing as well. The website is just as extensive with many country specific variations, Australia included.

Japantown Collectibles

Japantown Collectibles – definitely saving the best for last with this one, easily my fave store in SF. It’s an unfortunately small store crammed wall to wall, floor to ceiling with figures, models and collectibles. With the hoarding style of display it was both exciting to be hunting round for treasure and frustrating that a lot you couldn’t get to and while helpful, asking the staff every time you wanted a price or closer inspection got tiring rather quickly. Never the less the range of model car kits was enough for me to not walk out empty handed, sadly most items went begging due to the size of their packaging and the dwindling size of my luggage space!

Next up, we head to THE bighouse, the Rock… Alcatraz.

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

Chinatown SF

San Fran’s Chinatown is one of the biggest in the world outside of Asia thanks partly to the early gold rush days. You could easily spend a day traversing the hills sampling cuisine and buying any number of knick knacks and knock offs, though if you’re on a schedule, a few hours in the afternoon is enough to get the jist of it.

Doublepunch

We actually started by overshooting Chinatown by a couple blocks north to check out some toys at Double Punch. This is a well rounded store with a good selection of all the regular pieces you’d expect to see at an art toy store. Most are reasonably priced with a few sale items floating about. While the retail store is pleasant enough, unfortunately I had found the online experience far from it and recommend everyone to stay well clear of it. Service was extremely poor, replies were dragged out and vague at best and little attempt was made to find a solution to simple requests to gain my my business. Sad when all I wanted was to purchase some items and pick them up from the store to save on the horrendous international postage charges. A few of the pieces were getting tough to find so I wanted to make sure I could secure them, of course after a few weeks of toy blocking I gave up and hoped to find them in store. Of course, they were sold out by then. Thanks a lot, bastards :(

Unpleasantries aside, while you’re out that way, pop next door to Recon/Darkside Initiative skate store, a designer skate store in the vein of Supreme or HUF but with a lot friendlier service. They carry the usual designer items of clothing and a small range of sneakers. Being a smaller slightly out of the way store they also had a few older models/colours of items that have been sold out else where, Undefeated caps and tees where the ones that caught my eye.

The bus stop is barely a block away which took us back to Chinatown. If you’re looking for model kits then Sun Entertainment is the way to go. The store is very unassuming from the street with only a small sign, in fact you’re more than likely to walk straight passed it. They stock a large range of model kits, regular vehicles along with Gundam (inc. Master grade) and similar anime favourites. There’s also a small selection of figures and slot cars.

While there are plenty of el cheapo souvenir shops around the place Far East Flea market dwarfs them all. Perched on top of a hill its about the size of a large Crazy Clarks store and with the same mish mash variety of “everything but the kitchen sink”. This is definitely one of the best places to buy cheap souvenirs, either Chinese/Asia or San Fran related. Its not all junk either, there are some quality ornaments, cool Asian toys and retro items like vintage Coke or Star Wars metal lunch boxes along with all manner of household and travel related items. They even have replica weapons like swords and nunchucks, not too sure how you will go trying to get them through customs though!

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

The last stop in Chinatown is a must for the novelty factor alone, the now famous Golden Gate Fortune cookie factory. No more than a little business operating out of a cramped store front in a lane way, but thanks to plenty of online love its grown popular, to the point where you have to pay if you want to take photos! $1 if you can squeeze to the front but def. worth it to see the things being made. Of course there’s plenty of cookies available for purchase, a couple bucks will get you enough to wish you’d never want to see another one again! “Tough cookie not so tough when stuffed with tough cookie”…. or something :p

Chinatown Entrance SF

We keep the Asian theme going next with a cuteness overload in Japantown.

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

Haight

Haight is one of those suburbs that has a young creative vibe and a slew of quirky shops to match. Sure, you cant swing a stick without knocking the fake glasses or beanie off the -back- of some hipster kid’s head but in general it has the eats of West End and the boutique shopping of the Valley/New Farm in Brisbane. If you’re heading out early (re: before midday) pop into one of the many cafes on Haight St. Most seemed pretty busy so you may be in for a short wait if you’re after a table.

The People’s Café was right near the bus stop so it was an easy choice 😉 Food was quite good, reasonably fast turn around even if the service was a bit average, free WiFi more than likely makes up for it for most people. Judging from recent Yelp reviews this place has since closed, possibly rebirthed under a different guise?

Bellies full it was time to burn some Greenbacks, starting at the Masonic Ave end of Haight st…

Stussy – one of the larger stores we’ve come across but nothing out of the ordinary for the range. They did have a clearance rack with some old school Stussy designs though. Seeing their Stussy “Peace Dollar” vinyl figures on display in all forms of disrepair and missing pieces gave me the warm and fuzzies knowing I had a mint one waiting for me from my LA haul 😉

Super 7

Super 7 – local designers obsessed with Star Wars and Anime, they have a good range of their own shirt designs and a small range of toys and books. Shirts are overpriced but there are some fun original designs like the “Weapons of mass destruction” that has a bunch of space ships and vehicles from movies like Star Wars, Tron, Battlestar Galactica etc. Toys and collectibles also fetch a premium, a few odd pieces may have deserved the extra tax but Kidrobot items not so much since the KR store is just across the road.

Super 7

True Sole

True (Sole) – set up like a clearance store, they had some of the cheapest new release sneakers we saw in California with a good $10-20 less than regular retail prices. They also had older models on clearance, just cross your fingers they have your size. There’s also a small selection of clothing and accessories.

California Surplus

California Surplus – Listed as the sister store to the one in LA, this one was mostly focused on the surplus side of things rather than the work wear. They still had a small selection and thanks to a misjudgment on clothing for the day, a pair of overpriced Dickies pants were a life saver.

Shoe Biz II

Shoebiz II – This second store leans more towards the sneaker niche market. A few rarities along with clearance items on footwear and clothing. This was the only place at the time that I saw the Nike Air Vengeance‘s in “maize”, didn’t have to tell me twice 😉

Shoebiz 1 – Caters more towards women’s shoes and boots, plenty of stock but you will have to battle a thousand other women as it didn’t seem like there was a time it wasn’t packed.

Adidas Originals – up the Willy Wonker glass elevator from Shoebiz 1 is a small selection of Originals gear leaning towards the more outlandish designs and colours. The clearance bin is always a welcoming sign and this one had an out of production Adicolor jacket for $40USD *yoink* along with some sneakers and a few other bits and pieces. If you’re looking for range you’re better off heading to the Adidas store in the Westfield in the city.

Kidrobot – pretty much the same as the LA store apart from a couple older Michael Lau figures. More fuzzies when I notice they were selling for $150-200, 10 times what I paid for mine 😉

Loyal Army

Loyal Army – and then there was one. This is their only retail store left now, not in short due to a decline in their designs from cute and kitschy to trying too hard to be “now”. In saying that there was plenty of multi-buys and clearance items to be had.

FTC skate – renowned for knowledgeable and friendly staff, this is a good sized store with decent range of all things skate related.

Amoeba Music

Amoeba Music – Not having time to make it to the one in LA I was really looking forward to popping in here, and it didn’t disappoint. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling of music. Its what iTunes would look like if it was a real store, just with less thieves and a more user friendly environment 😉 It took well over an hour just to paw through the electronic music and hiphop (with a quick detour through punk) for a yield of about 35 cds, so make sure you put aside the right amount of time proportioned to your musical appetite.
Since these cds were going to be shipped back with the bulk of our haul, I stripped the cases to save some weight. The guys were only too happy to take the empty cases back (:

Downtown

The two major stops for the downtown area were the Westfield and Nike Flagship store. The Westfield was unfortunately a fruitless experience even with Champs, Footlocker, Vans and Lids on the directory save a store exclusive track jacket from the multi-level Adidas store. A couple doors down at Shiekh’s had a much better result with a large range of clearance items and new range footwear and clothing, easily one of their bigger stores too. Jordan Rare Airs were a steal at $60USD.

The Nike Flagship store, while in all intent and purposes was very similar to just about every other one in other cities fell short because of this. If you’ve been to one you’ve been to them all as the stock was almost identical to that in LA.

Next up we head to the two (little)lands of the orient, Japantown and Chinatown.

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

San Fran - Little boxes on the hill side

As we rolled into San Fran with the weekend traffic it was as much excitement to be in a new city as it was relief to ditch the car. As much as a benefit the car was we were keen to get away from having to battle traffic and that damn GPS voice over bitch! There’s only so many times you can hear “recalculating route” before you lose it completely and it was not a moment too soon!

Neon Monster

On the freeway in it was nice to catch glimpses of the stereotypical San Fran hills and period buildings. We had a bit of time and fuel (car had to be returned back as empty as possible – insane, I know!) on our side so we decided to head out to Neon Monster. Its just out of the way enough to make it a bit of a hassle to get to and being a lone store it warrants a dedicated trip, but its definitely worth it. Bout the size of your regular boutique shop, the space is divided in half between collectible vinyl toys and books. There’s a good range of both but what makes this store a cut above the rest is the prices. Most full priced items were less than most places we had come across and there were plenty of items on sale or marked as clearance, most notable was the “twofa” deal on Kidrobot plushes. Sadly, about a month or two ago they closed their doors for good, however they have kept the online store running. Other art commitments were cited by some of the staff as their new focus so we will be sure to keep our eyes open for their work.

Heading to the CBD it was nothing short of a 70s cops and robbers movie with the steep rise and falls of the San Francisco landscape. If by chance you have hired any kind of “sports” car, take extra care as even with the 4wd riding height of the Ford Focus we were bottoming out on some streets and that was before the “spirited” driving 😉

Arriving in the downtown area, went from bad to worse thanks to road works and one way streets, the looming deadline for car return wasn’t helping either. This was also the time we gave up on the GPS as it kept redirecting us to the road works and subsequent road closures. Switching to map only view and calling your own shots is definitely the way to go. Once that was sorted it wasn’t long before we found the hotel, unloaded our luggage and returned the car.

For the San Francisco stretch we chose to stay at The Park Hotel on Sutter (full review here) which was central to most amenities and was very reasonably priced.

Initial view of the city had hints of New York City. I was expecting it to be more laid back like LA, just less spread out but thanks to its density it was a lot more hustle and bustle like NYC. The driving and people’s attitudes at times reflected this but it only took about 15 seconds looking at a Google maps print out for someone to ask us if we needed directions, that’s always a good sign (:

Now car-less, our mode of transport was back to the humble public transport system, luckily SF’s Muni and BART systems are very efficient and quite easy to get your head around thanks to the smaller grid-like layout of the city.

Map in hand and a revitalised sense of discovering new frontiers we headed off to San Fran’s boutique shopping hub, Haight.

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

09.23.2011

Mil-what?
Milpitas is probably an unlikely stop for most travellers with it being over shadowed by San Jose in the south or Oakland in the north for stops on the way to San Francisco but when there’s a place called the “Great Mall” we couldn’t resist taking an overnight detour.

Milpitas

We took the 120 out of Yosemite to the 205 then the 680 which pretty much dropped us right at our hotel, The Marriot TownePlace Suites, which we strategically planned due to it being directly across the road from the Mall.

The day started off with a free continental style breakfast which for me included a portioned cup of the now extinct in AU, Corn Pops. Memories of eating them for dinner at uni came flooding back and it was a sign it was going to be a good day (:

Getting to the centre within the first hour of opening on a weekend day is definitely the way to go. No problems with getting a covered park right near an entrance and it’s a casual stroll for a good hour or two before the crowds start rolling in. It opens from 10am Mon-Sat. so you even get a nice little sleep in.

So to the shopping… with over 200 stores I guess it can lay claim to the “Great”ness but where to start? Since there were so many stores I’m going to refer back to the mall directory to help me remember them all and list them alphabetically.

The Nike factory store is a good place to start, big variety and I must say we bought more here than at Citadel. Cortez’s = $35USD, girls Airmax 90 = $30USD, Omar Salazar SB’s = $35USD *yoink* plus an array of apparel and tee’s at throw away multi-buy prices.

Reebok also has an outlet store and then there are the usual mall suspects, Champs, Converse, Finish Line, Journeys, Shiekh Shoes, Sports Authority and Vans. Footlocker gets a special mention as this one seemed to be one of their few clearance stores. Normal fair up front but at the back it was pile after pile of mismatched boxes, pairs and markdown on top of markdown stickers. For the most part there was a reason why most were reduced but there were some diamonds in that rough, biggest problem was finding how much they were. This thankfully paid off when a pair of Punkrose Retro Hi-Tops purchased, basically the bastard child of Chuck Taylor and Vans. Going by the reduced tickets and percent off markings, the guesstimation came to about $20 down from $100. Not bad at all right? Not even close, the sales guy stumbled back wide eyed before calling his colleagues over. While we were thinking…”Oh great we’re gonna have to put these back”, he turns the register readout around to show… $2.17 inc tax. What??? He even got the manager to check and sure enough that was the price! Free lunch then (: This further enforces my claim that the internet is not the best place for bargains 😉

$2.17 inc tax!

After that, seeing items on sale just wasn’t the same, after all, its no $2.17! But we continued no less. Sanrio and Toys R Us were the only major places for toys though there were a couple places with a limit selection of anime and game related merch. Sears has an appliance outlet store if you’re chasing down some cheap Aldi-esque appliances.

What mall stop for us would be complete without a Wetzel’s Pretzels stop? Yep, just so happens there is one here too 😉 and it has stolen the torch for best pretzel’s ever. The fresh pretzel bites were a cut and a half (no pun intended!) above all the other stores we’ve tried, deeeelicious.

All pretzelled and bargained up we waddle out to the car and hit the road once more for our final USA stop, San Francisco!

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

Yosemite National Park

Generally in a day you could cover the valley floor and one or two of the shorter mountain/waterfall hikes, however, ideally a two day stay on site would be best to cover a fair portion of the popular areas as well as chances for sunrise and sunset photos and revisiting areas at different times of the day. In saying that, if you’re on a tight schedule, a “summary” tour of the park is doable in about half a day.

Yosemite National Park - one of the many lookout spots on the way in

Firstly, the place is vast, not just in a physical sense but in a commercial way to accommodate the masses of tourists, for the most part its all 2 lane, one way bitumen roads with plenty of spots to pull over. On the way up and over the mountain range its single 2 way roads but still plenty of lookout spots. Travelling in late May, early June will still see plenty of thick snow at the top of the mountain areas. Temperatures were high single figures (Celsius) in these areas but were quite warm on the valley floor, around low 20s. So while you’re active you can easily get away with shorts and t-shirt for most of the day, though temps drop off fast once the sun slips behind the mountains.

On the valley floor, you can actually drive to most of the major sights. This is definitely the quickest way, but of course everyone has the same idea and you will get caught up with those inconsiderate types holding up traffic, triple parked trying to get photos from their car. Even if you choose not to park somewhere, unfortunately there’s no escaping them because of the one way ring road layout of the park. There is a shuttle that loops this ring road but for a relaxing experience and access to extra areas minus some of the strenuous hiking or traffic headaches you can’t go past hiring a bicycle.

The bicycles are hired from the Yosemite village, which is the central point for visitors. Take your pick of mountain bike, cruiser, tandems or even ones with trailers for around $10 hour or $28 for the day. Helmets are included for the safety conscious. Yosemite Lodge is also the major hub for tourist information, eateries and a grocery/souvenir store. The store prices are all reasonable and service was friendly and quick. There’s even free ice water (:

Yosemite National Park - Mirror Lake

For the most part, the ride is quite easy with very little variation in inclines so no prior triathlon experience is required. The steepest part you’ll encounter will be the path up to Mirror Lake but its only a short run before bicycle access is restricted. There are racks at this point but no locks or chains are provided, just make sure you remember which bike is yours! We marked ours with a napkin and rubber band around one of the hand grips (:

The rest of the walk up to Mirror Lake is quite steep. This is where you thank yourself from packing that extra bottle of water 😉 From Mirror Lake you get the classic view of Half Dome and some nice white water river action so make sure you have the camera and tripod ready.

Yosemite National Park

The bike path crosses over the river a few times so plenty of scenic moments can be had. If you have the extra time, head on over to Yosemite Falls, if not you can still see it from the path.

Yosemite Falls

Travel tip: If you’re travelling in the off season, road closures are always imminent around the park and access will be limited so check the forecasts and updates on the Yosemite park site.

Yosemite National Park

After a quick frolick in the snow at a rest area along side a biker gang, we were heading down the mountain and out to the bay area. Next stop… Milpitas!

Yosemite National Park

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

On the road again...


After nearly a week of LA driving, I was quite looking forwarded to hitting the open road with minimal traffic and doing the speed limit for more than just sporadic bursts. For the most part this wasn’t the case, thanks to convoy after convoy of semi trailers but having multiple wide lanes made it bearable.

We headed up the #5 through plenty of vast open plains and rolling hills to Bakersfield. Apart from the scenery there wasn’t much else, even the gas stations were slim so make sure you have plenty in your tank before heading off.

Valley Plaza Mall - Image courtesy of Bakersfield.com

Bakersfield was on the pit stop list for two reasons, the first being the Valley Plaza Mall off highway 99. The locals may not think much of it but it’s a great one stop mall with a lot of your favourite stores with small city prices and sales.

Three Footlockers, two Journeys and a Champs get the ball rolling for sneakers while there’s Mainland Skate for skate and surf gear. Purely by coincidence there is also a Wetzel’s Pretzels 😉

The major retailers are what you would expect, Target, Forever 21, JC Penny, Macy’s and Sears.

The second reason for our stop is of course it being Nu-metal band Korn‘s home town and the renaming of a small street for them. There was surprisingly little info online about this but that didn’t deter us from driving around in circles. Be warned though, creeping slowly through back alleys and circling empty carparks and service entrances WILL lead you to being tailed by police. Thankfully we weren’t driving a white Bronco, things could’ve ended quite differently otherwise. So we came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t there anymore. Further research however shows the town may have backed out on the renaming altogether or maybe some kids just taxed it. Either way, best not to waste your time.

I could probably go ahead and add a third item to the list and that would be the hot rod meet up at a small shopping center that we passed on the way in.

After Bakersfield the only other major stop is Fresno. With time slipping away from us we decided to “stay on” instead of “get off” (yes it’s a Speed reference :p ). From the freeway it all looks pretty same-y as you pass the small towns peppered through out the darkness with fields of carparks surrounding strip malls, all under the glow of fluorescent lighting makes for some eerie moments in the dead of night.

The lanes will lessen and the traffic will thin and you will finally arrive at the little mountain town of Oakhurst. Roughly about 4-5 hour drive but with stops and traffic you’re looking at closer to 7-8.

Travel tip: If you pull in to a town/city for a pit stop it is best to fill up as there are no gas (petrol) stations accessible/visible from the freeway.

Oakhurst - Yosemite NP in the distance

We stayed at the Best Western review here for a few hours sleep before heading up and over the mountain range of Yosemite national park.

Staying at Oakhurst may save you a few dollars and some time off the initial drive but it does mean it’s a little longer to get to the park the following day. However if you play your cards right, its not that bad. It’s a given that the warmer months are when the park is at its busiest, so choosing an off season date will avoid some traffic and crowds, but generally you’ll want to leave yourself about 2hours to get there from Oakhurst, just to be safe. The distance isn’t that much but once you get to the mountain roads it will be slow moving thanks to inconsiderate drivers/sight-seers that don’t pull over to let traffic pass. Restrictive speed limits don’t help much either.

Travel tip: The entrance is still about 30-45min from the valley floor. When you arrive, make sure you have cash for the park entrance fee which is $20 per vechicle. Motorcycles, bicycles or if you’re travelling on foot its $10

Next up is the Yosemite national park, darn tootin!

Milpitas 2011 – Great Mall
Yosemite 2011 part #1 – LA to Oakhurst via Bakersfield
Yosemite 2011 part #2 – Yosemite National Park
San Francisco 2011 part #1 – Arrival
San Francisco 2011 part #2 – Shopping – Haight, Downtown SF
San Francisco 2011 part #3 – Chinatown
San Francisco 2011 part #4 – Japantown
San Francisco 2011 part #5 – Alcatraz
San Francisco 2011 part #6 – Fisherman’s wharf, Golden Gate Bridge

Complete Yosemite 2011 photo gallery here
Complete San Francisco 2011 photo gallery here

Off to bowls then...

Before we hit the open road to Yosemite National Park, some tips on car hire and getting about LA/California in your box with the steering wheel on the wrong side 😉

“No one walks in LA” is a sentiment you’ve probably heard on many TV shows and movies, its not until you get there and venture passed the tourist spots do you realise how spread out it is and how much a necessity it is to have your own transportation. Our first time in LA we stayed in Santa Monica and only really explored the Hollywood area, so bussing between the two areas was manageable as there’s quite a few services that do that route, but like most cities, finding the right bus and the stops to catch them from can be difficult and time consuming. Fine if you’re only there for a few days but staying any longer its best that you hire a car, not just for convenience but you will also get to see a lot more of the place and have your own personal porter.

LA's notorious freeways

First stop, car rental. There are plenty of places to hire cars from at the airport, but of course the best deals come from pre-booking it online or via your travel agent. We hired through Dollar Rental purely on their cheap prices and even cheaper price found via our travel agent, but be warned, all is not what it seems. Details of hidden charges in my separate review over at Yelp.com (a good source for business reviews in the USA).
We ended up with a less than favourable Ford Focus thanks to space limitations of the other cars available (no other car had a boot big enough to conceal 2 suitcases) but it did the job albeit in its own poor ergonomic and uncomfortable way.

So you got your motor running and are about to get out on the highway, but first some quick tips:

KEEP RIGHT. Start the mantra before you even get in the car each day. It might sound a little silly but anything that can break your years of previous experience will help because once you’re in the thick of it, your first instinct will be to go to the left side of the road, especially when turning left.

Turning right on a red light – Yes, its legal. Basically the red light becomes a give way sign (confirmed with the local boys in blue) This is a little strange to see at first but after breezing down the right hand lane and not having to wait for some of the long light changes you’ll soon wonder how you lived without it and why its not done here!

Turning left at the lights – This is always a little nerve racking, mainly because turning lanes from both directions line up with each other and because the intersections are so big you need to drive to the center to be able to make it across if you don’t have an arrow light. Of course the person travelling in the opposite direction is doing the same except they’re driving a block of flats, so you essentially have more chance of seeing the dark side of the moon than what could be barrelling down in the other lane. Just edge forward and when you see your chance, floor it. If the lights turn red, don’t sweat it, they’re surprisingly patient when it comes to people being stuck in the intersection.

Merging/exiting on the freeway – Sooner or later you will have to get on a freeway. They spaghetti above the city and connect every major area and can be a breeze at the right times.. just be prepared for peak hour. Getting on and off is something else, what you have is a “no man’s land” area of 2, 3 or 4 lanes, unmarked. A lot of on-ramps join to almost immediate off-ramps, good if you’ve taken the wrong turn, bad because there’s on-ers and off-ers trying to share the same space.
This is usually where things get ugly, instead of letting someone exit, an entering car will try to over take the exitee instead of merging behind it and taking its place in a lane. Entering vehicles will also use the smallest of openings to join the freeway, usually as immediate as they can resulting in cutting someone off, rather than using the merging lane to speed match and find an appropriate spot to merge. A tip around this is to watch your right side mirror, if you see someone burning up the merging lane, just as they’re parrellel with the car behind you, speed up just a little bit. This closes the gap in front of you and widens the one behind. They pretty much always take the bait 😉

Parking – Street parking is rare and expensive so use it for “get in get out” stops only, make sure you have plenty of quarters too otherwise you’ll be racking up the fees on your credit card. The other option is parking garages and lots. Unlike Australia this is a very cheap alternative, usually in the range of $3-6 a day, most with no “enter before” or time restrictions. One of the best sites I found for this is http://losangeles.bestparking.com/index.php#1 which displays locations and costs. Some even display real time vacancies. Don’t fret if you haven’t pre-planned where to park, almost all parking lots have a guy in a hi-vis vest with a flag waving you into their lot. Try not to get these guy confused with actual road workers!

GPS – This is a given, though some might prefer a paper map to forgo the cost of hiring one. While the GPS is almost useless in the downtown area thanks to the skyscrapers, it will more than likely save you many times when making direction changes or finding locations on the fly. Depending on who you hire you’re your car through, it can be around $5-15 a day so if you’re driving for a week or more, an option is to buy a cheap one locally from places like Best Buy (There’s one in the Westfield next to the airport). Alternatively you can rent maps for other countries at a discounted price (usage time limited) via your local GPS manufacturer. Or you may be lucky enough to buy an AU one with a promo deal for a free international country map rental like I did 😉

Paper maps – I know… ewww! Thing is they’re not going to lose their signal or try to tell you to go somewhere you don’t want to go or take you in a 2 block loop instead of doing a U-turn. They will also be a godsend when it comes to getting around road works or randomly closed streets instead of continually redirecting you to the same dead end! Also handy when you’re on foot. Google maps is also your friend for detailing specific areas.

Doin' 80 on the freeway, po-lice catch me if you can..

In general LA drivers, while quite bad (possibly due to the complacency and laziness of all those automatics :p) are rather tamed, cars meander all over the road with many near misses but it seems the most they get is a horn toot and a “now would you look at this sonofabich”, possibly due to the less dense laid back lifestyle, possibly a catastrophic coronary brewing under the surface. In saying that, like any where, even if you’re doing 80mph in the left lane there will always be someone tailgating you or trying to over take you, usually in a Prius. Maybe its their cloud of smug giving them little man syndrome? :p Just keep your calm and let them go, you’ll more than likely overtake them at the next back up of traffic or hill 😉

Get used to this view of never ending brake lights

With that in mind, we say farewell to tinsel town and make our way up to Yosemite!

Los Angeles 2011 part #1 – Arrival, Melrose Trading Post
Los Angeles 2011 part #2 – West Hollywood shopping, Mulholland Drive
Los Angeles 2011 part #3 – Downtown shopping – Fashion District
Los Angeles 2011 part #4 – Downtown shopping – Japantown
Los Angeles 2011 part #5 – Steel Panther @ The House of Blues 17/5/11
Los Angeles 2011 part #6 – Hollywood sign, Farmer’s Market
Los Angeles 2011 part #7 – Peterson Automotive Museum
Los Angeles 2011 part #8 – Greater LA area shopping
Los Angeles 2011 part #9 – Hollywood sight seeing with Orbic Air
Los Angeles 2011 part #10 – Driving in Los Angeles/California

Complete Los Angeles 2011 photo gallery here

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