So finally, after being essentially home confined for the past year and a half, were back to traveling again. Sure, there have been some quick road trips from Seattle, post COVID, but this is the first time we’ve traveled involving getting on a plane since this whole pandemic began back in February 2020.
This trip, in November 2021 was to celebrate my wife’s 50th birthday. Initially, the plan was for us to go to Italy. We had this planned out for a few years now, but then, the Delta variant hit. Looking at the current situation, we probably could have safely traveled to Italy as we had originally planned, taking covid tests before our return flights, but we had to plan this months ahead of time, and at that time, traveling to Italy didn’t seem like it was worth the risk. Additionally, there was a nagging fear I would fail my COVID test before return, and then be stuck in Italy for 14 days. Sure, its being stuck in Italy, but being stuck there due to a pandemic doesn’t really have the same ring to it as being there for vacation.
Hence, we decided on San Francisco as al alternate destination, including a road trip up to Napa County.
The week of this trip also happens to be the week of Thanksgiving in the United States, so we expected the airports and planes to be more crowded than usual. Hence, we decided to try to get to the airport a couple of hours before our 9:30 AM flight.
Arriving at the airport, there was a 15 – 20 minute wait for security. Before the pandemic, I went through the process of getting myself pre-cleared through TSA. For our trips back then, when my wife and I were traveling together, we would then both able to use the pre-clear line, even though I was the only one who actually had the clearance. This time, however, our boarding passes came out with me as being pre-cleared, as expected, my wife however was not. There was a notable difference between the pre-clear line and the not cleared line, so I was able to clear security, get my shit together, and head to the airport McDonalds for breakfast well before my wife had cleared security.
The flight to San Francisco is quick. From the airport, we took a BART train to our hotel. Seems like a bit of a rip off, paying $10 for what is essentially a subway trip from the airport. Still, I guess its less than the price of taking an Uber.
Once we got settled into our hotel, we took a walk for brunch at the Wayfare Tavern, where I had the Eggs Benedict. I typically wouldn’t consider myself a breakfast food for brunch person, but decided in this case, my choice was that, or my usual selection of a burger. This is about as adventurist as I usually get with my dining.
After brunch, we took a walk around Chinatown, and to the bay and putzed around a bit more, before heading back to our hotel. Dinner that night was in the hotel restaurant, Dirty Habit, where a friend of my wife had weirdly paid for our meal ahead of time, being her birthday week and all. Oh well, I’ll take a free meal when I can get it. Besides, this city is expensive.
The following morning we decided to go to SF MOMA then head out to Berkley for lunch. We took the BART out there. I generally consider myself a subway rat, wanting to use the transit systems in all the cities I visit. I view BART as a bit of a 70’s throwback. Dated equipment, trains only once every half hour, and drastically reduced service on Sundays. Getting out to Berkley took well over an hour, mostly just waiting to transfer trains in downtown Oakland.
Once in Berkley we went looking for a place that could satisfy my wife’s need for gluten free food, which we found a cute little Italian cafe, and enjoyed the people watching from there.
After lunch, we decided to get some more booze, and headed to Triple Rock for additional beverages, and more watching hipster college kids, and reminiscing back to when we were hipster college kids.
Triple Rock has a layout, signage, and menu that seems very similar to one of my favorite brew pubs back home in Seattle, Big Time Brewing. We got to taliking whether or not the two places are part of the same organization, or if Big Time was largely based on this place, which was apparently the 5th brew pub in the United States.
Finally, after doing that for a good chunk of drinking and people watching, we got back on the train to the city. This time around, it appears they actually coordinated the trains for transfer, so the train to the city was waiting for us when our train arrived in Oakland. Made the trip back a lot quicker than the trip in.
We got back to our hotel room to explore the city a bit more, before heading to our dinner reservation at Ozumo for various sushi’s, then heading back to our hotel room.
Monday was our last full day in San Francisco, we started by walking down to the Ferry Building for some gluten free pastries from Mariposa Bakery, and enjoying the view out to the water, followed up by a walk up to the Cruise Terminal along the Embarcadero, and back down to Market Street, where we caught a train to Starbelly in the Castro District. We then headed back to our hotel area to do some shopping at San Francisco Center.
The San Francisco Retail core has taken a weird dystopian angle during this time. There have been a series of brazen daytime robberies, including the Louis Vuitton store on the Friday night before our arrival. This created a heavy armed police presence on every corner, along with several streets being closed off completely to traffic.
That evening we headed up to North Beach, to meet with one of my wife’s high school friends who now lives in the area, then headed off to dinner at Bota Tapas, where we dined on octopi, Brussels Sprouts, and other tapas thingies, before heading to the attached hotel bar, then back to our own hotel for the evening.
Tuesday was my Wife’s birthday, which also happens to be the main reason for this trip. This day we are also going into transit, leaving San Francisco for Calistoga, in the Napa Valley. We got up early to pick up our rental car for our trip, and quickly embarked across the Golden Gate Bridge. I would include photos, but there was quite a bit of traffic, and I was driving, the opportunity didn’t really arise for me to stop.
We began our trip to Napa but first, we needed to stop in San Rafael to meet up with another one of my wife’s high school friends at Miracle Mile Cafe in San Rafael, where I had some quite delish cinnamon roll pancakes.
If its not obvious at this point, my wife seems to have a lot more friends than I do, and she has done a better job than I have done in keeping up with them via social media. Then again, me kicking myself off Facebook last year probably doesn’t help my situation either. I suppose catching up with long lost friends while traveling is a benefit of Facebook, I just think the costs in terms of mental health are more than the benefits in this case.
After breakfast, we got lost, trying to get Apple Maps to send us to Calistoga, and ended up randomly driving around the mountains outside San Rafael, before finally coming into Petaluma, and getting back on the 101 there, to continue or journey up north.
Finally, a little past three, we arrived in Calistoga, and our hotel, Indian Springs resort, our destination for the next two nights.
That evening we walked up to Solbar for the birthday dinner, since we had both been drinking, and anticipated drinking more, we decided to walk it. Needless to say, its a lot colder at night in Calistoga than San Francisco, and its a lot darker, with no street lights, really no light at all this evening other than the occasional passing car. Anyhow, after having some Lobster Gnocchi, we made it back again, this time it was even darker, via my phone flashlight, otherwise we couldn’t see much of anything that late at night.
Wednesday, our first day in Calistoga, we got up, and I checked my email, and saw an email from one of our neighbors, that the apartment behind our home had been busted by the Seattle Police for some kind of drug distribution business. This also meant that people were showing up at all hours of the night, pounding on the door, demanding that someone answer at the apartment behind us. There was also a shooting a couple of blocks up the road from us. So, similar to San Francisco Union Square, there was a amped up police presence back in our home neighborhood as well. This kind of excitement never happens when were there, but, glad we missed it.
We updated our house sitters, who told us what happened, but didn’t seem to mind too much. They’re from the Tri-Cities of Washington State, where this kind of stuff apparently happens all the time.
Back to Calistoga, for caffeine addicts like us, distance to the nearest Starbucks is one of the most important criteria when deciding on a vacation destination. Back at home, we need to cycle through our 12 pot coffee maker before either one of us can begin our day. In San Francisco, there was a Starbucks location across the street from our hotel which I headed to every morning and brought back to the room before we could begin our daily activities. Sadly, here in Calistoga, the nearest Starbucks is 20 miles away, not really feasible for a morning coffee run.
My wife had a 9:30 appointment for a mud bath, apparently something that people do here in Napa, so she didn’t have time for a coffee run, and instead had to use the available in-room mini coffee maker. I had a bit more time, so I made a run to the neighboring town of St Helena and the Napa Valley Roasting Company, where I got a Pumpkin Spice Latte and a scone for breakfast. I realized in the process that St Helena is also a cute little town, and managed to convince my wife to go there for lunch, at Cook St. Helena.
St Helena as a whole was still crowded and touristy, which I would expect for the Napa Valley, and, after all, we are in fact tourists. Still, it does seem like this was not the height of tourist season, as it seems like most people have better things to do than hang out in wine country during Thanksgiving week.
After this we got more wine and crackers from the local community coop, and ordered room service from the hotel restaurant.
Thanksgiving Day, we kind of knew dining today would be a bit difficult, with most establishments closed for the Holiday. I did however manage to find a neighborhood coffee shop that was open, at least for the morning, Sam’s General Store, where I was able to get our coffee, as well as a New York Bagel with cream cheese, which they apparently actually imported from New York.
After my wife took a final swim in the hotel pool, it was time to check out and hit the road. First, we drove down to Napa, not expecting to find much open being Thanksgiving day, and Napa did not disappoint. We browsed around the bougie shops of downtown for a while, and discussed the gondola that they have going down the Napa River. It’s like Italy, except most certainly isn’t. We also discussed that Napa County was about as close to Italy as we could get, without having to actually leave the country.
After trying to get into a French restaurant downtown, that didn’t open for another hour, we decided instead to go to the Whole Foods, and find a park for a picnic style lunch. The selection at the Whole Foods was pretty well picked over, which makes sense being a holiday, and them being just about the only place open. Since they didn’t have my usual Whole Foods default of Popcorn Chicken, I instead got a Chicken Quesedia. Its probably intended to be served hot, but since I didn’t have a microwave on me, I decided it was probably just as fine cold. Making due with what we have.
We then made our way to Alston Park, and hiked up a rather significant hill to find a park bench, and got some views of the town below.
After lunch, it was time to stop clowning around and head to our hotel for the night, the Hampton Inn in Petaluma. This hotel used to be a silk factory from the late 19th century, that was recently converted to a hotel. Being a frequent user of Hampton Inn and all the Hilton Brands, this hotel certainly had a lot more character than most hotels. Petaluma did seem a bit out of the way, considering we had to be in San Francisco the next morning, but it does seem like the hotel made it worth it.
At the hotel, we continued the earlier mentioned wanna be Italy theme, by watching several episodes of ‘Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy’ on CNN.
That evening, we had reservations at the 630 Park Steakhouse, located with the Graton Hotel and Casino, figuring that they would be one of the few places that are open on Thanksgiving Day. Casinos on Thanksgiving day is an interesting mix of people, probably mostly people looking to escape their own families for the holiday’s, much like us.
True to form for Casino Restaurants, the 630 Park Steakhouse had lots of good food served in large quantities. Which, is particularly problematic on your last day of vacation and you’re looking at how much you have wrecked your diet over the past several days. Also, on the menu was the full Thanksgiving Day meal, with Turkey, stuffing, and all those things, but between the quantity, and the irony of Thanksgiving dinner at an Indian casino, it was a bit too much. Let’s face it, that first Thanksgiving didn’t work out too well for the Indians.
After dinner, it was back to the hotel, knowing we would need to get up early for our flight the next morning.
Friday Morning at the Hampton Inn in Petaluma. We knew we had to get up somewhat early for being on vacation. Ok, fine, we had to be up at 7am, which is actually a bit latter than I normally wake up, but I’m on vacation.
Typically I don’t use the hotel breakfasts. As I mentioned, I generally prefer the Hilton brand, and the Hampton Inns generally have a free breakfast downstairs in the lobby. Typically though, I would find some other place around the hotel for breakfast and forgo the hotel breakfast. However, in this case, there really wasn’t time for that, as we had to get on the road.
Originally when we booked this trip, we had gotten ourselves on a 2:30 flight back to Seattle. We figured this would get us plenty of time to get from Petaluma back to our car rental location near San Francisco Union Square. However, a couple of weeks afterwards, our airline told us that our original flight had been canceled and instead we would need to be on a 12:30 flight back home.
Our plan now was to be on the road by 8, so we could get to the rental car place in Union Square shortly after they open at 9. We would then need to take a BART train down to the airport, and hopefully get there by 11:30 to catch our 12:30 flight. This did allow for a bit of wiggle room, but it could easily be thrown off by San Francisco Traffic. We had no idea what to expect in terms of traffic. San Francisco traffic can be quite bad, but it was the day after Thanksgiving, in the midst of a pandemic where many people are continuing to work from home.
Fortunately for us, there really was no significant traffic for our trip, allowing us to drop off our car shortly after 9, and catch the train down to the Airport.
Our flight back was on an Airbus A220, being a bit of a plane geek, this is my first time onboard this aircraft type. It’s not a particularly large aircraft, only seating 109 passengers, but it seems like it would be a good choice for some of the short and frequent routes, such as San Francisco to Seattle. Essentially a more modern version of the MD-80’s that I flew on American back in the 90’s and 2000’s.
After 90 minutes we were back home. Overall, this was a good escape for a week. We hadn’t done significant travel since going to Ecuador in 2019, and it was good to get out again.