Round the Bend in San Francisco!

Published: October 7th 2019
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After ten days of luxury and relaxation, it felt good to be heading off on a road trip again. This time it was time to tick something off Philippe's bucket list again - as he headed off from our hotel room in San Francisco to pick up a Ford Mustang convertible to take us north to Bend, Oregon to visit with our friends Antoine and Cambria (and their two adorable kids and equally adorable labrador!).

The first question was whether all our baggage was actually going to fit into the car (it did thankfully, albeit with a rucksack in the seatbelt beside Senan) and the second was just how cramped up were Senan's legs going to be in the car seat (mmm.. I wouldn't buy the car, but he'd be ok for four days!).

And so, still slightly disorientated by the third time zone shift in two weeks, we set off around midday in a new city, keen to get out of it as quickly as possible, to make good time on day one of the ~9hour trip north to Bend. San Francisco had other ideas. Traffic jams and detours conspired to give us more time in the city than we'd hoped for, but with the roof down, in a balmy 29 degrees, it was also a great way to absorb some first impressions of downtown San Francisco. Eventually the traffic gave way and Philippe got to put his foot down on some open road, and we made good time, stopping for lunch and pecan pie at a traditional diner en route, targeting to stop in Redding for the night - roughly half way to Bend.

After a night in a very reasonable motel with a bonus indoor swimming pool, we hit the road early on Sunday to give ourselves time for a quick visit to the Crater National Park en route to Bend. A few hours driving later, gazing out on upon the deep blue lake we were very glad we had dragged ourselves out of bed in time to take in this beautiful site. In addition to the multiple astounding views of the lake, Crater park itself is home to lots of furry animals from small cheeky chipmunks to a healthy population of brown bears. (Seriously I had just about got my head around crocodiles!!) We didn't have enough time to do a hike, but we did pop out of the car at several of the scenic spots to soak up the spectacular views.

As evening approached we found ourselves in Bend, Oregon. A place I can safely say we would probably never have visited if our friends hadn't decided to up sticks from France two years ago to go live there. We didn't want to arrive empty handed, but what do you bring to someone you haven't seen in three years? After a quick trip to Walmart, we found the perfect gift. Who wouldn't be happy with a giant rainbow poop pinata?! As we pulled up in their driveway, we were curious how things would be after three years, but, as with all good friends, after initial hello's, three years may as well have been three minutes. Senan was also immediately adopted by their 8 and 6 year olds and he relished it. We didn't see him for about an hour as he was shown around their fabulous garden and helped into the trampoline by the boys. It served the double purpose of massively tiring him out, and so it is was with limited objection that he hit the hay that night, allowing us to indulge in the rare luxury of some grown-up conversations without a 'mammy, mammy, daddy, daddy' background soundtrack.

On Monday Cambria had a great itinerary proposed for us. In the morning we caught up on laundry and capitalized on time zones to video call both sets of grandparents. We drove into the centre of Bend to get a flavour of the old town and the mill district before meeting Antoine and Cambria for lunch in the sun at a cool biker/food truck establishment. After lunch we set off north of Bend to find Lucky Lake. About 40 miles later we turned off the road and found our trailhead. All loaded up with water and swimgear we did a 50 minute hike to find a gem of a swimming spot. I must admit that the bears were on my mind, but once you are sitting in the middle of so much natural beauty it is hard to stay worried about much!

Over another enjoyable evening with Antoine and Cambria, we sought their advice as we built our plan to return to San Francisco. Although the route was a little bit longer, we realised that if we took the coast road and left early, we could sleep near the Redwood Forest and squeeze in a short visit to witness the amazing Sequoia's and coast Redwoods.

They were awesome - in the truest sense of the word. You stand at the foot of this giant tree that is probably 2000 years old and feel like an ant. I also brings about the realisation that our time on earth is just a blip in the big picture. These trees have seen it all! After the obligatory photos - which really don't do the sheer size justice, we took a small walk through the forest, breathing in the literally fresher air, while also trying to soak up the rainforest feel of this microclimate.

Like a lot of what we've seen on this trip, you could probably have spent days exploring the National Park. However with time running short for us, we needed to move on, but it was definitely worth the extra bit of driving to take this spectacular detour - capped off by driving with the roof down with 'Mustang Sally' from the Commitments blasting out of the speakers! To complete the experience we spent the night in a cute little wood cabin on a nearby campsite within the forest. For dinner we ventured into the town of Trinidad which, on first look, seemed like a one horse town, however we were pleasantly surprised to find a great little restaurant by the coast, offering a feast of seafood at reasonable prices and allowing me to find my new favourite meal in the US (Crab Louis salad).

Having calculated just enough time in our journey to do a quick spin around San Francisco by car, we made good time south, and soon were laughing in the wind as we drove open top over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Not for the first time on this trip did I try to explain to Senan that 'this is one of the cool things you'll be happy to be able to say you have done when you are older', but for Senan, it was simply a bridge, and he was happy that we were 'nearly at the hotel' after being trapped in his seat for the majority of the day.

Once in San Francisco, Philippe turned into Steve McQueen as we drove down Lombard Street, one of the main arteries of the city. Driving through afternoon traffic, we made our way to the peak of the road taking in all the perpendicular steep roads that San Francisco is famous for. We queued up in traffic to take our turn driving down the crookedest street in the world, careful not to knock down the hordes of tourists standing in the middle of the road trying to get 'that shot'. After spending a half an hour experiencing San Francisco traffic, Philippe dropped Senan and I off at our groovy new hotel and headed off to return Mustang Sally to the rental company. She had certainly served us well.

Expecting that we'd be feeling a bit low about our trip coming close to a close, I had stumped up a bit more budget for the hotel in San Francisco. We were based in Hotel Zephyr, a stone's throw away from Pier 39. This meant that once we had settled ourselves and availed of the cool smores that could be made in the open fires in the backyard of the hotel, we headed straight into ticking off our San Francisco to-do list. Visiting Pier 39 transported me back to a time of old-school funfairs with candy floss and magic shows. Sure, it's a tourist trap, with plenty of San Fran tat on sale, but it is also a bit of an institution. We wandered about absorbing the atmosphere, buying the obligatory fridge magnets, putting Senan on a horse on a traditional carousel, taking in a magic show and watched Alcatraz Island go dark from the end of the pier while the sun set. As a counter to the somber thoughts about Alcatraz, we decided to wholly embrace our tourist status and enjoy dinner at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant. Who knew Senan was such a big fan of shrimp?!

Life really being like a box of chocolates, the next day we decided to wander around San Francisco and see where we would end up. Sometimes it really is nice to just let a day unfurl. We started out hanging out in the hotel backyard, chilling in the sun while watching some other guests play the giant Connect 4 on the wall. Then we took ourselves off for a long walk up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco. We headed south towards Coit Tower in Pioneer Park after receiving the tip that the views were magnificent. Magnificent views indeed, and we even managed a bit of culture at the same time, by taking in the murals that were commissioned by this wealthy philanthropist to capture the history of San Francisco. Then we walked down the steep streets, heading towards Chinatown, where we had the funny realisation that Chinatown's are a bit lost on us for now, having been in Hong Kong so recently! From Chinatown we wandered across to Union Square, taking in the magnificent square, big flags, and sleek Apple flagship store. From Union Square we hopped on a bus to take us to Alamo Square Park with two goals: first, Senan was in desperate need of a playground fix and secondly, Philippe had some 'Full House' memories that he wanted to exorcise. With Senan simply delighted to spend the afternoon running around the slides and swings, Philippe's curiosity satisfied as we sat in the park against the backdrop of the seven Victorian houses that are known from the opening sequence of Full House, and me just enjoying lying back in silence taking in the clouds above, it was a good day all round. We capped it off with a few (super expensive) hipster local brew beers as we meandered our way back to the hotel, very satisfied with our step-count for the day.

The next day I had a mini-heart attack thinking I'd mixed up the dates on our Alcatraz tickets (which I'd booked months previously). Fortunately it was just the result of my own fuzziness on the actual date (want to know the sign that you've truly checked out of the rat-race?!). In fact, we were right on schedule and soon were whizzing our way out to Alcatraz Island on the ferry boat. I must admit that while I roughly knew the history of Alcatraz, I was basically there as it was 'the' thing to do in San Francisco. And so I was very pleasantly surprised when, after an introductory video, the audio tour turned out to be so interesting and informative. For 45 minutes Philippe and I wandered around the prison like a flock of sheep with all the other tourists, listening to former guards and inmates tell the story in their own words and following the instructions on where to walk next. The most haunting thing I heard was an indicator of the sheer isolation of prison. One of the inmates said that on New Year's Eve each year, they would hear fireworks and music from parties held across the bay. If the wind was blowing in a particular way voices and conversations from the party would apparently carry into the prison. I'm not sure why, but it really brought home to me the harsh reality (and intention!) of prison, and being separated from your loved ones for special events.

Senan was very well behaved while we milled about within the prison, but there is only so much you can ask of a two year old. As we let him off to lose some energy running around the prison exercise yard, we decided not to push our luck with him and so made our way back to the return ferry. Upon hitting dry land, we decided to take up another of Cambria's suggestions, and made our way to the Exploratorium - a very cool hands-on museum designed for adults and kids alike to better understand science and the phenomenons around us. Senan was probably just a little bit too young to really understand it, but we weren't! And Senan did enjoy pressing lots of buttons and seeing what would happen.

Finishing out our last day in San Francisco, there was still one biggy left to do.. the famous San Francisco tram line. We had been putting it off, as each time we walked by a stop there was a massive queue. We got the tip that end of day was a better bet, and so on our final evening, we bit the bullet and queued up for the best part of 50 minutes at one of the tram turn-tables. As it turns out we were the last ones left on a tram, and that meant we could ask to stand on the back porch of the tram. It was really cool. As the tram made its way up the hill we had perfect views of San Francisco with the bay and Alcatraz in the distance. The grumpy attendant was even melted into conversation by Senan's running commentary on traffic lights ('Reeeddd, stoppppp!!, Grreeenn Gooooo!'). But the tram system is old and unreliable, and about 25minutes into our trip we were informed that there was a tram broken down on the line ahead, and so we would be in for a long wait. We chose to disembark and in a nod to the step count again, hoofed it back to the hotel. Continuing my new seafood buzz, dinner was fresh crab, in a lovely restaurant looking out over the bay, capping off a really lovely visit to San Francisco. We experienced it as a very easy city to navigate. Despite a clear homelessness problem, it has a relaxed vibe that gets under your skin. Of course it could just be that we are so long on the road now that we simply are more relaxed, but I'd still give some credit to San Francisco itself. We enjoyed our time here.

After an IHOP breakfast of champions, we gathered ourselves again for our flight to our last port on this trip. Next stop: New York - so good they named it twice!

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