Monthly Archives: April 2012

Streets of San Francisco

Hands-down, one of my favourite American cities is San Francisco. Although the whole state of California is pretty freakin’ rad, SFO really does stand out. It’s not a beach city, but what it offers in cuisine, attractions, shopping (!), general friendliness and yes, lots of weirdness, more than makes up for boring old sunny shores and sparkling sand.

I’ve been there twice, with both trips revolving around seeing a concert. The first time I went we saw The Tragically Hip, a classic Canuck band, at the Fillmore. Yup, the very same Fillmore where Jimi Hendrix and his entire generation of rock stars played back in the day. Second time was to see City and Colour, also at the Fillmore. Although they were two very different shows, both were amazing and intimate; I even got a few splashes of Hip singer Gordon Downey’s sweat on me. Let’s just say it was a very different experience from seeing them in a hockey arena.

Anyway, the point of writing this post was to reveal some awesome highlights (and funny little snippets) of our time there. It’s not until you experience SFO first-hand that you really understand why there’s a hundred songs and movies made about this great city.

1. Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s gimmicky. But, when in Rome… well, you should just do it, the first time, anyway. And once is enough. Have clam chowder in a bread bowl. Go to Ghirardelli Square and indulge in heavenly chocolate of all kinds: nuts, fruit, dark, white, milk, candied, sea salt, caramel, whatever. Visit the barking seals at Pier 39; go for a spin in the Rocket Boat around the harbour and the Bay Bridge. Have lunch at a sidewalk restaurant and delight in quirky street attractions… speaking of which…

2. Random Naked Cyclists
Ok, the whole “demonstration” is probably not random, and I know they do this in other places, too (including Victoria), but this just seemed – well – utterly San Fran. You’re having a bite to eat patio-side when suddenly a rush of nudies on bikes fly by. One thing you must remember when in SFO: always have your camera at the ready because you never know what’s going to happen. (Nice ciggy between the red nails in this pic, BTW. Ewwww.)

3. Alcatraz Island
This place is definitely worth a closer look than just a snapshot from the other side. Since I’m a big history nut and I gravitate toward the freaky and weird, it’s right up my alley. Join a walking tour on the grounds and then head inside the cell block, strap on some headsets and prepare for an audio experience that will really creep you out. You even get to see remnants of the famous escape depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz. If  you truly want to get the bejesus scared out of you, sign up for the night tour.

4. The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero
This old ferry terminal is now home to a myriad of shops, trendy restaurants, open-air markets, and cool little cafes. While you’re shopping for your wine and cheese, you might – just might – run into someone famous. Like the time we spotted Martha Stewart and her entourage at the Ciao Bella ice cream shop. Ol’ Martha was looking pretty good with her perfectly-coiffed hair, black leather pants and high boots. Naturally, people were practically falling over themselves to give her stuff, as you can see in this pic I semi-clandestinely snapped.

5. The Food!
I seriously have never been to a place this side of the country that’s got so many awesome options for foodies. You could probably eat out every day for years here and never hit all the great restaurants and street carts. From a funky little breakfast establishment in Nob Hill to a chic and classy reso on Fillmore, I could go on and on, but here are some worth mentioning:

  • First Crush Restaurant – friendly, late-night service with a cool bar, fab wine list and homestyle treats such as fried macaroni.
  • Bourbon Steak Restaurant in the Westin St. Francis Hotel. We happened to have reservations here when owner/celebrity chef Michael Mina was whipping the kitchen staff into a frenzy. The place was hopping and the service impeccable – we even had our wine glasses refilled by his business partner, also on duty that night. Now that’s personalized service.
  • Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel – this hidden gem is popular with the professional work crowd, yet still evokes a casual feel. It is the West Coast, after all. We hopped right up to the classy bar and watched the place fill in a matter of minutes. I was instantly dazzled when offered a free glass of champagne (mistakenly poured for someone else). The moving pictures on the wall added a touch of eeriness that was undoubtedly cool – thank you, Philippe Starck.

6. Street Entertainment in the North Park
SFO has mastered street entertainment – with the North Park especially keen to show off. One lazy afternoon, as we were partaking in a lunch of pepperoni calzones at a sidewalk restaurant, this huge black guy dressed in white coattails and top hat approached and amicably offered to sing for money. After we opted out, he moved on to the next couple, who also declined. I think at this point he was getting tired of rejection; either that or he was just having a really bad day. And so we watched, amazed, as he literally shifted from nice to nasty in a matter of seconds, shouting and berating the couple for not helping him out. And then there was the larger-than-life Tinsel Man at the street market. In short, the people-watching is pretty spectacular. Oh, and the murals aren’t bad, either.

7. Golden Gate Bridge (obviously)
No question, one of the must-dos. The key is getting hooked up with a tour (complete with a little history thrown in) aboard one of those old-fashioned trolley buses which take you through the park and over the bridge. The weather was beautiful that day; not an ounce of fog in sight. I was almost disappointed. Can you see me in the mirror? (Hint: I’m the one with the big sunglasses.)

8. Shopping in Union Square
We stayed in the Square the second time around – right up the street from H&M, Neiman Marcus, DSW Shoe Warehouse, the works. I thought I died and went to heaven when we stepped into Bloomingdale’s – just the array of sunglasses alone on display was dizzying. I eventually settled on a gorgeous leather jacket, which I had to carry with me while we wandered around and eventually got lost trying to get back to our hotel. This was especially fun through some less-desirable neighbourhoods. Thank God for Cam, who gave anyone who dared look our way (or my jacket’s general direction) the Jack Reacher stare.

9. Baseball Game in AT&T Park
It was the Giants against the Oakland A’s – their cross-town rivals. Picture a warm night, the overpowering smell of dirt, grass and beer. People shouting and cheering. Chowing down on hot dogs and popcorn. The sun setting behind a humongous glove. Oh, and the Giants won – Tim Lincecum was awesome, a wild example of mullet over matter.

10. Lots and Lots of Live Music
Coming from a smaller city where economic realities can limit access to outstanding live entertainment, I really appreciate its abundance in SFO: tons of great venues, varied styles, and real talent where you least expect it. Take, for instance, the time we stumbled into a dark, grotty bar on lower Mason Street (perhaps a slightly dodgy part of town at night) and were blown away by a show featuring a blues dude going by The Harrison B. One six-string, one snare and cymbal, and these guys rocked the place.

– S

PS. We’re making our way down there again in a few days. (Well, technically, we’ll be making a side-trip there via CalTrain from San Jose.) Once again, we’ll be basking in San Francisco’s glorious weirdness. And loving it.

Categories: California, Dining, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two Tickets to Paradise

Once upon a time, I traveled international first class. It rocked, and it rocked all the way to Bali. Since Cam and I had racked up so many air miles with our Alaska Airlines card, we finally had enough for two tickets to fly anywhere in the world first class. Mind you, this didn’t come easy. The first time we traveled to Asia, we both paid straight-up for business class tickets on Cathay Pacific (which was freaking awesome, too – literally a world away from economy).

On our second trip to Bali, we had enough air miles for one business class ticket and paid full price for the second one. You may be thinking at this point that I’m crazy to be spending a lot of money getting from Point A to Point B. I see it as a matter of priorities. Don’t even get me started on how much people spend on material things – or even children for that matter – without blinking an eye. I believe that experiences generate way more happiness than say, an ATV, or that shiny, just-renovated back porch. Travel is my child, if you will, my sanity check, and I am more than happy to spend money and time nurturing and investing in it. Enough said.

So, many purchases (we put everything on our card: $1 = 1 air mile; you can see where this is going) and many flights later (you accumulate even more points when you actually fly), we both had enough to travel first class on air miles to Bali. That’s both legs: from Vancouver to Hong Kong, and then HK to Bali. Needless to say, with that much distance we wanted to be as comfortable as possible. From check-in in Vancouver to arrival in Denpasar more than 24 hours later (plus skipping a whole day crossing the International Date Line), it was definitely worth the expense.

To document all of the wonderful things about traveling in this kind of luxury (physically and emotionally) would take forever. So here are my top 10 highlights:

1. By-passing the “cattle class” line-up and heading straight for the first class check-in. In many cases, there’s also a special priority line-up for security clearance. That rocks.

2. Entering the first class lounge. I could almost hear the angels singing. The cardboard cut-out was a nice touch, though.

3. Awesome lounge perks of champagne, wine, spirits, and a dizzying selection of non-alcoholic beverages, including gourmet coffee. Complimentary snacks: depending where you’re headed, this can range from muffins and fruit to sweet pork buns, various noodle dishes, specialty cheeses, assorted tiny sandwiches, homemade soups, pizza, etc. An endless array of magazines and newspapers at your disposal. Oh, and of course free Wi-fi. All surrounded by a quiet and relaxing atmosphere, sans baby-screaming, blaring tellys, and annoying people yelling into their cell phones. In this particular case, we practically had the whole place to ourselves for like five hours. It was almost lonely.

4. Priority boarding. There’s no better feeling than being the first to board, even before “those who need assistance and/or are traveling with children.” It’s even more fun if you’re late getting to the terminal (thanks to that last glass of champagne in the lounge). No worries; if that’s the case, you get to simply by-pass the economy class line-up and budge in front of passengers who are already boarding. Tee-hee.

5. Stepping into your roomy first class “pod”. Sometimes located on the top floor if it’s a double-decker plane, which is especially cool. Did I mention you’re greeted by name? For a more detailed perspective than what’s shown here, check out the first class cabin on the Cathay site. It really is all that.

6. More champagne (this time it’s pink). In your first class suite.

6. Even at 3 am, you get to order smoked salmon, specialty cheeses, fancy water crackers, and caviar. Washed down with expensive French bordeaux. You can even dine with your fellow travel partner in their pod. Yes, they are that big.

7. A beautiful complimentary toiletry pack containing all sorts of little creams, facial moisturizer, toothpaste and brush, eye mask, and hairbrush. Oh, and your own set of pyjamas and sleeping socks. It’s the perfect prelude to what comes next…

8. A good night’s sleep in your lie-flat bed. When’s the last time you had one of those on a plane? This is after you’ve watched a movie or two on your personal entertainment unit.

9. Waking up to the smell of kick-ass gourmet coffee, followed by a full-on breakfast, smoothie, more caviar, whatever you desire. Served to you when you want it, not the other way around.

10. A refreshed, relaxed and ready-to-go arrival. Wherever in the world you happen to land.

Have you ever experienced outstanding international first class travel? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

– S

Categories: Bali, Glamorous, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Venice, Uncut

A Dream Realized
Several years ago, my ex and I decided to tour through Germany, Austria, Italy, the Riviera, Spain, and France. Not too surprisingly, one of the places I looked forward to seeing was Venice. Venezia was a place I had dreamed about since I was old enough to read a map (mainly my Dad’s dusty old Great World Atlas that lived beneath the coffee table).

Described as one of Europe’s most romantic places, Venice seemed a beautiful fantasy, a world all its own. This ‘Floating City’ was so opposite to the orderly, responsible, and generally planned culture I was brought up in, and I just had to go there and see it for myself. I wanted to experience the magic, the history – to finally see what all those books, maps, and movies had only hinted at.

After making our way from Innsbruck, through Trento and a stop in Verona, we decided to lodge in a very old, decrepit hotel in Mestre on Venice’s mainland. Accommodation was quite expensive in Venice proper, and besides, this hotel was right across the street from the train station with access to the famed 117 islands. Once we handed our passports over to the proprietor (an unsettling thing to get used to in Europe), we threw our bags down in our 100-square-foot room-with-a-bathroom-down-the-hall and made for the door.

I could hardly contain myself as the train slowly made its way out of the station. My nose was more or less pressed against the window for the duration of the trip. I marvelled at the fact that we were travelling in the middle of the ocean, only mere kilometres away from the mystical land I envisioned so many times.

As we neared our destination, I spotted what seemed like a concrete monstrosity in the distance. Indeed, it was the Piazzale Roma – Europe’s largest car park. This was where those on wheels park it for good when visiting the world’s only pedestrian city. How refreshing, coming from a culture of highways and nonstop traffic. I was instantly charmed.

Venice in Technicolor
As the train chugged to a stop, we clambered down the steps and out of the station … and into a fairy tale.

Venezia laid itself in front of me in all its perfect imperfection. The green lagoon. Gondolas, with their captains in black and white striped shirts and red scarves, navigating through the narrow canals. Houses huddled together on the edge of the water like old friends, bedecked in cheery greens, yellows, pinks and blues with potted flowers perched atop cast iron railings; ornate footbridges; the smell of the sea; people chattering away in Italian as if racing to the end of sentences; bargaining in the market.

It all came rushing at me at once, an overwhelming sensory extravaganza. I felt as though I had stepped back 400 years into the middle of a Shakespearean play. Tears involuntarily sprung to my eyes, blurring my vision. I realized I had been holding my breath. I had waited so long for this moment that I wanted to embrace it with everything I had.

And so went three amazing days in this fabled city. It really felt like a different universe. Every morning we would take the train from Mestre and arrive in Venezia, head straight to a tiny cafe crammed to the gills with locals on their way to work, all laughing and shouting at each other. Fighting our way to the counter, we would order cappuccino and stand around drinking and eating various mysterious pastries.

We made our way around the islands via vaporetti (water buses) to the Piazza San Marco and the famous Rialto Bridge. We dined by the canal lights, roamed around the narrow streets. We browsed the plethora of open-air markets, visited the Guggenheim museum; heck, we even splurged for a gondola ride (very expensive, and very short, but we had to do it). Then there were the churches – so many churches! And they weren’t just for praying – one even held a Vivaldi “Four Seasons” concert (complete with candles and unbelievable acoustics).

Nature Calls And The City
So all was good on the Italian front until one day, after a long time of walking, eating, and churching, I suddenly had to go to the washroom. One annoying thing about me (yes, just one) is that I tend to have to ‘go’, rather urgently, at the most inconvenient times. Like while wandering around the confusing alleyways and corridors of an unfamiliar place, for instance. Have you ever tried to find a public washroom in a place like Venice? Not an easy feat. Why couldn’t they have those convenient pop-up street loos like in Paris? (Actually, one of the worst washrooms I ever encountered was at a rest stop in rural France – toilet paper? Right. Stalls? I don’t think so. A seat? Try a hole in the ground.)

Anyway, after following some random signs portraying the universal pictograms for toilets, we eventually came upon a odd-looking old stone building (possibly a church). Perfect, I thought, any longer and I would’ve burst at the seams. I approached the building, and silly me, thought it would be free to enter. Uh-uh. Right at the entrance was a slot machine requiring coins, and then, only then, were you able to get through the turnstile – the type frequently seen at a subway station, or DIY stores like Canadian Tire. I searched frantically on my being for some lira. I had none. My bladder almost shrieked with complaint.

“Change! I need change!” I yelled at my poor unsuspecting partner as I ran back to where he was waiting. He too searched and came up short. (My bladder tried not to hear this.) “You’ll need to get some from one of the market vendors,” he so helpfully suggested. Great. Suddenly, in a city crammed full of open-air stalls, there wasn’t one in sight. We really were in the sticks.

A Turnip to the Rescue
Wasting no time, I attempted to manoeuvre back through the myriad corridors to civilization, turning right, right again, then a few lefts and another right before I came out into a piazza full of market stalls. I ran up to the nearest one and approached a man selling various kinds of produce. In a confusing mixture of English and Italian, I managed to get across that I needed change. Or maybe it was the fact that I was waving a lira banknote (this is before the euro made its way to Italy) in front of his face and shouting “change!” I knew I was being an ignorant tourist, but I really didn’t care at that point. The urgency to pee was getting in the way of my manners. The vendor communicated back in Italian and hand signals that I needed to buy something first. (OMG. My bladder was really, really trying not to hear this.)

I was in so much pain I couldn’t decide what to get. I wasn’t even sure what half of the things were. I tried to remember the Italian name for avocado. Or apple. Or pear. I couldn’t think of anything except having to pee. So I reverted to the pointing system, my hand involuntarily going to a turnip. “Ah-ha!” the man exclaimed, and spent a good time finding the right one for me. “Just that one!” I practically yelled, not caring, dancing from foot to foot. The vendor shot me a funny look, took my money and agonizingly counted out my change.

It was a small victory – I still had to make my way back to the toilets, wherever they were. I was painfully aware that if I couldn’t pee in the next, say two minutes, it would not be a pretty scene. Clutching my useless turnip, I ran along, longingly glancing at the dark corridors. I was painfully aware that they would’ve worked just fine had I been a man (and, judging by the smells, evidently had for many).

I blindly took a left, then a right, and miraculously found myself back at the decrepit old building that housed the loos. I deposited the change in the slot, practically jumped over the bars (I could have probably done that in the first place, but rules are rules), and crying with relief, made it in. My pride was still intact. Amazingly enough, so was that stupid turnip.

– S

Categories: Europe, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Outback Odyssey, Part 3

The final chapter in our jaunt through the Australian Outback. If you need to catch up, check out:

Outback Odyssey, Part 1

Outback Odyssey, Part 2

Once more we wake to pre-dawn pot banging (I am eternally thankful that this is the last time) to see the sun rise over Kings Canyon and begin our hike before it reaches 1,000 degrees (apparently 850 is a tolerable hiking temperature). A steep 500-step climb helpfully nicknamed “Heart Attack Hill” kicks off the Kings Canyon Rim Walk, a six kilometre loop that takes approximately three to four hours. Cam and I lead the way, our good buddy Argentina not too far behind us, practically running, scattering rocks and dirt in his wake. I don’t know – maybe he doesn’t get hangovers… or maybe he’s still drunk.

Once at the top, we admire the expansive view. Then, bored of waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, some of the more adventurous and restless souls (this of course includes Argentina) decide to press on, ignoring Kyle’s instructions that hike as a group. We figure we wouldn’t go too far; just enough to see what’s ahead. The path is well-marked and the terrain not even remotely treacherous. Off we go for about 10 minutes or so before we hear some frantic shouting in the distance. We stop just in time to see a breathless Kyle run up to us, looking shaken and disheveled. Once he catches his breath, he gives us an earful about how important it is to stay as a group, as it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know what you’re doing (we didn’t really), or where you’re going (ditto to that). Sufficiently chastised, we hang our heads and wait for the others to join us. Under Kyle’s watchful eye, we carry on, marvelling at the terrain with its red and gold rocky outcrops and weathered stone, all set against a stunning backdrop of clear blue sky.

As the temperature begins to rise, we welcome a descent into a sheltered valley surrounded by bonsai-style and ghost gum trees until we reach the Garden of Eden.

This Eden also contains a natural spring waterhole. Out of all of us, only Argentina and I decide to brave the water (a young Irish couple in our group didn’t even know how to swim – not too unusual, considering a ‘hot’ day where they’re from is something like 19 degrees Celsius). We both jump in, Argentina practically somersaulting, landing in the water with a thunderous splash. I swim, revelling in this cool and refreshing escape from the heat and dust of the canyon. However, we soon discover that getting in the water is a heck of a lot easier than getting out, thanks to a nice slick coat of green slime covering the rock we used as a launching pad. To add insult to injury, not too many people were eager to help us back up; Cam being the only one to take mercy on us. Even then, thanks to a severe lack of foot grip, manoeuvering up the slime without sliding back in proved quite challenging. (In Argentina’s case, it was more than highly amusing, as he slid along, falling backwards into the water several times before succeeding.)

After this frolicking of sorts, we climb back up out of the valley and quickly find ourselves gazing upon several dome-shaped formations resembling giant beehives, formed by the erosion of joint bound sandstone. Fittingly, the place is nicknamed “The Lost City.”

We then proceed to go around the ridge to face a severely eroded cliff, the result of a massive rock slide about 70 years ago. The story goes that it literally disappeared right in front of someone’s eyes as they were taking pictures from the other side. Kyle then invites us to lay on our bellies at the over 100 meter-high cliff’s edge and look down. There we lay: all 15 or so of us, lined up in a row on the very edge, with this as our direct view across:

Indeed, the effects were dizzying. The faint-of-heart need not apply.

Tearing ourselves away from this spectacle, we make our way back along the trail’s loop, Argentina in the lead and scrambling all over the place (this time down the rock instead of up). We enter the parking lot to discover none other than an enormous King Brown snake waiting for us – fortunately, it was dead. Kyle expertly picks it up, and after making the identification, proceeds to inform us that said reptile is the second longest snake in Australia, and one of the most venomous in the world. I think one of the Danes almost fainted. Put it this way: if you happened to stumble upon it while it was still living, it would not be your friend. Our timing was undoubtedly perfect.

Somewhat unsettled with this sensory overload, we all enthusiastically pile back into the bus and sputter across the lot to the long and winding road back to where most of us started – Alice Springs. I take in the landscape, experiencing a sad, almost yearning feeling for a place that I will probably never see again in my lifetime. Although I definitely won’t miss the black flies.

Finally, we’re at the outskirts of Alice, en route to our hotels, signalling the end of the tour. And then, out of nowhere, we spot a couple of familiar looking chaps walking along the side of the road. Kyle asks, “Does anyone know who these guys are?” Cam and I perk up and instantly reply: “Mormons!” Looking exactly the same as they do in North America: black pants, white shirt with suspenders. The only difference? Camel packs full of water. A fitting end to a rather Biblical day. Still wish I’d seen a Thorny Devil, though.

– S

Categories: Adventure, Australia, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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