The US Part 2: California

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Dusk was setting in as we stepped out of San Francisco International Airport into the cool breeze of the early evening, and I left Rich to look after the bags as I fiddled with my phone and tried to connect to the free airport wifi. Almost immediately, a Facebook message popped up from Sarah:

"Tim might be a little late to pick you up. He got a bit held up updating his CV."

I smiled to myself. I had never been to California, but I already felt like I was home.

My brother Tim, his beautiful wife Sarah and my nephew Oliver made the move across the Atlantic last August so that my incredibly clever, intelligent, science boffin brother could take up a post in cancer research at Stanford University. They departed in the very same week that Rich left for Doha, before the time when we had decided that I would join him over there, and I remember feeling very very sad.

Now, a year on, I couldn't wait for us all to be back together again for a week of exploration of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

But before any adventures could begin, I had some very important catching up to do.

And there was some bonding to be had.

Sunnyvale where Tim and Sarah live is south of San Francisco, and north of San Jose, right in the heartland of Silicon Valley. With Stanford University as a major driving force, this area is home to some of the world's most high-tech and innovative companies and manufacturers, with the likes of Google, Apple, Oracle, Twitter, eBay and Adobe making it the home of their headquarters. LinkedIn is literally right across the street from their flat.

These endless employment opportunities attract clever clogses (totally a word) like my brother from all over the world, and as a result, the local Sunnyvale food market is a lively and bustling place for lunch on a Saturday.

Gourmet hot dogs, corn on the cob and popcorn were quaffed in a matter of minutes, and then taking advantage of the beaming sun and clear blue skies, we walked it all off with a stroll around the beautiful grounds of Stanford University.

Keen to sample all of the culinary traditions of our host country that we could stomach (ahem), next came dinner at an old-fashioned American diner. 

An experience that wasn't in the least bit soured by Ollie's first taste of a lemon (sorry, that one was terrible, I will stop).

The next day, it was time to head a little further afield. Driving down the 101 (this time with Phantom Planet's 'California' in our heads), we stopped at the little town (although those bizarre Americans still call it a city) of Monterey. 

If people say that America has no history, then this place is about as good as it gets. Back in the 19th Century, it was the capital of Alta California, which was then ruled by Spain and Mexico. Following the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American war, Customs House in Monterey is the place where the Americans raised the flag to declare California part of the US back in 1846 (this bit of the blog is especially for you Sarah, because I know you enjoyed me telling you all about it so much the first time around!).

For those of you less into your US history, it also has a tacky pier with some pretty awesome seals swimming around the harbour at the end of it.

A bit further down the Californian coast is another pretty 'city' called Carmel, a place best-known for the fact that Clint Eastwood was once mayor there, but which should be better known for this:

And this:

It was a fabulous day, which ended with smiles all round.

It's safe to say that by this point, I was 'totally digging' America.

Tim and Sarah were heading back to work the next day, so we'd planned to do a bit of exploring on our own. However, we first needed to get ourselves some wheelz.

And as we were in America, it was only right that we chose an American car.

Once we'd received Ollie's seal of approval, it was difficult to say no to the 2014 Mustang (who will hereby be referred to by her proper name, Sally).

We were only slightly disappointed that she didn't have a more appropriate number plate.

But she served us well on the drive to San Jose for dinner at one of the coolest places in America (or so we like to think), the stunning warehouse conversion of San Pedro Square.

Follow by an evening at the drive in.

The next day, we woke up early, and drove Sally 40 miles north to a city I had wanted to visit since I was about 16. San Francisco.

It's hard to do this beautiful city justice in one small section of a blog post. There is so much to do and see, and we visited over the space of just two short days. Instead, I will give you my top 5 favourite things about San Francisco, with the caveat that there are many, many more besides!

1. The hills

Staggeringly steep in places, driving up some of these 40 degree slopes is a heart in mouth experience but heaps of fun.

Particularly on Lombard Street (also known as the 'Crooked Street') with its eight, tight hairpin bends down the steepest hill you can imagine.

The hills also make for some pretty views over the city, San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz island beyond.

(granted, this last one was ruined somewhat).

2. The trams

They give the city a kind of rustic charm, they're the best way to get around and see the sights (and experience the theme park-like thrill of the hills), and at $6 for an all day ticket, they're bloody good value for money too.

3. The 'vibe'

Yeah, I know, I know. A bit of a cop out, but it's difficult to describe or quantify this. I put it down to the sweeping vista of the Bay.

The history and architecture

In particular, the infamous Golden Gate bridge, which was a joy to drive across and marvel at from the other side of the Bay.

And just a general 'coolness' which you simply have to go there and experience to understand!

4. The food

From the simple clam chowder in a sour dough loaf that we purchased from Pier 39

To the institution that is Boudin Sourdough

Including a very special take-home loaf

I can safely say that we sampled all the best bread that this city has to offer.

5. The people

We have never experienced friendliness in the way we did while we were in San Fran. The guy that we stopped in the street to ask directions from who told us that we had made his day...

To the cheery tram operator who had worked on the San Fran tramline since 1986...

To the red coats that walked the streets, looking for people who might need their assistance.

We were overwhelmed by the openness and kindness we experienced everywhere we went.

It had been a great couple of days with my fella.

Exhausted from all of the driving around we'd been doing, we headed off for a mini sleepy vacation within a vacation in the village (I absolutely refuse to call this one a city) of Sonoma, in the wine country north of San Fran.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Sunnyvale, with a quick detour via the huge Redwoods of Muir Woods

We had some very difficult goodbyes to say.

Not least to our trusty friend Sally.

We had loved California for everything it had to offer.

But most of all we love the people in it.

We weren't quite ready to say goodbye.

But we were just about ready to fall in love with another city.