It was time to cross into California for a quick tour of the Giant state. Tree hugging and City loving were the enjoyable highlights of Sequoia and San Fransisco.
Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park, in California, is a very special place. The park covers 1,193,315 acres (1,864.555 sq mi; 4,829.17 km2). It takes approximately 2 hours to drive through the whole park.
A switchback drive had us climb up to 7,000 feet and provided us with breathtaking views. It was difficult not to stop every few minutes to snap another stunning vista across the forested mountains and valleys.
The air was cooler than we’ve been used to, at approximately 56°. Breathe the fresh air into the lungs. You might find there is a hint of a Christmas smell in the atmosphere, making you all fuzzy inside. We smelt pine needles and mistletoe. It brought us back to the cold wintery evenings at the Belfast Christmas market.
Vehicle pass is usually $35, however, just as in White Sands National Park, there was no one at the entry fee station, so we drove on in for free!
The giant forest
Among the other pines and firs, native to California, are thousands of massive, ancient sequoia trees. All along the drive to the famous General Sherman tree, you will see the trees rising high. One can feel their eyes widening with wonder as your mouth opens in a wow expression!
Before you even get to see the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree, measured by volume, which stands 275 feet tall, and is over 36 feet in diameter at the base, you will see the breathtaking sequoia trees which are also gigantic and just as impressive. Crane your neck to look at the top of these sky piercing wise old beauties and get the photos snapping.
The national park has many trails that you can take up to view different trees and different views of the valley. Walking through the forest makes you feel like a child again. You feel tiny in comparison with these majestic trees. It’s a magical place that makes you actually think about the measure of how small we actually are on this earth. Nature has to be respected.
There are a number of twin sequoias to be seen. We loved the Tough Twins tree. It was a sad story that is all to common in the heat of California. A fire that raged through the forest split them apart leaving scars.
Look for the scar on the base of one twin, the bark almost covers it and it is healing well.
The other half is taking longer to heal and you can still see clearly the damage of the tree from the fire, which shows charred wood. We loved giving them a hug and feeling their wisdom flow through us.
Even though it seems devastating, the sequoias are remarkably resilient to fire and have the ability to not only survive blazes but to heal their own scars in time. Most fires in the sequoia forest burn low to the ground and are rarely hot enough to kill mature sequoia’s. It’s also fascinating to learn that fire is an ideal condition for sequoias to germinate and seedlings to grow. Unfortunately fire can kill other trees which aren’t as resilient as sequoias. You can find the twins close to the General Sherman tree.
From the car park it took us approximately a 15 minute brisk walk to the General Sherman Tree.
The General Sherman tree is the most popular everyone wants to see.
It’s fenced off to protect it, so you can’t touch it or hug it unfortunately.
It was surprising to learn that it isn’t actually the tallest or oldest tree, but has the biggest internal volume of wood & can drink up to 500 gallons of water a day!! At a ripe 2,200-2,700 years old be sure to stand in line to take a picture with the old boy.
Our spirit felt renewed as we left the park through Kings Canyon and made our way on the four hour drive to San Francisco.
The Road through California
We descended through the forest and headed out the land flattened out with a different scenery. The plains flora was now of a man made theme with the farmland ripe for fruit trees and vineyards that California is renowned for. We passed a few fruit selling stalls and couldn’t resist in the end as we stopped to pick up some of the delicious cherry produce. Oranges, lemons, avocados, strawberries and more were all grown locally and on sale. Olive groves were also in abundance.
San Francisco, California
Famed for its hippy style of the 60s, the free thinking Beat poets, innovation in technology that borders on silicone slavery, and much more, San Francisco has a reputation for being a happening place. It was always on our list to visit. For how long? We just didn’t know but had only booked in for one night.
We booked our hotel on the drive there. We just were unsure about how ‘Free’ The city would be and if it would suit our lifestyle.
Handlery Union Square Hotel
Our first choice of a hotel in San Francisco would have been the Pineapple hotel, but unfortunately it was booked up. We settled for the Handlery. Being central was important and the Handlery was a suitable, reasonably priced option at $156. We chose to self park at the O’Farrell Mason Garage, round the corner, as it’s $35 parking was much cheaper than $77 valet parking at the hotel!
The Handlery is in an old Historic building that is still a family business dating back more than 70 years. The first room we got had a large stain on the sheet! After our awful experience in Kingsman at the Home to Suites by Hilton, we were ready to scream.
Luckily the Handlery made it right. We got a new clean room and a bottle of bubbly as an apology. We were originally supposed to stay only for one night, but it ended up being three.
Thoughts of California always makes one think of Sunshine and warmth but San Francisco has its own micro climate that varies greatly from the rest of the state. We had been used to temperatures between 80 – 100+ F / 26-38 C. When we descended towards the bay the cloud blew in and hung around the tops of the buildings and temperatures dipped to the low 60s / about 16/17 C. It was a shock to the system and was a reminder of the weather we were accustomed to in Ireland.
Things to do
San Francisco is one of California’s and the world’s recognisable cities. Seen through the eye of TV and film makes the place feel familiar instantly.
Some of the things to do are just visiting these famous landmarks and general sights around the city.
The world renowned span of the bay entrance from the Pacific, The big red suspension bridge is an icon for San Francisco and California. It was top of the list to view.
Built during the 1930s, during the great depression, Joseph Strauss was the Chief engineer, hired due to his promise of an economic build, but Leon Moisseiff and Irvine Morrow played a big part in the suspension design and art deco styling.
The weather, while cool, stayed dry when we pulled into the Battery East Parking Lot, a great place to park to get views of the bridge and go for a walk up to it, yet the cloud hung around the top of the towers. This is a regular occurrence and you can see the same around the tall buildings downtown. We were aware of our bags in the car and didn’t want to leave them for security reasons. Broken glass in a parking bay only confirmed our concerns. Many people have had cars broken into here, so be careful. We got out into the blustery air and already we had a great view.
You can walk up and onto the bridge from this car park, as well as enjoying trails down to the bay.
House architecture and streets
Victorian design, with bay windows, and pastel coloured paint work is a strong design trait within San Francisco. The hilly geography, along with the earthquake prone area of California, offers a challenge to any builders. The styles that have developed have given San Francisco its individualism. The old and the new merge together in an eclectic mix.
Remembering movies set in the city, car chases always had a specific mode of operation.
Firstly, the cars would race down one hill section. Next, they would drastically test the suspensions as the cars hit the 10/15 metre flat intersection, often causing innocent bystander traffic to take evasive action or be struck hard.
Lastly, the cars would speed into a jump as they hit the next downward section to repeat the moves over and over until they reached the bottom. It’s like a crazy fairground attraction. We followed the same route but in a much more sedate manner lol. It’s still fun when the lights or traffic is in your favour.
Then there is the famous Lombard Street that twists its way down and has become a tourist attraction.
Fancy a bit of shopping? The square is surrounded by designer name boutiques and offshoots of New York’s well known department stores of Macy’s and Zaks. The central part of the public plaza is the tall column with a statue of Nike, goddess of Victory, on top. The streets around, containing hotels, bars, restaurants, theatres, art galleries etc, are slowly coming back to life after the enforced shut down.
This bustling pier mall is a huge attraction in San Francisco.
The crowds are drawn here by the shops, art work, galleries, and eateries that have built up in the area.
Shop till your hearts content, but look at the price tags first. Pier 39 can surely empty your pockets!
Of course the main attraction is the seals that occupy the calm decking at the end of the pier for most of the year.
When we got there, they were on vacation!
Still good to see the area even though it’s a massive tourist trap.
There’s some cool artwork to.
There is plenty to occupy the kids with an old carousel and other amusements to go along with the 7D cinema and mirror maze.
Once they are bored with that, you can feed them with ice-cream and all manner of snacks.
This was a big must do for us but, unfortunately, it didn’t work out. The trips out to the prison island, now a tourist attraction, were limited due to restrictions still in place, and they were sold out by the time our dates were fixed for our visit. Ah well, maybe we will be back sometime to see this and the seals.
The walk through the city
We decided to walk from our hotel to Pier 39 to help budget a feel for the city’s flavour. This had us go through Chinatown.
This is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in North America. As expected, it was bustling as we traversed Stockton Street. We followed the tunnel and washed out into Chinatown.
When it crossed with Columbus, A distinctly Italian flavour took over. Restaurants, cafes and bars created a buzz in the sunshine around Washington Square as people milled about, picnicked, threw ball, or walked dogs under the watchful gaze of Saints Peter and Paul church. On the way back from Pier 39, we called into Mario’s Cafe bar.
Eating and drinking
California loves eating and drinking, often with the health conscious in mind, and San Francisco is right on the button. It can be pricey but we still enjoyed.
Vegan fare. Loved the wild seed burger that came with a generous portion of french fries and a small salad. The impossible burger wasn’t to my taste. It was made to look like actual meat so it was off putting. Extra veg, like the avocado we got was $4.50. We went back the next day and got french fries and almost fainted at the price. $10 a portion! For potatoes! Crazy! Prices are extortionate, but that’s San Francisco for you. Every meal seems doubled or tripled than anywhere else we have been to in the states.
We felt like VIPs and got the best seat in the house as we mentioned that Dario from Mario’s bar had sent us. Mark, the owner with his real Italian American accent ensured the service was fabulous.
We got the gnocchi and pizza to share. Both are very good. Prices are again expensive but I would eat there again because the atmosphere was great!
Delicious veggie lasagna and spinach and ricotta ravioli. Reasonably priced by San Francisco standards. Approximately under a tenner for each main.
A cool family run bar, lots of family pictures on the wall, which makes the place homely and welcoming.
We were pleasantly surprised to find drinks here were normally priced (about a fiver for a glass of wine) and Dario kept topping up generously.
One of Mario’s best customers was a gentleman who is coming up to his 105th birthday! His secret is enjoy a tipple and life to the fullest!
A lively Irish bar with great live music. It had a fun atmosphere. It is also very unusual to find an Irish bar abroad that actually looks like a real McCoy Irish pub with the decor. Drinks are expensive. We put it on the tab and almost fainted when the bill came at the end of the night. It’s $10 a wine and $9 a beer. Some adds up especially when we get carried away lol
Live music bar with a grungy feel. Rock n roll hits from the fifties right through to modern times. Dance floor was packed with energetic dancers. Good fun.
Next time we will be leaving California and are heading East.
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