Fun Places to Visit When Exploring San Francisco – Tom & Priscilla San Francisco was a whirlwind of a trip. A trip revolved around food to be exact. The annual Singapore Day happened to be in San Francisco this year (2016), with the biggest highlight being the delicious Singapore street food, with cooks and ingredients brought in directly from Singapore. Just for the food alone, we impulsively bought air tickets to visit. This trip was short, really short. We arrived late Friday night in Oakland, and were up extra early on Saturday morning. Trying to pack in as many touristy stops as possible, we stopped by Fisherman’s Wharf, walked to the Marina District for breakfast at Seed + Salt (a little café serving up delicious gluten free, vegetarian, organic, local, etc. food), admired homes on Marina Boulevard, and took a stroll along the beachfront for the classic Golden Gate Bridge view. We underestimated how far the bridge was and soon realized there was not enough time to get to the bridge and walk across it. Next time! As we left the beachfront, we found ourselves at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, lost in the beautiful pavilion and walkways, and watching the different birds in the lake. Singapore Day in San Francisco Finally, we peeled ourselves away from the touristy distractions, and started making our way to the Singapore Day event in the Dog Patch neighborhood. Knowing little about San Francisco, we were surprised to find the Dog Patch neighborhood to be industrial with huge decrepit warehouses. A little hard to believe a national level event was hiding in one of these grimy buildings, but we knew we were in the right place when we saw crowds of people heading in one direction. The event was indeed located in one of these massive abandoned looking warehouses, complete with broken windows and graffiti. The façade seemed scary, but the inside was simply a barebones large event space. Nothing fancy, just a large open space for big events. Stepping inside, there were exhibitions on Singapore government initiatives, interactive games for children, performances from artists and even a mini National Day Parade. Priscilla bumped into old friends not seen in years, and together we immediately bee lined to the food area. The lines were extremely long, not surprising knowing that food had always been top priority for Singaporeans. We stood in line for as many booths as we could, managing to get Tom’s favorite stingray, roti prata and rojak before food ran out. Foodie Tour of San Francisco California We continued our jam-packed agenda to explore the city, which was still very much food focused. We made our way to the Mission District, and really loved the energy and many intriguing restaurants and shops. The one thing that struck us about San Francisco was the number of local, one location only stores. There weren’t big franchises and chains around every corner as in Chicago (e.g. Dunkin Donuts). We stopped by Tartine Bakery, a quaint little bakery that was almost too quaint for how famous it was. Tom was a huge fan of their beautiful books describing the process of making high quality breads. So here we were, standing in the line that started at the counter inside, went out the door, and wrapped around the street corner. Tartine Bakery usually sold out of their breads and pastries well before closing time, but luckily there was still a good selection for us to choose from when we got to the front of the line. The pastries were well made and just lightly sweet, which really highlighted their strength in making quality dough, instead of masking sub par pastries with loads of sugar and other distractions. Down the street, we found Bi-Rite Creamery. The line was intimidating, almost a couple blocks long. So instead, we went to a side window next to the store that offered a limited selection of ice cream but with no wait. We got a delicious basic ice cream sandwich – great treat on a beautiful sunny day! We took a walk to the Lower Haight area, attempting to burn off the calories we ate all day to get ready for the next meals. Walking around San Francisco was more strenuous than expected, with steep hills that constantly challenged our stamina. Priscilla also brilliantly decided to wear “cute” shoes, and paid dearly with blisters and a limp. As we huffed and puffed our way to Lower Haight, the buildings and stores got progressively older and more dilapidated. There still weren’t a proliferation of chain stores, just mom and pop stores that looked a little worn out. Our friend recommended Toronado, simply telling us we would find it cool. Standing outside the bar, we looked at each other skeptically – was this the right place? We checked the sign a couple times and reconfirmed our friend did say Toronado. From the outside, the bar seemed real dark, and the half door gave a glimpse of the bar’s dive-y vibes. We pushed each other through the door, sat down at the bar, stared at all the stickers and beer tap handles everywhere and observed the seemingly intimidating crowd (think leather jacket wearing biker types). It was not too busy, so the bartender took time to talk about the beers and why people are takings shots of bitters at the bar. Before we know it, we had one too many beers and the night was slipping away. Dive-y it might be, but it had a pretty solid selection of local beers, at least for us out of towners. Mission District For Dinner We headed back to the Mission district to pick out a dinner spot from amongst the many interesting options there and settled on Cha-Ya, a vegan/vegetarian Japanese restaurant that was simply and tastefully furnished. We stood at the door unsure if we had to find seats ourselves or wait to be shown a table. Gut feeling told us it was wrong to …
Dark, rainy and cold – that is not the usual description for San Diego, but unfortunately, that was how San Diego was for us. California ended its four-year drought with a rare rainy weather, meanwhile we decided to escape the Chicago winter, thinking we could use some warm weather in San Diego. So…there was no beach weather for us and we wore our sweaters and raincoats everyday.
Trying Airbnb for the first time, we picked a relatively cheap lodging in the Chula Vista area, about 10 minutes from the border with Mexico. The stay was surprisingly nice, and might actually be much better than hotels and for half the price at least. Our host left us snacks and drinks, and pretty much freedom to use most of her home. She worked in a hospital and left for work early in the morning, and was asleep by the time we got back. We went days without meeting her, and for a while, thought we would never get to meet her in person. There was this strange feeling we were pretending to be someone else, leading a parallel life. Finally, we caught up with her one early morning before she left for work and got to know her. How could a hotel beat the intimate experience and a chance to be immersed in the local life in a cute home in a random suburb?
Bali Indonesia Adventure with Tom & Priscilla
Bali was a short getaway from the city of Singapore, where we escaped the concrete jungle for a little oasis of greenery on the Indian Ocean. It is one of thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, where it had for years, attracted a low-key group of tourists who came for the surf and unique Balinese culture.
Santa Fe – Artsy City Adventure – Tom and Priscilla
Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico. At 7,198′, it is at a higher altitude than Albuquerque, and is the highest capital city in the US. Recent travel literature on Santa Fe had been pretty negative, with grumbles about the high concentration of retirees from all over that made the city a staid place for the young, and the authentic cultural experience that had since turned into a kitschy tourist destination. But was that true? We were going to find out for ourselves.
We headed straight to the well-known Santa Fe Plaza. Right on one end of the Plaza was the iconic Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The other side of the plaza was the equally iconic Palace of the Governors where Native Americans sat displaying their wares by the sidewalk. Both these places made up the majority of photos that one could find on Santa Fe.
Tom and Priscilla Explore the Mysterious Ghost Ranch
Ghost Ranch was located in Abiquiu, and was owned by the Presbyterian Church who ran it as an education and retreat center. We had chanced upon this obscure place while looking into popular hiking trails in the state. Interestingly, Georgia O’Keefe had lived here, and the beautiful layered rocky canyon had inspired and influenced her art.
There was barely anyone around when we arrived at the ranch, and it appeared mostly deserted, if not abandoned. We found the office to register ourselves, grabbed a map, and started off on the Chimney Rock hiking trail. We soon found ourselves completely alone, the ranch far behind us. The hike was strangely quiet, except for the sound of our footsteps as we put one foot after another, slowly ascending the steep hill. As we trudged forward, a massive cliff face loomed in front of us, and it felt so close as though we could touch it with our hands outstretched. But, in between us was an abyss, made dark and intimidating by the cliffs that closed in around it. Our voices echoed as we hollered. Uncontrollably, the fear of slipping and falling circulated in our minds as we clambered upwards on a ledge. Thankfully, the trail flattened out to a path on the ridge of a hill, providing beautiful views in all directions. The trail ended as the hill dropped off into a vertical cliff, and right across, was the aptly named Chimney Rocks, which jutted out against a backdrop of desert and hills with azure sky.
Day 3 in New Mexico – Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument was about an hour drive away from Santa Fe, and was highly ranked on the list of places to visit in New Mexico. It was an ancient site dating back over 11,000 years, where the Ancestral Pueblo people carved dwellings into the rocky canyon and lived there for about 400 years.
Just ten miles short of Bandelier, signs abound at the town of White Rock to inform visitors that the monument could only be accessed via shuttle bus. We had clearly missed that information while planning our visit. A little confused, we walked into a brand new museum-like visitor center, where the staff informed us of the shuttle schedule and fees to enter the monument. We quickly parked our car and caught the monument-bound bus just before it left. The bus took us through winding mountain roads before ending at another visitor center, which sat at the entrance to the monument. A staff greeted us and gave a quick overview of what we could see and do once inside.
We bought our entry tickets, ventured through the visitor center, and right before exiting into the monument area, we came upon a group of Native Americans performing in their traditional costume. Another group of Native Americans was silently sitting on the floor against the wall, displaying handmade jewelry for sale. Bandelier was certainly tourist-centric.
As we stepped onto the trail, it quickly became apparent that no strenuous hiking was expected. There were families with young children and visitors in flip-flops. The monument appeared to be designed as an outdoor getaway for families.
Tent Rocks was a national monument with unique conical rock formations. We saw pictures online that piqued our curiosity, and right away, we knew we had to hike the trails no matter how tough it was going to be. Tent Rocks was also conveniently located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, making it a good detour as we headed towards Santa Fe.
Slot Canyon at Tent Rocks National Monument
At the Top of Tent Rocks National Monument
We had an amazing afternoon in Pondicherry as our final stop on our voyage South in India. The city has a uniquely European and cosmopolitan feel with an abundance of history tucked in every corner. Take a walk through the town with us as we explore Pondicherry!
Priscilla had found the Eco Village Resort as a pretty well rated place to stay, but at $40 bucks a night, I was let’s just say a bit skeptical… Wow was I wrong! This is true paradise that feels as if you have been dropped onto another planet of beauty and lifestyle.
To find the Eco Village, you turn off the paved highway to a pothole ridden dirt road passing by a few less attractive residences… Then you pass through a large gate to circle drive and gravel parking lot to check in. At this point you still don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into… “Alright let’s try it out” and we parted with our driver for the night and jumped aboard the mini-van fully equipped with a tiger painting.
Bumpty bump on into the resort along a small one lane dirt path lined with palm trees and mini cottages with thatch roofs. We were really into the village now! As we approached our lodge, the “Flex House” as it is named, was magnificent little rustic cottage with an other worldly feel. Pop open the padlock and enter to a spacious room with a boxed-in bed, high cieling that exposed the natural roof, and totally cool translucent walls with flower photos printed on them. Wow.
We only had one night here, so we were off right away to explore the property. Exotic trees and plants fill every view as we walked through the property at sunset. It was amazing, each “house” on the property was unique and had an authentically different experience. Some had outdoor showers, one was built high above the rest to give the ultimate view of the Indian ocean, and all had a feeling of true India. As we explored the area, we found the farm on site with a number of cows and fresh vegetables. The village was developed to be generally self sustaining, minus the beers and a few other modern conveniences.
One of my most vivid memories from this stay were the sounds. Our lodging was located just off the beach from the Indian Ocean and the sound of the waves breaking set the baseline for the atmosphere. Then early in the morning, the temple just outside of the village began with chants that remind you that you are definitely not in Illinois any more. Check out this video for a snippet of sound from the early morning hours.
Driving in India is always an adventure and the first few minutes in the car will surely confirm that you are not in Illinois anymore. Our friends Anusha and Barath had arranged for a driver for us and for good reason, because the Indian style of driving is absolutely best left to the professionals. Once out the city and on the Indian “highway” you will notice that no one drives on their side of the road because there is always a need to pass something or other. Maybe because the roads are shared modes of transit including cars, trucks, busses, cows, dogs and humans. My brother the safety guy would have blown a gasket with the regular “close calls” of near death on the road.
But we made it alive to the first stop on our South Indian tour: Mahabalipuram, The Underwater City. As we got the area there were a number of people that approached the car wanting to give us a personal tour of the area. We felt that it may be a scam, but found one man that agreed to a somewhat reasonable rate so we agreed, parked the car and went for a walk around the area to learn about the Underwater city of Mahabalipuram. The story goes something like this: A King built the great monuments, then the sand covered it long ago, and then a number of years ago it was dug up and is still there today. The sculptures and and structures are quite cool and VERY OLD.
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