Aimée-Lee was the official winner of our Skiddoo competition – 2 x return flight tickets to San Francisco for Halloween. We asked her to share with us her experience there and here it is!
1. Was this your first time to the US & San Francisco?
No, I’ve been San Fran before and also New York and Los Angeles. I’ve traveled up the famous Big Sur coastline in California, and spent time hiking magnificent Yosemite. But it was my mum’s first time in America. I had to bring her with me when I found out I’d won the flights because when she was 19 and living in Malaysia (where she was born) she always dreamed of visiting San Fran because all her favourite bands hung out in Haight Ashbury. It’s the only city in the States she wanted to see!
2. How was your flight on United Airlines? What movie did you watch?
I watched Edge of Tomorrow and Godzilla because when I’m on the plane I like to zone out to trashy action films. My mum watched Boyhood though which was one of the best films of 2014 in my opinion.
3. Give us a brief rundown of your itinerary. What did you see?
What didn’t we see!! We packed in everything we could in the week we had. Straight off the plane we ignored jet lag and fuelled up with an enormous breakfast at Crepevine in Inner Sunset, where we were staying. We went to beautiful Golden Gate Park, stopping by the Japanese Zen Garden, fantastic De Young Museum and Academy of Arts and Sciences Then we hopped on a bus to the Golden Gate Bridge and walked across it, stopping in the middle to marvel at the bay and Alcatraz in the distance. By this point it had become clear to my mum we would be doing A LOT of walking over the next week, so we tailed it to Union Square and hit up Macy’s in search for shoes (any excuse to go shopping). Day one was perfectly capped off with incredible Chinese food at the famous House of Nanking – a MUST for anyone travelling to San Fran!!
Was spent behind bars – at Alcatraz Penitentiary – which was a definite highlight of the trip particularly as one of our favourite artists, Ai Weiwei, had a brilliant exhibition there. His work is very politically charged; he is an outspoken activist, critical of the democracy, human rights and censorship particularly in China, so a prison could not have provided a more appropriate setting to experience his work. Alcatraz is an absolutely fascinating place and the audio guide tour provides extensive insight into what life was like for the prisoners. It’s hard not to empathise with them. Jet lag caught up with my mum a little and she even took a sneaky nap in the prison mess hall. I enjoyed imagining Clint Eastwood in there during the filming of Escape From Alcatraz, a favourite childhood movie of mine. My mum and I watched it when we got home to Sydney and it’s amazing to see Alcatraz in pretty much the exact same condition! Once we made our own escape from the island we hightailed it to Chinatown and ate dim sum of course!
We decided to book a tour Napa Valley, visiting vineyards and sampling California’s best wines. You could easily hire a car and do this on your own, but sitting in an air-conditioned luxury minivan with an informative guide/designated driver was far more appealing. Cline Cellars was a favourite, not just because of the delicious wine but moreso because the staff were unpretentious and very friendly, happy to have a yarn about life in the valley – whilst pouring generous tasters of course. We also enjoyed our time at Domaine Chandon avid champagne fans that we are. Once back in San Fran we stopped by the beautiful Presidio Park and checked out the twilight picnic – food trucks and bonfires galore!
I took my mum to the historic Castro neighbourhood, San Fran’s vibrant gay and lesbian culture out in full swing preparing for Halloween festivities. We then made her historic pilgrimage to Haight-Ashbury, where she finally fulfilled her teenage dreams and walked the hippy trail of all her favourite bands. It isn’t the same place it used to be, but it’s still pretty damn cool, littered with a new generation of hippies, hipsters, well-to-do families and total drop-outs alike. I made my own pilgrimage to Amoeba Music, the Mecca of independent music stores, where I may have left behind many American dollars, but came home with a swagful of awesome records. Haight Street is also full of vintage clothes shops and new boutiques to satisfy all tastes, and on the topic of shopping (a bit of a reoccurring theme for us… along with eating…), we’d also recommend Hayes Valley shopping district for great fashion.
We ate our way through the Ferry Building Markets (highly recommended!) and then walked up to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is famous for all its seafood restaurants. We found that whole area a bit of a hellish tourist trap and got out of there as quickly as a vintage tram could carry us. We hiked through Presidio Park in an effort to walk off but a tiny fraction of the inordinate amount of calories consumed over a week in America’s second best eating city (New York takes the prize for me!) and stumbled across the National Cemetery in the process. Presidio is stunning and full of great hiking trails for any nature lover.
4. What did you love most about San Francisco? What did you find was most unique aspect of the city?
The food!!! SO many great restaurants. Our favourites were Delfina in the Mission District for fancy Italian, Lavash in Inner Sunset for incredible Iranian in an intimate, family-run setting (Saeed, one of the owners, made us feel as if we were guests in his home), House of Nanking for delectable dumplings (don’t even order off the menu, just get the owner to bring out his suggestions!), San Tung Chinese also in Inner Sunset for the most mouth watering chicken wings (it took us two tries just to get into the place, so teeming with hip foodies and Chinese families it was!). Gelato fans and lovers of cute retro decor must visit The Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley. My lactose intolerant mother was especially overjoyed with the dairy free range.
We were also very lucky to be in San Fran on the night of the World Series baseball finals, when San Fran’s beloved Giants won. We know as much about baseball as we do about coleopterology (which I just googled to be the study of beetles and weevils), but thoroughly enjoyed setting up camp at a great wine bar called InnerFog, where we got into the spirit and watched the Giants bat their way to the win, amid scores of overjoyed San Franciscans. The owner proved a lovely man who provided an excellent educator of both baseball and the extensive wine menu.
5. Where did you celebrate Halloween. What costume did you and your mum wear?
We scoped out the best street for trick-or-treating viewing and fought our way through swarms of crowds to the famous Belvedere Street in Cole Valley (right next to Haight Ashbury). My lord, nothing could have prepared me for how crazy Americans go for Halloween!! The entire street was shut down to traffic and literally teeming with hundreds of families. Kids and their parents were dressed in the most outrageous and amazing costumes (everything from the devlish and ghoulish to the totally hilarious – such as a mother and father dressed as bacon and eggs, with kids dressed as baked beans). Entire houses were literally transformed into ghost pirate ships, witches dens, spooky forests, graveyards, skeleton dance halls, underwater worlds – it was even more visually incredible than Mardi Gras in Sydney! A part of me was a bit overwhelmed with the excess typical of American consumerism, but then I looked at multiple generations of families sitting on one stoop giving out candy to the neighbourhood kids and decided the effort the families on Belvedere Street go to is really something to be applauded. They’re creating memories their kids will always remember, and coming together to foster a sense of neighbourhood community spirit.
6. Why was this trip so special for you and your mum (You briefly mentioned your mum had not been back since the 70’s)
Travelling with my mum is the best! We have been to India, Laos and Cambodia together, and people always comment on how wonderful it is to find an adult daughter globetrotting with her mother. More people should do this (travel with their parents I mean, not lavish us with compliments… although that is also welcomed). It’s special just for us to be able to spend that time together, exploring, adventuring, wining and dining, but San Fran was a particular treat for my mum because she’s never been to the States before and has wanted to see Haight-Ashbury since she was a 19 year-old hippie! She is still a young groover at heart.
7. Would you travel to the city again? Was your trip long enough? (If not suggest how long is a reasonable time frame to see the city)
This was my second visit to San Fran and I’d definitely go back again and again, to see more of the surrounding areas such as Berkeley but also to spend more time in the National Parklands. California is pretty incredible in terms of the amount of nature activities and stunning coastline – and for me, eating my way through a city like San Fran then hiking through the wilderness for a week afterward is the ticket!
8. Any travel advise/ tips you wanted to share about San Francisco?
Stay in an airbnb rather than a hotel in the city – there are hundreds of fantastic places to choose from, and staying in an actual house encourages you to ‘live like a local’. It means you end up exploring an actual neighborhood, discovering everything from the local grocer to the dingy looking but delicious Chinese bakery to the most fancy of restaurants. Your experience will be all the richer!
Also, make use of San Fran’s extremely efficient public transport network. The first time I visited San Fran I’m now embarrassed to say I zipped around everywhere in Ubers. This time my mum and I were all over the buses, trams and cable cars – they come so frequently and connect everywhere it puts Sydney transport to total shame, and it helps you create a mental map of the city – you begin to understand San Fran’s layout as opposed to just blindly sitting in a taxi and not taking in your surrounds.