24 Almost Perfect Hours In San Francisco

A pair of hairy middle-aged Chia Pets are blasting Wham’s “Careless Whisper” from a new age boom box. A cluster of Latino immigrants is fishing and drinking cans of Tecate just steps away from a male paddleball player in a tight speedo with a Taliban-style beard and his long hair pulled in a Samurai-style bun. A teenager with a map of Bosnia and Herzegovina tattooed on his chest is enjoying a joint, not that anyone cares. A tattooed guy in a San Francisco Giants hat is playing the bongo drums while just up the beach near the rocky foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, a bevy of bronzed men, and one eccentric old lady with bright orange hair stroll the beach in the buff. There is no better place to drink in San Francisco’s delightful eccentricity than Baker Beach on a warm, sunny day.

Muddy Waters once referred to San Francisco in song as “mean old dirty Frisco,” but my experiences with the City by the Bay over the last two decades have always been significantly more positive. I’m always looking for an excuse to visit San Francisco, so when the opportunity arose to tag along with my wife on a business trip, I jumped at the chance. Here’s how I spent 24 hours in the city with two little boys, ages 3 and 5.9 p.m.

At first I was a little bummed when my wife informed me that the company she was visiting booked us into an Embassy Suites in South San Francisco (which bills itself as the birthplace of biotechnology) near the airport, but it turned out to be a good place to explore the city on a budget. They have free parking, a rare treat in these parts, and the place is less than a mile from Grand Avenue, which is filled with a variety of tempting and cheap ethnic restaurants, including Mexican, Thai, Brazilian, Mediterranean, Chinese and Vietnamese. I picked up takeout from a little place called Ben Tre Vietnamese Homestyle Cuisine and we feasted on BBQ Pork spring rolls and a tasty Garlic Noodle BBQ chicken dish ($20 all told) in the bedroom while our boys crashed on the pullout couch in the living room.

8 a.m.

I love how Pacific Standard Time can turn a night owl like me into a morning person literally overnight. I was up at 6 a.m. but felt like I’d slept in, and after a mediocre but free breakfast at the hotel, the boys and I were on the road heading to Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s bucolic 1,000-acre green heaven. The rub with staying in the burbs is having to endure traffic heading into the city; but we made it to the park by 9 a.m. and easily snagged a free place to park right near the park’s century old Japanese Tea Garden.

It was a glorious day, sunny and warm and the park was filled with joggers and Chinese senior citizens taking their morning constitutionals. I paid $7 each to wander in the sumptuous Botanical and Japanese Tea Gardens (the Japanese Garden would have been free if it had been a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, when it’s free from 9-10 a.m) and then let the boys chase after birds and ducks on the walk around Stow Lake. At their urging, we also hit one of the park’s playgrounds but never made it to the carousel, the Buffalo Paddock or any of the parks other attractions because I was too eager to hit the beach.

11 a.m.

We drove through the park and scored another free parking spot just across the street from Ocean Beach, which on this Thursday morning was gloriously empty, save a smattering of sun worshippers and frolicking dogs. James, my 3-year-old, took his shoes off, dug his toes in the sand and did a little happy dance, gleefully running around the beach in circles. With the sun out and the waves crashing in, it was easy to relate.

1:30 p.m.

After spending an hour digging tunnels and making sand castles, my sons immediately crashed as soon as we got back in the car, so I took the opportunity to take a slow, circuitous drive through Richmond, the Presidio, Pacific Heights and Russian Hill en route to North Beach, a historically Italian-American neighborhood that was once the stomping ground of San Francisco’s Beat writers.

North Beach is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the country for strolling, but somehow I’d never been to Molinari Delicatessen, which has been on Columbus Avenue since 1896. It’s a gloriously old-school place – their house-made salami and sausage links hang from the ceiling and the intoxicating aroma of meat and cheese hits you the moment you step through the door. I had a sandwich with prosciutto, Molinari salami, provolone and sun dried tomatoes on fresh focaccia bread that was out of this world.

4:30 p.m.

After a little siesta/work break at the hotel, we picked up my wife and drove to Baker Beach, which has to be one of the most picturesque city beaches in the country. Aside from the unparalleled people watching described above, there is the view of the ocean, the hills in the distance and the Golden Gate Bridge. On an unseasonably warm day, it seemed like the whole city was there, some clothed, some naked, many with picnics, wine and beer.

6:30 p.m.

The view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance from Baker Beach is alluring but the vistas get even better a mile north along the Presidio Coastal Trail.

7:30 p.m.

Even after taking walks on the beach and on the Presidio Coastal Trail, I still struggled to finish the massive, delicious grilled fish burrito ($7.95) at Nick’s Crispy Tacos, which is located inside a lively bar called Rouge SF that has $4 pints during happy hour.

9:00 p.m.

We worked off our dinners with a long walk through North Beach, which was alive with panhandlers, nice looking people dining al fresco and lots of motorists circling the neighborhood looking for elusive parking spots. (It took me a half hour to find a spot myself.) And when it was time to eat again, we repaired to Gelateria Naia, a gelato place on Columbus Avenue. I loved the offbeat selection but we thought that the gelato, which has nearly 700 glowing reviews on Yelp was overrated. But if the worst thing you can say about a place is that your artisanal gelato wasn’t creamy enough, and that you have a “Careless Whisper” earworm, you are in a very special place indeed.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Saying ‘No’ To Add-Ons At The Car Rental Counter

I’m a rental car company’s worst customer. I always refuse all the additional insurance coverage options, the pre-paid fuel option and the toll pass. I bring my own GPS and car seats for my little boys, I tend to say, “no thanks” when they tell me I can upgrade for a fee, and I often prepay for my rental cars on Priceline. Usually car rental agents size me up as a cheapskate and quickly hand over the keys to a car, but a gentleman at the Thrifty branch at San Francisco International Airport actually almost managed to sell me something last week. Almost.

He seemed strangely dismayed when I told him I had my own GPS and car seats and didn’t want to pre-pay for my fuel or “upgrade” to an SUV. And then he threw me for a loop asking for proof that I had liability insurance when I told him I wanted to decline coverage because my credit card company would cover it.

“Do you have proof?” he repeated.”What, you mean a photocopy of my insurance coverage?” I asked, confused.

Indeed that was what he wanted, and I told him that in 20 years of renting cars no one had ever asked me for it.

“But this is California,” he protested. “If you get pulled over, you’re going to need proof. You’ll get a ticket.”

I told him I’d take my chances and he moved on to his final sales pitch: a toll pass.

“You’ll need a toll pass,” he insisted.

I actually thought about getting one, but when he told me they cost $9.95 a day or $39.95 per week plus whatever toll charges one accrues, I told him I’d pass.

“But are you going across the Golden Gate Bridge?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” I admitted, “probably.”

“Well,” he said, sounding pleased with himself, “You’ll need the toll pass then because there’s no one there to collect money any more.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but I later looked it up and found out that he was right – sort of. As of late March, cash is not accepted at the iconic bridge, built in 1937, heading into San Francisco (it’s free heading north bound), so you have to call a telephone number (1-877-Bay-toll during bankers hours only, Monday-Saturday) and pay the fee before crossing the bridge. (Those who used the bridge often can buy a digital transponder that deducts money from a prepaid account or credit card.)

I told him I’d take my chances and, after I asked about how to cross the bridge, he handed me a flyer detailing the above procedure. Feeling exhausted from all the sales pitches, I asked him what kind of cars he had available.

“You don’t get a choice,” he said.

The last time I rented from Thrifty was in Costa Rica and that experience was less than positive as well, as they quoted me a price and then doubled it (unstated mandatory insurance) when I got to the counter. I’ve had two strikes with Thrifty in 2013 after numerous positive experiences in the past, but to be fair to them, I think these heavy handed sales tactics are becoming common for all the major car rental companies, as they seek new revenue streams.

Thrifty and some of the other discount chains advertise low prices so to make up for that they have to try to sell you add-ons. And their agents no doubt have goals and incentives to try to up-sell as many clients as possible.

What’s the take away here? First, if you’re visiting San Francisco, be aware of the situation at the Golden Gate Bridge but don’t think you have to necessarily buy a toll pass. With respect to the insurance, it probably is a good idea to travel with a copy of whatever policy you’ll be using. And as for all the other add-ons, GPS, car seats, upgrades, prepaying fuel and the rest, well, buyer beware.

[Photo credit: Birdie Holsclaw on Flickr]

#OnTheRoad On Instagram: Lake Placid, New York

When driving from New York City to Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains, it’s hard not to be struck by how green everything is compared to the urban jungle of Manhattan. And now, this corner of the Adirondacks is promoting another kind of greenness in its quest to earn the title of America’s most environmentally friendly travel destination. This Earth Day and week, I’m exploring this fascinating region, as well as the components of an eco-conscious vacation. It’s not just about hanging up your towels if you don’t want them washed; it’s a whole state of mind. Feel free to follow my #OnTheRoad adventure on Instagram at @GadlingTravel.[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Adventure Safari Brings Easy Way To Give Back

Traveling almost anywhere around the world, we see people in need. Many struggle to survive in endangered areas or in a place where an earthquake, tsunami or another natural disaster has occurred. But those in need can be located at stops along our way in the Caribbean, South America, Europe or some other areas too. In the past, it has been hard not to feel the need to help, but often more difficult to know what we can do with the limited time and resources we bring when traveling. Then we found Pack For A Purpose (PFAP), a non-profit organization that lets us give back in a very meaningful way.

Eleven years ago, during their first trip to Africa, Scott and Rebecca Rothney learned that while they were each limited to 40 pounds of luggage on safari, their airline had an allowance of 100 pounds of checked luggage, plus a 40-pound carry-on.

To make a long story short, the Georgia couple asked themselves, with an attitude typical of their Southern hospitality, “Why not take advantage of that unused weight and bring along supplies that will fulfill some need?” They noted how it wouldn’t cost fliers anything to ship and that they could be doing some good. With this in mind, the two launched Pack For A Purpose.

“In making plans for a second trip, we looked into visiting a school near the lodge we would visit in Botswana,” says Rothney. “We contacted our safari company, Wilderness Safaris, to see if we could determine any specific needs of that school. Armed with that information, we were able to deliver 140 pounds (64 kg) of school supplies, including soccer balls, to the school.”

%Gallery-180487%Building on that experience but making it easy by asking travelers to pack just five pounds (2.27 kg) of various supplies, the idea was to involve everyone who wanted to add value to their trip by participating.

To make it even easier, the destinations travelers might visit are organized on the PFAP website by continent, then by country, resort, lodging or tour. Travelers who are considering a land vacation or going on a cruise that stops in Jamaica, for example, will find 18 different properties listed where supplies can be dropped off.

The idea worked. In the first three years of operation, PFAP has been instrumental in delivering over 17,000 pounds of supplies.

Making even more sense of the PFAP plan, Rothney said “We don’t look at it as ‘charity’. It’s a way of saying ‘thank you’ and showing our appreciation for the wonderful experience we have in these places we visit,” in a telephone interview with Gadling.

Think about that for a minute: can you spare five pounds worth of space in luggage?

Pack For A Purpose
points out that five pounds translates to:

  • 400 Pencils, or
  • 5 deflated soccer balls with an inflation device, or
  • A stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff and 500 bandages.

All are much-needed supplies at a variety of locations around the world.

Check this video with Rebecca Rothney explaining what Pack For A Purpose is all about:

[Images – Pack For A Purpose]

Photo Of The Day: Surfing Near San Francisco

“Sometimes in the morning, when it’s a good surf, I go out there, and I don’t feel like it’s a bad world,” Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis famously said.

Today’s Photo of the Day from Flickr user Jason Rodman captures the essence of that quote. Somewhere north of San Francisco, a lone surfer prepares to enter an ocean devoid of worries and distractions. There aren’t any surf-worthy waves, but if you look hard enough you can glimpse the ripple of one on the horizon. It’s a photo filled with hope and possibility; a photo that evokes the spirit of the sport.Do you have any great travel photos? You now have two options to enter your snapshots into the running for Gadling’s Photo of the Day. Upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool, or mention @GadlingTravel and use hashtag #gadling in the caption or comments for your post on Instagram. Don’t forget to give us a follow too!

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Jason Rodman]