I’m a planner. And a fear biter, but that’s a post for another day. I book trips months in advance, do extensive research and plan out things I want to see, food I want to eat and bars I want to visit. So when my friend S and I chatted in October about maybe heading to San Francisco for a few days in mid-November I was a bit hesitant. After a few days of back and forth and with her rather difficult work schedule as a personal trainer making it next-to-impossible to book time off, cut to me quasi-hyper ventilating when we decided to book the trip a mere 10 days in advance. The downside for me was no direct flights (S would be meeting up with me after a few days spent in San Diego), and I had vowed to avoid multi-stop flights at all costs after a disastrous experience heading to Vegas a few years ago. S had visited San Francisco many times throughout the years (it was a go-to vacation destination for her family growing up), so she handled the hotel and car rental and already had a ton of favourite restaurants and bars. It turned out that a bunch of my friends and co-workers had been before so I got a lot of great tips and many of them were things S had never done before. I was excited to see what she had to show me (including a day trip to Sonoma) and she was game to do the things on my wish list like rent bikes and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge (more on that later).
My flight left super early on a Saturday morning so I decided instead of booking an airport car like I typically do (which works out to a great deal because I’m usually travelling with 2 or 3 friends and we more or less all live in Toronto’s west end so we head to the airport together), I would brave the cross-town late night bus that goes to the airport. This bus is commonly referred to as the Vomit Comet. I’d taken it once before – when I went to Costa Rica back in 2011 – and it was terrible. One guy was so drunk he passed out and clearly missed his stop and when we pulled into the airport he rolled off his chair as if made boneless by alcohol and slid across the aisle. He only stopped rolling because he slammed into my suitcase. He barely woke up, and I stepped over him to get off the bus. Good times.
I caught the 3:30 a.m. bus and it was, predictably, full of drunk people. Drunk people are THE BEST when you’re one of them. When you’re stone cold sober, sleep deprived and bracing yourself for the airport, they are actual monsters. I’m fairly certain the bus driver wished he were drunk to. A youth (how I refer to anyone under the age of 25) sitting up front kindly offered me his seat. I gratefully accepted, and then had to spend the next 30 minutes listening to him rant about “that bitch Lauren” who stole his hat so he stole her Japanese cigarettes and also he made me fist bump him. Twice. Blessedly, he got off the bus a few stops before the airport, and the bus had mostly cleared out by then. At the airport, my check-in process was relatively quick thanks to my decision to pack carry-on only (something I’d never done before but will definitely do again). Then everything went to shit.
I like to be early so I can go through the impossibly long customs line and security checks without fear of missing my flight. I like to have time to use the bathroom and get a tea (not in that order) and pretend not to stare at any handsome men who appear to be on my flight. Pearson airport is probably the worst airport I’ve ever encountered for lines (with the exception of Charles De Gaulle in Paris but then again everything about Paris makes me ragey because it was kind of the worst when I went in 2009). It’s unfortunate that Pearson is the airport I fly out of mostly (thanks God for Porter but it doesn’t fly to San Fran). Right when I was about to free myself of the long ass and windy ‘pre-line’ before entering the customs line (yes, that’s a thing at Pearson, and remember this was 4:30 in the morning so basically the earliest time you can actually be at the airport for departing flights), I got held back by an airport employee so that they could let people with 6 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. departures pass first. I had a 6:30 a.m. departure time, so I got to watch while about 300 people passed by me. The man behind me (also a 6:30 departure) commented that he felt he was being punished for arriving early. I felt the same, but admitted that if the situation were reversed I would appreciate bypassing later departures to ensure I caught my flight. After about 20 minutes (5 of those with no new 6:00 or 6:15 departure people being shepherded through) I tapped the airport employee on the shoulder and as sweetly as possible suggested that she let some of the 6:30 people pass now because otherwise she would have an angry mob with coffee breath hunting her down with torches fashioned from boarding passes if we all missed our flights because so many people were let ahead of us. This is the closest I’ve ever come to airport rage, but I could feel it brewing. She agreed, and wouldn’t you know it? I made my flight with just 10 minutes to spare. Phew.
Customs was relatively smooth, and I mostly chatted with the family in front of me who were joking that the next time they travelled they would make sure to show up just 45 minutes early for their flight and they would get to skip all the lines and basically be carried onto their plane by singing cartoon Disney birds because that’s just the way things seemed to work at this airport. Right when I was about to go through security I spotted a nervous looking girl about 5 people back in line who chose that moment to confess that her flight was departing at 6 (it was 5:40 by this time). After speaking to the few people between us to ask if they were ok with it, I signalled her to get in front of me. She was super grateful but I had to supress a hard eye roll when, after passing her carry-on through the scanner, she was stopped by an agent who removed 3 GIANT Costco-sized bottles from her backpack – shampoo, conditioner and a body oil or something – and told her she couldn’t bring them. The bottles appeared to have never been opened and while I wanted to be sympathetic because she was so upset, I also thought it seemed impossible that she didn’t know about the liquid limits by now. I had everything I needed in teeny tiny dollhouse sized bottles and was so nervous that certain airlines (I was flying a different airline home) would have different limits that I kept it all under 100mL (some airlines are 150 mL but lately more and more are pushing that to 100). Seriously I was almost delirious with arrogance by the time I was done packing up my various moisturizers and junk into itty bitty bottles. What can I say? I like to stay moist! Also I just prayed that S was bringing toothpaste because I had about enough in my travel-sized tube to last me a day. And that’s if my actual teeth were replaced by Barbie doll teeth.
So Big Bottles of Everything Girl who apparently had NEVER FLOWN BEFORE IN HER LIFE was forced to abandon her lifetime supply of conditioner and run to catch her flight. Luckily, she had thought ahead and was wearing stiletto boots (sarcasm). Which were also very complicated to take off for security, a fact she bemoaned for a good 2 minutes before I jokingly (not joking) offered to take them off FOR HER since, oh yeah, she by this point had about 11 minutes left to catch her plane. After sailing through the security scans (patting myself on the back) the woman in line behind me – my only previous acknowledgement of her had been the half amused/half annoyed “is she for real?” look we gave each other when Big Bottles of Everything Girl had her shoe removal meltdown – shouted “WE MADE IT” into my face and gave me a big hug. Then she told me that her mom (who was standing right behind her) suffered from bladder control issues and, not anticipating the lengthiness of the customs and security process, “didn’t make it” to the next bathroom in time. I quickly put my shoes back on to avoid stepping in someone else’s urine and hurried to my gate. They were just announcing a final boarding call when I arrived, and there was a woman in front of me holding a fussy infant and desperately rummaging through a purse/baby bag combo that I could probably fit my entire life into in search of what I could only hope was enough Xanax for everyone on the flight (or just me, that would’ve been cool). I’m not a nervous flyer (weirdly travel and flying soothes me and I am at my most calm) but I’ve always been curious about the people who medicate before flights. This woman was struggling to hold the baby and search for Narnia or whatever she was looking for in her bag and, noticing me behind her, she wordlessly handed me her baby. I had a uterus, she quickly assessed I appeared too tired to run, and she had a desperate need to locate something in her bag of tricks. And so there I was, holding a complete stranger’s baby. I could’ve had a face made of knives and she would have gladly handed the kid over. That baby, by the way, promptly sneezed into my eye.
I’m not one of those people who scans the seating area pre-flight to document all the potential noise-making babies on a flight, because I worry about karma and I am convinced that God has a wicked sense of humour. One day I might have a kid (see: God’s sense of humour), and I’m certainly not going to stop travelling. And people will regard me with that particular combination of loathing and fear when I plop down next to them with a 6 month old who looks like it might never sleep again. So of course I am seated in front of a row consisting of a mother with two children under the age of 4 and a baby on her lap. The kid behind me made a real go at screaming “MUMMY” at the top of her lungs at two minute intervals for the first bit but either she stopped or I slipped into a coma because by the time we reached cruising altitude it was lights out for me. I can rarely sleep on planes (for some reason I can’t sleep sitting up) but I had no problem this time; in fact, I was fairly certain I’d sleep right through the landing but luckily the baby seated on dad’s lap in front of me cured that by screaming for 17 minutes straight during our descent. Poor thing probably had ear pain. This was the kind of crying where you are legitimately concerned that the baby will choke to death. He cried so hard he vomited. I believe he had yams for breakfast.
So now I had arrived at the Dallas airport for a brief layover. I love the Dallas airport. It’s why I chose it over O’Hare for this layover. I’d had a layover there once before on that previously mentioned trip to Las Vegas. Everyone was super nice and it was clean and well organized. I made friends with a cart driver named Earl, scarfed down a sandwich (okay, two sandwiches) and then I was boarding my flight to San Francisco.
I met up with S at the rental car garage and we made our way into the city. After dropping our bags off at the Cow Hollow Inn (yup, that’s the name of our hotel and it was a gem, believe me) we head out on foot for dinner at Woodhouse Fish Company on Fillmore Street where we split oysters and I had the most ridiculously delicious cheddar cheese crab melt sandwich of life. We made our way back to our hotel, stopping off for wine (you can buy some pretty great wines for shockingly cheap in San Francisco) and snacks to have in the room and to fuel us through some trip planning. Because we’re geniuses and also maybe alcoholics, but the fun kind who actually hate being drunk (hence the snacks) and spend too much money on bourbon.
We woke up bright and early on Sunday so S could hit the gym and I could hit the Starbucks (we are very different people in that way) and made our way to the Mission District for brunch at the Front Porch. S and I are big fans of Southern style restaurants so this place was perfect. Oh, and every day should start with mimosas and eggs Benedict. Later that morning we strolled down to Fisherman’s Wharf and wandered along the waterfront, making our way to bike rental company Blazing Saddles. A co-worker had recommended Blazing Saddles and renting bikes to ride across the waterfront and then over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito. The bike ride was glorious. It was a nice warm day, but as we got closer to the bridge we realized, much to our dismay, that we couldn’t actually see the bridge. Crazy fog had settled in the area and I’m not joking when I say that we were standing about a football field away from the bridge and could not see it. At all. I have a strange phobia about driving on bridges over water but I had blocked that out because of my co-worker’s super enthusiastic endorsement about it being the best touristy thing she’d ever done. So although I was initially gutted about the fog, ultimately I was totally fine with turning around and enjoying the scenic ride back.
After dropping off our bikes we walked back to the Marina district and stopped in at Delarosa for pizza and cocktails. I had the most delicious appetizer of bruschetta with burrata cheese and honey. I loved this place and would definitely go back if I were ever in San Francisco again.
Later that evening S brought me to a bourbon bar (she’s super into bourbon) at Pier 3 called Hard Water. I’m trying really, really hard to get into bourbon. I’ve never tried to like something more, except maybe green tea (blech). This place was great because not only was it a beautiful bar but they had great cocktails for someone like me who needs their liquor hidden amongst fruit juices and tonic water. I tried the mint julep and then the Roffignac Cocktail (rittenhouse rye, lemon, grapefruit, red hembarig syrup and soda water) which was amazing. We snacked on Brussel sprouts with bacon and spicy cheese straws. So it was pretty much heaven.
The next morning we fueled up on bagels from Noah’s and drove out to Sonoma (and yes, I did get nervous riding over the bridge). The cashier at Noah’s had a prominent San Francisco 49ers tattoo on her forearm, promoting this exchange between S and I:
S: There were riots here after the final game.
Me: Oh! I thought San Francisco won.
S: They did.
Me: (glancing at the cashier’s tattoo) Makes sense.
Our first stop in Sonoma was Benziger, a staggeringly pretty winery where we enjoyed a wine tasting (the chardonnay was particularly delicious). Sadly, I could not bring any back home with me because of the aforementioned carry-on baggage only. Sigh. A few of their wines are available in Canada, though, so I am starting to hunt those down.
We then made our way to one of S’s favourite restaurants – the Fremont Diner. I would move to Sonoma just to have easy access to this place. It was bonkers good. We both got burgers and I also ordered a cornbread drenched in honey. I can’t even talk about it, it was that good. Like, I get a tear in my eye and I rarely feel “normal human emotions.” Sitting outside at picnic tables on a beautiful day and eating amazing food – easily one of my favourite parts of our trip. And I could not resist picking up one of their mason jar glasses on our way out. S had mentioned regretting not grabbing a Fremont Diner trucker-style hat on her last visit so she made sure to pick one up.
After the diner we went to Domaine Carneros Winery. This place is spectacular-looking with amazing views of Sonoma and Napa Valley. The grounds are absolutely stunning. We enjoyed a glass of wine on their terrace and then it was time to head back, stopping for a quick photo moment just before the bridge.
Finally the fog had lifted! Also it’s crazy how much the weather varies from minute to minute and even in different parts of the city. When we left San Fran that morning it was gray and chilly. Sonoma was hot and sunny – in the mid-20s. By the bridge it was drizzling and a bit foggy, and 10 minutes later when we had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge it was 20 degrees and beautiful.
Then we stopped in at a place I will forever refer to as “Alcohol Heaven” called the Jug Shop. I thought S might never leave. The staff was super knowledgeable and they had a great selection of wines and liquors. S picked us up some ‘sipping bourbon’. For dinner that night we drove to the Haight neighbourhood and went to Parada 22, a gem of a Puerto Rican/Cuban restaurant that was recommended to me by a co-worker.
The next morning S left for the airport – she was off to meet family in Arizona. I had pre-booked myself into an Alcatraz tour. Tip: I strongly recommended that if you’re interested in the Alcatraz tour you book it online through Alcatraz Cruises at least a week in advance. The night tour is popular but I’m a coward, so I booked myself into the 11:30 a.m. one. When I arrived I observed quite a few people approaching the ticket line only to see the sign announcing that all tours were sold out for the next two days. A quick ferry ride and I was on Alcatraz. I did the jailhouse tour, popped into the Ai Weiwei exhibit (on view through April 2015) and wandered the grounds. It was a nice way to spend a few solo hours.
Afterwards I walked over to the Ferry Building Marketplace to grab some lunch and drool over the gourmet food shops. Taking advantage of the perfect weather, I decided to head back to my hotel on foot, and so made my way up through Chinatown and the North Beach neighbourhood.
Right around the corner from my hotel I popped into Patxi’s (pronounced “puh-cheese”) for dinner because apparently I’m obsessed with pizza. Then I made my way over to California Wine Merchant for a glass (or two) of wine with my solo dining armour: a book. I ended up chatting with a friendly bartender and a few patrons at the bar and it was surprisingly un-awkward! I’m not going to lie: I fell asleep at 9:00 that night. In my defense, I had to be up at 3:15 for another super early flight.
The airport process in San Francisco was significantly smoother than back in Toronto. My (super short) layover for my return leg of the trip was Charlotte, North Carolina. Um guys, they had a piano player in the food court! I was in love. The Charlotte to Toronto flight was made entertaining by the two male high school choir students behind me, heading to Toronto for a singing competition. One commented that he was excited to use Canadian money because it ‘smelled like Maple syrup.” The other complained about having to figure out our weather because ‘celsuis is dumb and everyone should just be like America.’ Yup.
And a short flight later I was back in chilly Toronto with no wine (sadly) but a really kickass fridge magnet.