Saturday, July 08, 2017

Time for Texas

A few weeks ago, I had the occasion to be in Texas for a day on business. I decided to show up early to give myself a free morning in Houston. What fun!

I arrived at the airport around brunch-ish, so I rented a car and made my way to The Breakfast Klub  It's so popular that they've opened a branch in the airport now, but I wanted to go to the source. It's a small restaurant. You stand in line (no list to put your name on), order at the counter, then take a seat. Before you know it, delicious (and not healthy) food comes piping hot out of the kitchen and onto your table.

The chicken and waffles at Houston's The Breakfast Klub
are not to be trifled with. 

I ordered the chicken and waffles. To be completely honest, I had never had chicken and waffles before. So heavy. So starchy. Not good for you. BUT it was one of their specialties, so if I was going to have it, I may as well have it from a place that's famous for it! And it was heavy. And it was starchy. But OMG. I totally understand why so many people have diabetes now!!! It was sooooo good! I ate more of the chicken than I did of the waffle, mainly because the chicken was so good that I wanted to weep tears of thankfulness. Feeling completely satisfied, I waddled back to the car.

It was a Monday, so most of the big museums were closed. There was one place open, though, that many on the world wide web seemed to think was a quintessential Houston experience - the Rothko Chapel. This unassuming building with its quiet courtyard is nestled in the museum district and holds  14 Rothko murals. It's free, and it appears to be open nearly every day. I found a parking spot on the street and went to check it out.

It's a quiet space, rounded off on the inside, with pews and pillows on the floor for sitting. Light is indirect. Time seems to slow down inside, as the murals quietly vibrate. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed, so I can't share that with you. However, it's a very unique place, and I recommend stopping in for some quiet reflection. 

The Rothko Chapel is the perfect place for quiet reflection.

By this time, my hotel room in The Woodlands was ready, so off I went. I checked into the Westin at The Woodlands there, and it was comfortable and VERY centrally located. I'd never visited The Woodlands before, and I found it fascinating. It's a master-planned community, with clusters of neighborhoods grouped around the city center. The city center features green space, an outdoor mall, several main streets lined with shops, restaurants, and movie theaters, and a man-made waterway and pond dotted with water taxis and kayakers. Though most of my time in The Woodlands was spent on business, I did enjoy the times I was able to get out and walk around, as it's a very walkable community. I did a bit of window shopping, enjoyed some of the outdoor public spaces, and ate in a few of the restaurants before it was time to head back home.

Until next time, Texas!

Sisters in San Francisco (cont.)

Lombard Street
Day 5

On our last full day in the city, we'd planned to hike Land's End for amazing views. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans. That day dawned chilly, windy, and cloudy. Pivoting, we figured we'd start the day by hitting some tourist attractions in the hopes that the sky would clear for an afternoon hike.

Our first stop was Lombard Street, the crookedest street in America. We watched a couple of truck drivers gingerly make their way down it, and we also enjoyed the city view at the top. Then, we headed for San Francisco's painted ladies, down near Alamo Park. We admired the intricate detail work on these beautiful Victorian-style houses while humming the Full House theme song. We also walked around Alamo Park a bit, as there are interesting houses to see on every side.

Laura, Grace, and the painted ladies!

After that, we walked to Golden Gate Park. (There were parts of this walk that were a bit sketchy. That, combined with the poor weather, made me wish we'd taken a cab for this portion of our jaunt.) Once there, and needing to warm up, the park's Conservatory of Flowers beckoned to us. What a great stop! We ducked into this historic landmark, which is the oldest wood-and-glass conservatory in North America. We were transported into a world filled with orchids, cycads, aquatics, and other fantastic plants. We particularly loved the butterfly room, where the delicate creatures fluttered all around us. (One even lighted on Laura's shoe!) This was a great place to slow down, take a load off, and warm up.

Butterfly at the Conservatory

After our visit to the conservatory, the weather was still poor. We sadly decided to bag our Land's End hike and take refuge in the deYoung Museum, which is also located in Golden Gate Park. Once inside, we first visited the cafe for some filling and very reasonably-priced lunch. Then, we lost ourselves in a world of American and contemporary art. They had some very interesting Dalis, and a Modigliani or two. They also had a large gallery where they paired paintings with descriptive poems written by students. Love that exhibit. We also enjoyed their African and Oceanic collections. Though the museum is sizable, it's easily covered in a day or a long afternoon, and there's plenty to keep you occupied! We spent the rest of the afternoon here, then caught a cab back to the hotel.

Dali at the deYoung

We had a special treat planned for dinner. One of my high school friends lives in the area, and she'd agreed to meet up with us! We started out at Barbacco Eno Trattoria for drinks and snacks, then made our way to Wayfare Tavern, where I chose the amazing fried chicken with whipped potatoes and a sparkling glass of brut rose. Lawdhavemercy! The food was delicious, but the company was even better! We chatted and laughed and gabbed and whooped and vented and just had the best time!! I was so glad to reconnect with her!!

After dinner, we blissfully sank into bed.

Day 6

We had plane tickets for early afternoon, so we didn't do much on our last day in town. We found a shipping shop where we mailed our wine back home. We also had a fantastic breakfast at a little spot called Homage, which uses the product of several local farms to offer a small but excellent menu. Then, it was pack-airport-plane-home!

What an amazing city San Francisco is! I can't wait to go back! And I can't wait to go on vacation with my sisters again!!

Sisters in San Francisco (cont.)

Dragon Gate in Chinatown
Day 3

The next morning, we were back at Cafe de la Presse for breakfast. (What can I say? Morning is a tender time. When I find a place I like, I tend to return there!) On this occasion, I had the lovely eggs benedict. (In a twist, I requested that they serve it on a split croissant. Soooo much better than a sad English muffin!) The three of us sat at the bar and thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

Then, it was off to explore Chinatown! We decided on a self-guided tour, and selected this walking tour from National Geographic. What fun! It was still early yet, so nothing was crowded. The tour begins at Dragon Gate, which is conveniently right across the street from the cafe. We browsed curio shops in the area, admired St. Mary's, poked through a kite shop, and gasped at the painted balconies at Waverly Place.

Then, we climbed three narrow flights of stairs into another world, the Tin How Temple. This small space is the oldest Chinese temple in the U.S., and it's fantastic. Bright red paper banners hang from the ceiling. A large shrine dominates the room. I decided to offer a $5 donation. For this sum, the sweet Chinese lady who mans the temple guided me through lighting incense and inquiring about my future. (Her advice to me? If you have a sore spot in your life, "Don't poke at it! Let it be.") She also gave me a packet of lucky tea to take with me. This was a stellar stop, and I'd recommend it to anybody. Unfortunately, they don't allow photos inside, so I can't show you what a beautiful and exotic space it is.

Three goofy sisters in Chinatown!!

We stopped by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company and sampled crisp, warm wafers fresh from the cooker. Then, we picked up hot cups of tea at the Ten Ren Tea Company. We sipped them a block or so down the street at Portsmouth Square. I LOVED our tour of Chinatown and highly recommend spending some time exploring this part of town while in San Francisco. So unique.

After our tour, we were jonesing for some good dim sum. According to the internet, Yank Sing had a stellar reputation. We found it on Stevenson Street, and we were seated after a short wait. The place was PACKED! We got a table in the outdoor section, then selected all kinds of delicacies from the carts that rolled by - soup dumplings (OMG), scallion prawns, Peking duck, potstickers, and more. It was a delight! When we were done, we fairly ROLLED out of the restaurant! I'd give this place four stars for the food, but maybe only 2.5 for the service. The restaurant was very busy, and because we were in the outdoor seating section, the carts didn't come by as frequently. (I think it was pretty easy to forget about us out there.)

Waverly Place, with its lovely painted balconies!

Now, at this point, I begged my sisters to catch a cab with me to Fisherman's Wharf, our next stop. But they wanted to walk, and they were having none of it. I sighed and complied. So we set out on foot. As we made our way to the main tourist drag, we passed by a stairway to Coit Tower, which stood head and shoulders above the city and promised amazing views. On a whim, we decided to climb.

Oh. My. God. So many steps! We hoofed it up about 400 steps to the top. After a morning of walking (in LOAFERS, no less!) and a big lunch, this may not have been the best idea. Whew! BUT we made it! We were rewarded at the top with sweeping views of the city and the bay. Now, once you get to Coit Tower, you can also go up into it. However, there was a loooong line to do so, so we just bagged it. (Back down the 400 steps we went! Lawdhavemercy!)

Cont Tower against a blue, blue sky
At last, we made it to Fisherman's Wharf. I insisted on a quick break on a bench to rest my feet for a moment. That done, we saw the sea lions, browsed the shops, and danced across the musical staircase. A word - we visited Fisherman's Wharf on a Sunday on a holiday weekend. It was a veritable sea of humanity. Don't make the same mistake! We'd wanted to visit Ghirardelli and take the cable car back, but lines were long, and every place we looked was packed. (Plus, after a day of walking and climbing, we were tired.) After checking the area out a bit, we took a cab back to the hotel.

Day 4

Wine country day!! From the beginning, we'd all known we wanted to spend a day in wine country. After much wrangling on how best to accomplish this, we decided to book a private guided tour. Knight Wine Tours had an excellent reputation online, so we called Stan Knight, told him a little bit about us and our trip (what kinds of wine we liked, etc.), worked out a date and a time frame, and called it done.

That morning, we had a light breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Stan picked us up from the Omni at around 10 a.m. in a comfortable SUV. He had provided some literature, and on the 1-hour drive to Napa, we all chatted and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. Though it was still a bit chilly and windy in San Francisco, Napa was balmy, sunny, and in the low 70s. Our first stop was downtown Napa. We checked out the visitors center, talked to some of the tourism professionals there, and browsed the cute shop. Then, Stan took us to the gorgeous Trefethen Winery. This family winery is large and lovely, and the tasting room is in a fully restored building that's more than 100 years old. We admired the courtyard area for a bit (think fountains, arbors, benches, and roses), then went in for our tasting.

Trefethen Winery, with its historic facilities and lovely courtyard

The tasting room is lovely, and Michael, who was helping us, was so knowledgeable and friendly! His family owns the vineyard, and he's been working there his whole life! He was a veritable fount of information, and so charming. We enjoyed our flights, purchased a few bottles, and then Stan collected us for our next stop!

He took us to V Marketplace in Yountville. What a delightful series of shops! We browsed (and bought) artisan jewelry and gourmet chocolates. (The selection of goodies at Kollar Chocolates look like little jewels!) Having satisfied our shopping yen, Stan took us to our next stop - Bell Wine Cellars. Here, he'd arranged for us to have both a tasting and a full tour. We started in the tasting room, where we met winemaker Anthony Bell and saw the big vats that they use to create wine. We learned about the history of the vineyard and sipped some of our first selections. Then, it was off to the vines! Outside, we learned about vine health, soil quality, and companion planting. We also saw some of the machines used to process grapes. (More sipping.) Back in the winery, we marveled at the tall rows of barrels where the wine is aged and discovered the types of wines and grapes that produce the delicious wines they sell here. (Another taste.) We finished up by purchasing a few bottles, including a fantastic port that I've been sipping while eating squares of dark chocolate since I've returned from California. FANTASTIC!

Vines stretch out to the mountains in Napa Valley.

Now, as a rule, we are pretty cheap drunks. By this time, we'd drunk far more (and on fairly empty stomachs) than normal. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being heartily buzzed. But luckily, Stan was already a step ahead of us. Before dropping us off at Bell Wine Cellars, he'd provided us with menus and taken our lunch orders. Once our tour was complete, we arrived to find a lovely lunch set out for us on the terrace of the winery, overlooking the vineyard. What a delight! We'd chosen big, bready gourmet sandwiches (the better to soak up all that alcohol), and they were delicious! Stan joined us for lunch, and we took our time eating, enjoying the yummy food and the beautiful setting!

After this tour, we had one more winery left to see - Goose Cross. We arrived late in the day, but the lovely English gentleman in the tasting area fixed us right up with glasses of rose. He then invited us out onto the positively magical back patio to sip and rest. The vineyard stretched out all around us, and mountains rose around us and the valley. The weather was perfect, with a light breeze. The vineyard's little garden surrounded us. We drank and laughed and talked and sighed and just felt lucky to be alive.

Wine happiness. That's what you see on our faces.
After this stop, Stan offered to take up by one more spot (Oxbow Public Market), but we were so blissed out and drowsy that we opted to head back to the hotel. He drove us there, dropped us off, and after tips and hugs and promises to keep in touch, returned the to valley.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that engaging a private tour guide to plan and drive for the day was cheap. It was a splurge. But, goodness, it was so worth it. We had such a fantastic time, and we didn't have to worry about a single thing. Stan handled everything, and he was a joy to spend the day with. Highly, highly recommended.

More to come . . .

Sisters in San Francisco

As an adult, I've been on a few trips with my extended family - the beach, the lake, etc. These trips are rather involved, complicated affairs, as we have a group of 12 that ranges in age from 3 years old to up in the 70s.

Recently, my two sisters and I convened to plan another one of these complex outings. As we banged our heads against the wall to find a destination, lodging, timing, and activities that would appeal to such a large, varied group, my older sister, Laura, all but whispered, "What if the three of *us* just went somewhere fun, and left everyone else at home?"

Grace and I were silent for one moment of guilt. Then, we hastily agreed. So began our sisters' trip to San Francisco. While both Laura and Grace had visited the city before, I never had, and I. Was. STOKED!! We immediately set about planning, mapping out must-see attractions, dining, and more.

Anguish echoes quietly off the walls
in cell blocks at Alcatraz.

Day 1

When the big day finally arrived, I got to town the earliest, around lunchtime. (Laura wouldn't arrive until that evening, and Grace the next morning.) First things first - I checked into our hotel, the Omni San Francisco. I booked this hotel because it got great reviews on Trip Advisor and also because the location is very central. The lobby is gorgeous, the staff is helpful, the rooms are comfortable (though we did hear quite a bit of street noise), and two on-site restaurants make a quick bite easy. After dropping off my bags, I hopped a car to Fisherman's Wharf.

I'd pre-booked an afternoon ticket to tour Alcatraz! Both of my sisters had visited the storied prison on previous trips, so they weren't interested in seeing it again. I, however, couldn't wait to snoop through the place. As I didn't have much time for lunch, I grabbed some snacks at Pier 33, boarded the ferry, and was off!

The ferry ride both to and from Alcatraz is a lovely experience in itself. You get great views of the city and enjoy the sea air. The ferries from the pier to Alcatraz (and back again) are large boats, and they are frequent. After a 30-minute ride, you arrive on the island. You're ushered toward a park ranger, who provides some general announcements to the group. (It's a good idea at this point to take a quick photo of the ferry schedule for the day. That way, you can be sure you catch the boat back at the most convenient time.)

Alcatraz feels like the island that time forgot.
The island Alcatraz sits on is actually quite lovely, and the former prison, employee housing, and other facilities spread across it. There are lots of gardens, many of which were in full bloom during my visit. The other thing that the island displayed in abundance during my trip were birds - hundreds and hundreds of gulls, cormorants, and other species. It was nesting season, and they owned the place - like a giant rookery! In many ways, Alcatraz is like the island that time forgot. It's largely taken over by flora and wildlife.

I took my time making my way to the spot where you pick up your audio tour. (This ensured that later, as I walked through the tour, I wouldn't be straining to see over the heads of everyone else who arrived on the same boat as me.) There's a quick orientation film that I stopped to view, which provides historical background on the island and is a nice introduction to all you're about to see.

I admired the gardens and views as I ambled to where the audio tour, which routes you through the cell house,  begins. On the tour, you see cells, learn about famous escape attempts, observe the warden's offices, and see where prisoners ate meals and received visitors. It's chilling. The cells are so tiny. It's hard to imagine the whole place chock full of desperate men. The anguish echoes off the walls a bit, and the solitary cells are positively frightening.

After turning in my audio tour guide, I explored more of the island, inducing the warden's house, some of the industrial buildings, the morgue and the bookstore. The parade ground was literally covered with birds. Amazing.

I caught the ferry back, sitting on the open, upper deck to enjoy the ocean for a bit. After I arrived back at the pier, I decided to walk back to the hotel to orient myself and see the city a bit. On the way, I stopped at Bocadillos (a Spanish wine and tapas bar) for a delicious dinner - a lamb burger with a side of Catalan spinach, washed down with a bit of red wine. I completely stumbled over this place, but it was a great choice! I sat at the bar and service was prompt and friendly.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge with my sisters!

Then, it was back to the hotel for a rest! Laura arrived from the airport late that night, and we both slept gratefully.

Day 2

The next morning, we were both hungry! We decided on an indulgent breakfast at Cafe de la Presse, which was only a few blocks from the hotel. Yum! I chose the oeufs en meurette, a decadent concoction of eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and wine sauce. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! It was delicious and very filling! Laura had the spinach, feta and tomato omelette. Laura and I chatted, laughed, and drank our coffees. But this time, Grace was arriving in town. She dropped her bags at the hotel and met us at the restaurant, where we'd ordered her a filling breakfast sandwich to start the day.

I hadn't seen Grace in a while. She lives in Portland, Oregon, so we rarely get to visit. This is going to sound corny, but watching her smiling face come bobbing into the restaurant made me so happy! The three of us were together again, in a fun city! I gave her big hugs and kisses, and tears sprang into my eyes because we were beginning an adventure together.

Once Grace had a chance to eat, we were off on our first exploration. For that first day, we'd decided to bike the Golden Gate Bridge!! We walked down to the piers and found San Francisco Bicycle Rentals, which had gotten great reviews online. We'd pre-booked three reservations. The kindly staff there fixed us right up with bikes and helmets for the day (around $35 per person), and we were off!

It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday. During our ride, we discovered that we were biking the bridge on the very day of its 80th anniversary! So cool! And because we were biking on the weekend, the ocean side of the bridge was reserved for cyclists. This meant we didn't have to dodge walkers and other tourists as we rode.

We happened to be biking the Golden Gate Bridge
on the 80th anniversary of its opening! Cool!

I cannot recommend this experience enough. The bike can be challenging (There were three big hills that we had to stop and walk up along the way.), but it's easily doable for someone in reasonable physical shape. There are lots of places to stop for a rest if you need one (including a great little park station just before you cross the bridge; we bought bottled waters there). And the ride to Sausalito isn't far - about 8 miles. You ride on designated bike paths for most of the journey, so it's pretty safe, too. On a lovely, sunny day, with my sisters with me, it felt like an iconic California experience.

We took our time on the ride, stopping to take goofy selfies and photos of the amazing views. (The Palace of Fine Arts was amazing, and piers/parks on both sides of the bridge give you gorgeous shots of the bridge.) When we got to downtown Sausalito on the other side of the bridge, we found a service that allows you to drop your bike off. For a $10 fee, they'll return it to the shop you rented it from, allowing you to enjoy your day in Sausalito (and your trip on the return ferry) bike-free. Sold!

After taking care of our bikes, we had a lovely late lunch at The Spinnaker, a seafood restaurant situated out on a pier and boasting lovely views through its giant picture windows. We started with a scallop and mussels appetizer, which was delicious. Then, I chose the angel hair pasta with rock shrimp, washed down with a beautiful glass of cabernet and plenty of water. (After the bike ride, we were all starving and thirsty!!)

Amazing views!

Our tummies full, we decided to explore Sausalito a bit. We ambled through the sweet little downtown, poking our noses into shops and people-watching for a bit. We picked up coffees and made our way back to the pier for the ferry to San Francisco. Because we didn't have bikes with us, it was easy to get a quick ferry ticket back to town, so we hopped on one. On the way back, we took amazing photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from the water. A quick walk, and we were back at the hotel, where we gratefully took a load off.

More to come . . .