Sunday, June 05, 2011

Lassen Volcanic National Park

We woke up early this morning to drive to Lassen Volcanic National Park in the north of California. And during the drive up to the National Park we encountered something completely unexpected: snow!
Snow in Lassen Volcanic
Wait, what month is it? Isn't it June? Aren't we in California? Well, yes and yes... What's going on? We prepared for a sunny vacation, so we brought all the wrong clothes. Well, at least we still have each other to keep us warm.
Cold Couples
When I was researching Lassen Volcanic National Park, I had seen that most roads close seasonally because of the snow. But I had assured myself that we didn't need to worry about that, because we would be there in early summer and the snow would be long gone. Apparently, I was very wrong.
Lassen Volcanic Rod Closed
We were able to enter the park, but we couldn't get very far. We did make it to a parking lot with a little toilet house, covered in layers of snow. Of course, there was no plumbing, so any 'donation' you made, went straight into a very deep (and thanks to the cold not smelly) hole. This system was too scary for my mom, she kept imaging creepy crawlers that were about to attack her from the depth, so she didn't make a donation. 
Car and Toilet House
We may not have any nice and warm winter clothes with us, but we sure do have our rain coats (souvenirs from an extremely rainy San Francisco). And they certainly came in handy today, to fight the drizzle but also the cold.
Cold and Wet
This amazing amount of snow kind of ruined our volcanic plans, but feeling like we had time traveled to December was quite interesting indeed. It was surreal and a lot of fun.
Yasu & Lou in their raincoats
I absolutely love snow and winter, but the last time I've seen snow was three years ago in Inuyama, Japan. I've been wishing for snow for three winters, two in Osaka and one in San Francisco... I never even came close. But now that it's almost summer, I finally get my snow! I was so happy I couldn't stop taking pictures! So here are some more from my iPhone:
Lassen Volcanic Day 1 Hipstamatic
Tomorrow, we're going to try to enter the park from the other side and see if we can spot a volcano or two, or perhaps some more snow?!

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Hotwire, blegh

We were supposed to spend the night at a 3 star hotel, booked on Hotwire. Hotwire promises bargain prices and guaranteed quality, they inform us that they have agents that visit hotels to check for quality and also use customer reviews to maintain quality hotels in their database. The catch is that you don't find out the hotel name until after you've paid. Oh, and it's non-refundable. But if you can book it cheaper anywhere else, Hotwire promises to pay you back the difference.

I had seen Hotwire prices pop up on other travel and hotel websites and commercials, so I wanted to give it a try. So I booked our first hotel of the trip through them. I chose a 3-hotel, recommended by about 90% of the previous Hotwire customers.

After I paid I got the hotel name, the Cordova Inn, I checked the hotel out online and obviously was not happy about the reviews, but hoped against hope that it was still somehow that quality 3-star hotel I was promised.

But at least, we got the rooms at a low Hotwire rate, right? Wrong. Booking it on the hotel's own website would have been $3 cheaper. I contacted Hotwire to get them pay back the difference, as they promised, but was told I had to request that in writing and decided it was too cumbersome for that little money, when I still had so much more trip planning to do. I already deeply regretted using Hotwire just this once! Obviously, all the other hotels were not booked there.

And tonight we arrived at the hotel... Oh my... 3 stars? Is it possible to have negative stars? It was a filthy place that homeless people use to rent rooms on a weekly basis. And to make things worse (or better depending on how you think about it) our reserved and prepaid rooms were not available.

Hotwire had been notified about this in the morning and should have arranged new accomodations in the area and contacted us about this all as early as possible. It was past 7 pm and Hotwire had not contacted me at all! What the...

So I called them myself and of course they denied everything. Here we were, with 3 people dependent on my trip planning, on the very first day and we had no place to stay even though we'd already paid for it. I was upset, more than upset. I got angry on the phone, so angry it scared my mom. I did not want anything to do with them anymore, I wanted the money back, now! And I would find a new and better hotel for the night by myself. Finally, after some verbal battling with the combative Hotwire agent, I got our money back.

Conclusion: Hotwire sucks and I will never ever be tempted to use it again. I don't like being negative on my blog, but I hope some of you who read this will learn from my mistake and stay away from Hotwire.

After this debacle we parked ourselves at Applebee's for some calming drinks and delicious food, and while we waited for our food I used my iPhone to get us a better and cheaper hotel for the night.
Wow, what a way to start our road trip. But no worries, like I said, I only used crummy Hotwire this once, so we're good the rest of the trip. Goodnight!

The Jelly Belly Factory

This little pitstop was originally not part of our roadtrip, but we found a very enticing flyer about this Jelly Belly factory when we were picking up our car at Hertz a few days ago. They promised a free factory tour and free jelly beans, and it was on our way, so why not!?

The tour was really fun and we got to see a lot of fun jelly-bean-making-machines, but unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures during the tour itself. But we could take as much pictures as we wanted in the Jelly Belly shop. Also, we got to wear awesome hats, we could sample all flavors of Jelly Beans for free at the sample bar, and as promised we got a free bag of Jelly Beans after the tour.
Of course, that wasn't enough for us, we wanted to buy some more Jelly Beans for ourselves and for people in the Netherlands, Yasu bought some chocolate popcorn in their chocolate shop, and we even found huge bean lollipops in Jelly Belly flavors.
Who doesn't love Jelly Belly? It may be the only American candy I really like, all the others are too sweet for me. And when you have a variety of beans it's fun to guess flavors. There are so many flavors to choose from and the flavors come so close to the real thing. Even the group of disgusting flavors, including Baby Wipes, Barf and Boogers (I wonder if these were inspired by Harry Potter's Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans) came close to reality. I only tried Toothpaste, because I'm a wimp, but Yasu tried Barf and he said it was utterly repulsive...
Even though we're not little kids, we felt like little kids in a candy store, actually being in a candy store. Loved it!

Friday, June 03, 2011

A wine education in Napa Valley

Just about an hour north from San Francisco (by car that is) lies Napa Valley, and its wine country was first on our road trip agenda this morning. Our destination was the beautiful Robert Mondavi Winery for two very interesting tours.
First, we had a Wine Tasting Basics class at 10:00! A bit early, but it was the only time they offered this and we wanted to learn how to read wine labels, how to smell, taste, and describe wine, and to know why wine is swirled. We were lucky we were the only ones to sign up for the class, so it was a private session! 
He taught us how, when and why smell wine, he told us how to judge a wine's age from it's color, and he taught us how to taste wine. We learned to use a kind of air sucking technique, with wine in your mouth, that makes the wine dance on your tongue and brings out so many more of the flavors in the wine. The result always surprised me, and even though you may look and sound weird doing this, I'm convinced this is the best way to enjoy your wine.
It was an enlightening experience. I used to believe I just liked the really sweet white wines, like Moscato,  and was actually dreading tasting dry white and red wines. But I learned how to taste wine, and I really enjoyed the red wines as well. I was finally able to appreciate the fuller and more complex taste of a red wine. I've changed, I think know I like all wine now, even red!

This Wine Tasting Basics was so much fun, even Yasu joined in and really enjoyed himself, and he detests the taste of alcohol (any and all). I really recommend this tour to all wine novices, like us. I learned so much and it's a great way to start a day of tasting wines in Napa, which is probably why they offer this so early.
It's amazing how tipsy you can get after just a few sips that early in the morning, but minutes after our tasting class ended we were scheduled to join a Signature Tour and Tasting (yes another tasting), so there was no time to do something about the tipsiness.

This tour was an in depth winery tour with a very knowledgeable tour guide all over the winery grounds. The tour started with some history about Robert Mondavi and his winery, which sounded quite intriguing, but I had a hard time focusing after my morning wine sipping session. I was very happy to go outside for some fresh air and to visit the baby grapes in the breathtaking vineyard.
This tour was very well organized and we learned all about how these baby grapes finally end up as a bottle of wine. And I was happy to learn that nobody's feet were a part of the grape squashing process. Because it's June, they're not actually making wine right now, they just have uncountable barrels of red and white wine aging in the cellars.
This tour included another educational tasting of wines... yay! This gave us another chance to practice our new skills. And they even gave us a little piece of pizza, to be able to taste how much better red wine is with food, because it gives the tannin something else than the inside of your mouth  to grab on to. 

By the end of the morning I had tasted seven different Mondavi wines (three on the left in the tasting class, and the four on the right after the winery tour). They were all really good, but my favorite red wine will be Cabernet Sauvignon, and even though I feel I can drink any white wine, Moscato will always be my number one!
After the last tasting, we tried taking some more pictures on the beautiful grounds, but Yasu not being used to alcohol, especially not seven different kinds that early in the day, turned into a Dutchie shrinking monster. So we decided it better not to go to other Napa wineries anymore...
Instead we thought it better to get some food into our bodies, and a lot of it, so we went to Black Bear Diner, for a truly awesome lunch with great service.
After a mind-clearing lunch we feel we're up to continue our road trip! Next stop, the Jelly Bean Factory.

San Francisco on wheels

Sightseeing by car is a completely different story than sightseeing on foot and by public transportation. A car gives you the freedom and flexibility to go wherever you want whenever you want, and you get to discover new places you would have otherwise never encountered or thought of seeking out. And of course, this way of traveling is much nicer on your feet.
We had planned to hike the Golden Gate Bridge the day before, but the weather put a stop to that. So to make up for that we started our day on the other side of the bridge in Horseshoe Bay, where we had a little photo shoot with the bridge. It's a very beautiful area across the bridge in Marin County, and it's hard to believe it's so close to the city.
After we crossed the bridge by car and paid the high toll, we made our way to Japantown for a yakiniku (grilled meat) lunch at Osakaya. Ever since Yasu and I first had that lunch last year and posted a picture on facebook, my mom had wanted to eat that. We like Osakaya's yakiniku so much that it's somehow impossible for us to have a meal at any other restaurant in Japantown. Somehow the memory of their yakiniku keeps pulling us back into their restaurant. We even had Yasu's birthday party here and tried to convince as many people as we could to try the yakiniku. I'm happy to report that the Dutchies enjoyed it too.
After lunch, we drove to one of my favorite places from our last road trip in 2006: Twin Peaks. I hadn't been there since and I was so happy to be back. I really wanted to show Yasu the amazing view from the second-highest point in San Francisco, right in the center of the city. We were not dissapointed.
You can see far and wide from Twin Peaks and there is so much to see that it's hard to leave. Having lived here for almost a year now, I can now recognize streets and buildings. I was amazed to see how long Market Street really is and I could see all the way to the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero from there.
San Francisco is huge and there's a lot of city here, but there's also lots of nature, especially compared to big Japanese cities. And what I love most is that there are so many beaches near and in the city. Yesterday, we made a quick stop at Aquatic Park near Fisherman's Wharf. Today, we paid Ocean Beach a visit. It's a long beach (5 miles / 8 km) that stretches all along the west side of San Francisco, and it's so pleasant and peaceful there. We should come back here someday when it's hot (if that ever happens in this city). 
Something else we'd done back in 2006 and wanted Yasu to experience is driving down crooked Lombard street. Many people think it's the crookedest street in the city, but that honor belongs to less well-known Vermont street. Last time I drove down Lombard Street and making the turn from Hyde into Lombard was quite scary, because I really hate steep streets. I wanted to go back but I couldn't because there was a line of cars behind me ready to follow me down that crooked and beautiful street. So I powered through and it wasn't that scary after all, because of all those turns. This time Guido drove Lombard Street and I just got to admire the pretty houses and flowers.
Our last sightseeing stop by car was Coit Tower. This was new for us Dutchies, Yasu already visited and climbed the tower last year during a school trip. We didn't climb the tower because we were running out of time, Yasu had to get back to school on time for his evening class. But we did enjoy another beautiful view from the top of the hill and I finally got to take some decent pictures of this small tower.
Then we discovered the downside of driving in San Francisco. It's when you're in a hurry to get someone to a school that's located near busy Market Street. Traffic there is just terrible especially in the late afternoon. Yasu would have been at school and back a dozen times by BART (that zooms by underground), but by car... To make a long story short, Yasu was late for the first time ever. And while Yasu was being studious at school we were having dinner at IHOP.
Tomorrow we go on our first (mini) road trip, up north in California. So it's time to pack our suitcases! 

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Dutch tourists

After lunch we had some time to kill before we could pick up our rental car, so we took a bus back to Fisherman's Wharf. It's the most touristy place in the city, which is probably why we enjoy hanging out there so much. Playing tourist, even in the city you live, gives you this perpetual feeling of vacation and who doesn't love vacation? Of course, the Dutchies are really on vacation and don't need to pretend they're tourists, they just are!
We enjoyed a little pit stop at Ghirardelli Square to get some free samples of chocolate in the Ghirardelli store. I'm not a big fan of Ghirardelli chocolate, it kind of tastes like Belgian chocolate, which is too sweet for me. But my sweet mother loves sweet Belgian chocolate and therefore also liked Ghirardelli. She's definitely taking some of their chocolate squares home with her.

We also got some real cupcakes (as opposed to my amateur cupcakes) from Kara's, because I can't let my mom leave the country without ever tasting a professional cupcake. Mine are made from mix boxes and way, way, way too sweet, Kara's cupcakes are just right. But apparently to my mom they all taste good, even mine :).
After our chocolate overdose, we resumed our touristy ways and my mom made some slightly intimidating new friends:
We already rode the famous cable car yesterday, but San Francisco has more special trains full of tourists, of course I'm talking about the F streetcars, that go all over the Embarcadero and Market. I always love taking that train (yeah I wasn't kidding when I said I love to play tourist) and of course I had to take the Dutchies on one too, especially since we still had valid Muni transfers.

This time we got to ride an Australian train with benches facing each other (like on Japanese subways) and with separate compartments, fun! We got off at the Ferry Building for one more picture with us acting as Dutch tourists, before we picked up our wheels at Hertz. Hello, Ford Escape! We're very happy to meet you :).
After fighting our way through San Francisco traffic (the only downside of driving) we picked Yasu up from school and found ourselves a Red Lobster restaurant (with the help of our trusty iPhones) which we could have never visited using public transportation. Why? Because Guido was craving crab (affordable, not the expensive ones on Fisherman Wharf) and because we really wanted exploit the fact that we had our own wheels now! The Dutchies treated us to this delicious dinner:
We have one more day of sightseeing in San Francisco (by car this time) ahead of us, before we head out on our first road trip on Friday!

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Palace of Fine Arts

This morning we paid Yasu's school a little visit. We had to be quick because Yasu had a very early morning class, so we totally forgot to take pictures, but the Dutchies got to see all the important spots in the school, including the cubicle where he works part time.

While we were sneaking through the school, the skies outside burst open like never before. Sadly, that rainstorm put an end to our plan to hike across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, but we quikcly came up with a new plan. And so we hopped on a bus to the Palace of Fine Arts.
We didn't learn much about the history of this beautiful building, but we sure did enjoy walking in the park surrounding the Palace, taking pictures and admiring the beautiful neighborhood it's located in. 
We were very happy we seemed to have left the rain downtown, and we kind of contemplated our bridge hike again. But our feet were killing us, so we quickly decided to find a place to lunch and more importantly sit down. Tonight we're going to pick up our rental car so we'll just drive across the Golden Gate Bridge again.

Walking the Wharves

After walking in that dreadful rain all morning we wanted to be inside for a bit. Guido and I bought some new shoes, because our old ones had holes in the soles and our feet were soaked, and my mom bought some salt water taffy. We've never seen taffy in real life before, let alone tasted it, but all the barrels with all the pretty candy were very enticing, so a lot of taffy was bought. Then we tried some and decided we didn't like taffy much at all. So the bucket of taffy is going back to the Netherlands as one of many souvenirs.

When you're at Fishermans Wharf, clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl is kind of a must. So we headed over to Boudin's Bakery, the most famous sourdough bread bakery in town, to share some clam chowder in one of their sourdough bowls. The bread was very sour, which surprised me a bit, because I've eaten a lot of sourdough this last year, but none as sour as Boudin's. We all liked the chowder, but my mom didn't like the sour bread. The sourdough bread bowl I had last year wasn't sour at all, it just tasted like french bread. Just, so you know :).
And after lunch my mother finally got to see the sea lions at Pier 39. She had wanted to see them last time we were here, but for some reason we didn't or we forgot. And we were so close last time, we didn't even realize it. These sea lions don't do much, yet they're fascinating to watch. They sleep or rest all piled on top of each other, even though there is so much more space on the other floating docks.  Others are climbing on top of the pile of sleeping sea lions trying to find themselves a spot too, and get loudly barked and sneezed at. Some more active sea lions are diving and swimming or are (play) fighting and pushing each other of the floating docks. We could have watched them forever, we might visit them again tomorrow.
The one bread bowl of soup, didn't fill up the Dutchies' stomachs completely so they bought themselves some yummy fried fish at Pier 39, while waiting for Yasu to finally join our sightseeing and rain-coat wearing party.
Next on the menu was a chocolate factory tour and tasting at TCHO. We're very happy that the tour was free, because it really wasn't worth it. We spent about an hour watching a PowerPoint presentation and trying to listen to the presenter. But it was almost impossible to understand him, because he didn't speak loud enough and when you did hear him he spoke way to monotonously and quickly. He wasn't very good at keeping his audience's attention. So we didn't really learn much, the factory itself wasn't in production that day and we were only in the factory for a few minutes, and didn't see anything too interesting. We tasted a few pieces of chocolate, but you can taste that for free in the shop too, so I wouldn't really recommend this tour, or rather presentation. We did however enjoy taking pictures with the hair nets we wore those few moments we were in the factory.
Our feet were getting pretty tired from all the walking and the Dutchies were feeling the jet lag. We were trying to find a nice place to have drink and sit, but we were walking down Market Street and nothing really suited our European desires. We finally opted for a frozen yogurt shop, because I've been wanting to try frozen yogurt for a very long time and because the Dutchies were really fed up with walking. I actually really liked the frozen yogurt's tartness, such a refreshing change from all the overly sweet ice cream they have here in the States.
After our little frozen yogurt dessert came dinner, a little backwards I know, but it's vacation so anything goes. We took the Dutchies to our favorite Japanese restaurant, Tokyo Express on Fourth and Mission. The food is very authentic, except for the American sushi rolls of course, and not too expensive. And they serve mugicha (barley tea)! Something I can't get enough of, and it's free!
Wow, day one of sightseeing is over, and our feet are killing us already! So naturally we're very happy about picking up a rental car tomorrow evening, but first we'll have to endure one more day of sightseeing on foot.