Got the Gate on the Golden Gate

As a Bay Area native, I’d like to think I know all the great places to check out in San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay, but the truth is, I’ve lived in Oregon for 25 years now, so my list of favorite spots may be a little outdated. Thus it was fun when I found two “new to me” places in the Bay on a recent trip to visit family. One I knew existed, but had just never checked out, but the other was a complete surprise.

I’ve always wanted to hike in San Francisco’s Lands End. I’ve been near the trail, but have never seen the Sutro Baths up close, nor hiked on the Lands End trail proper. It’s so beautiful, and if you’re there on a fog-free day, the views are some of the best San Francisco has to offer. My sister and I started at the parking lot near the Cliff House. We first walked down to the remains of the Sutro Baths, once a public indoor saltwater swimming pool. Built in 1896, all that remains of the baths today are pools of saltwater and crumbling cement walls. The walls are easy to walk on, you just have to watch your step for rebar and holes. And the location is terrific.

From the Sutro Baths, it’s very easy to pick up the path of the Land’s End hiking trail, a 3 ½ ish mile loop trail, with many sets of stairs, and several offshoots that get you closer to the water, and even to a beach or two. The trail offers outstanding views of the Golden Gate Bridge (if the fog doesn’t hide it that is), as well as bits of three sunken ships at low tide. All three ships crashed in the 1920-1930’s, and sunk just off the coast. Additionally, you can see the remains of the Miles Rock lighthouse, now just a short and squat tower on top of Miles Rock, with a helicopter pad on top. This is a popular trail and it was busy on our Saturday morning visit. There are lots of dogs on leashes as well.

My surprise find of the Bay Area was Oakland’s Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden. My parents and I had taken a picnic lunch to Lake Merritt, where I got to hear details of my parents early days, including a look at the outside of an apartment my father lived in 60 years ago. We walked around parts of the Lake, and checked out the Science Center and the Boating Center, and we also discovered the Bonsai Garden, something I never knew existed (it’s only been open 15 years, so that’s probably why I’d never heard of it).

The free garden is the only all-volunteer bonsai garden in the United States. Nearly 100 bonsai are on display at all times, and another 100 are in reserve. It includes a 1,600 year old tree, given to the US Ambassador to China during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, as well as beautiful garden architecture, like the classical Japanese Mas Imazumi Gate, which is made with joinery woodworking and has no visible glue, nails or screws. The garden is beautiful, and quite peaceful. It’s a great place for a stroll on a beautiful sunny day in Oakland.

I’m sure there are numerous other spots in the San Francisco Bay Area that I know nothing about. I look forward to exploring more of them on future visits.

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Communicating in Any Language

I always try to talk to cab drivers. First off, it’s polite. Secondly, so many of them have fascinating stories to tell. Our cab rides usually occur in Las Vegas (we have to go there on business), where English is the language of choice. Over the years, we’ve heard the abbreviated life stories of drivers from places like Yemen, Somalia, Turkey, Colombia, and countless other far-flung countries.

We briefly discussed Google Translate in last month’s eNews. And lo and behold, just about the time that email hit the interwebs, Nancy and I were putting Google Translate to good use in an Uber. It was during a 2.5-hour ride from Queretaro Airport to Guanajuato in Mexico. Soon after loading our bags into the trunk and hitting the road, our driver surprised us by launching Google Translate and then peppering us with questions. And amazingly, despite the major linguistic barrier, we had a nice “chat.” Although it was a bit slow, we covered all the topics you’d expect: hometowns, family, sports, weather, and more. Freddy has driven for Uber for about two years. He immigrated to Mexico from Cuba seven years ago and has a wife and two children. Freddy hates the cold, prefers Mexican cuisine to Cuban, and his son prefers baseball to soccer. You already know all about us, so I’ll spare our side of the conversation.

Even in a moving car in the dark, it was easy. We used the voice option of the app and everything we said into the phone was repeated in Spanish by the phone. Yes, we really do live in the future. It’s not perfect, as some of the things Freddy said did not translate well into English, and therefore I’d guess the same was true the other way around as well. But it was fun and informative anyway. Google Translate is now part of our bag of essential travel tools.

Ignoring a Gate Check Bag Request – Nancy Learns How to Break the Rules

by Robert Bestor

I am so proud of my wife. She has come such a long way. While she still has work to do, she is no longer quite the rule follower that she used to be. Best of all her progress is something that Travel Essentials just might learn something from.

On our recent Mexico adventure, we ran in to a little trouble with our carry-ons. We were boarding an Aeroméxico flight from Mexico City to Queretaro, and at the top of the boarding ramp, an Aeroméxico employee pulled us aside and said we’d have to gate check our bags, as the plane was going to be “very full.” It seemed pretty arbitrary, as other passengers had bags of similar size, and yet we were the only ones that were stopped. Nevertheless, he wrapped a gate check tag around the handles of each of our Briggs & Riley 21” carry-ons and gave us each a claim receipt.

What to do? We did not want to check our bags. It goes against everything we stand for! On top of that our bags are within Aeroméxico’s carry-on regulations, so we shouldn’t have to check them, right?

Here’s where it gets crazy. While we waited on the ramp to board, my wife, the rule follower, said “I’m just gonna cover this tag up with my hand and walk right on board.” Whoa! What just happened?

So that’s what we did. We held our bags with our hands cleverly covering up those gate check tags and walked right on board and nobody said anything to us – not the baggage handler at the end of the ramp, not the flight attendant who greeted us as we boarded, and not the flight attendant at the back of the plane who was assisting other passengers. After easily fitting both bags into the overhead compartment, we simply sat down and got ready for our short flight. No muss, no fuss and no checked baggage! Nancy may have sweat through her short sleeved top with worry, but that’s what deodorant is for.

So the next time an airline employee tries to make you gate check your bag, you just might consider looking deep inside yourself and finding your inner Nancy Bestor and see if you can get away with not following their arbitrary rules and random enforcement.

He’s A Pinball Wizard – There Has Got to be a Twist

One of my stand out teen memories is playing on a girls’ volleyball team and going out to eat as a group before or after the games. Because if you know me at all, you’ll know I am all about the food and not the competition. One particular time, we went to a pizza parlor. I don’t remember the pizza, but I do remember playing Ms. Pac Man in the back of the restaurant. I also remember a young man who finished playing right before I did. But he didn’t put his initials into the high score column at the end of his game. So I walked to his table to tell him in my most flirtatious yet squeaky 13-year-old voice that he’d forgotten to put in his initials, and he told me, in a deep, and dare I say sexy, musical voice (that I can clearly remember 38 years later), “put in yours.” I swooned my way back to Ms. Pac Man and did just that.

I’m sure you’re wondering how this relates in any way to travel. Fair point. But I did get to play Ms. Pac Man recently, at an arcade bar in Portland, and all the memories came flooding back. There were no men with sexy, musical voices nearby (sorry Bob), but I got to play my favorite video game, and drink a beer at the same time. How fun is that? Quarter World Arcade, on Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, Oregon, is a great place to spend an evening. Bob, our daughter Sarah, her boyfriend Harry, and I played a few buckets of quarters on old video games and classic arcade games too.  We took turns competing in basketball Pop-A-Shot, Ms. Pac Man and Pac Man, and Space Invaders, to name a few. The quarters went just as fast as the beers.

Then, while passing through Las Vegas recently, Bob and I stopped with his sister and her husband at the Pinball Hall of Fame. On the outskirts of the Las Vegas Strip, this 10,000 square foot warehouse space has more than 150 pinball machines, all fully operational and all available to play. Some date from the 1950s, while the “newest” are from the 1990s. They range in price from $.25 to $1 per game. It’s dark inside this gaming hall, but shouldn’t a Pinball Hall of Fame be dark? I played an old wooden baseball arcade game, a similarly old bowling one, and many others too. 

Both Quarter World and the Pinball Hall of Fame seem like they are run by people who enjoy old-fashioned video and arcade games. I don’t guess that either place is making money hand over fist, but in both places, the star of the show is definitely the games. If you’ve got some time on your hands in Portland or Vegas, and enjoy a good video or arcade game, I’d encourage you to check these places out. And if you hear a sexy musical voice playing Ms. Pac Man, please let him know I’m no longer available, so he’ll have to put his own initials into the high score column.

Notes:

Both QuarterWorld and The Pinball Hall of Fame are free to enter, but be prepared to drop some change on the machines.

QuarterWorld is all ages until 8pm, but then after it’s 21 and older.

Walking the Glaciers of Iceland

When the opportunity to hike on a glacier while carrying an ice axe presents itself, I am a definite YES. You see, I think of myself as an adventurous person. Now, I don’t downhill ski (too fast), I don’t scuba dive (because sharks), and I don’t bungee jump, rock climb, or parachute either (too barfy, too hard and too high). But in my mind, I am really adventurous. IMG_5983

So when Bob suggested we take a glacier hiking tour in Iceland, I knew it was right up my alley. It sounded simply like adventurous walking to me, and I am a champion walker. When we arrived at the Sólheimajökull glacier, about 2 ½ hours outside of Reykjavík, the first thing we did was don disaster prevention equipment, including helmets, crampons, and safety harnesses. We also picked out our ice axes. Adventurous, right? We then started our walk to the glacier, where we saw first hand how glaciers form, and sadly how they melt. Side note – the Sólheimajökull glacier is currently melting at about the size of an Olympic swimming pool every year.

We learned why glaciers look blue and how crevasses are formed. We walked on stairs carved out of the ice, IMG_5941and we looked totally bad ass in our helmets, crampons and harnesses, while carrying our ice axes. We never needed our harnesses, except when our guide let us hang (slightly) over the edge of a deep crevasse while she held us with rope tied to our harness. And we never needed our ice axes either, as our guide made sure we stayed on thick and solid enough ice that we were never in danger of falling through. I did use my axe as a walking stick a couple of times, because even with crampons, there were times that the ice was a little slippery, and it was great to have the ice axe to help with balance.

Our tour group was just Bob and me, one other couple, and our sweet Icelandic tour guide. We saw a few groups on the glacier that day, all with 15+ people in their hiking tour. I’m glad ours was small, and that our tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable too.

This was the perfect tour for me. It could have been a little longer, and perhaps a little more adventurous, but it started snowing after we had been on the glacier for about two hours, and one thing I don’t like in my super adventurous life is to be cold, so I think it worked out perfectly.

Notes:

• Our glacier hike tour was booked through Icelandic Mountain Guides. It included stops at two waterfalls and a “secret” hot spring, the Secret Lagoon geothermal pool in Fludir. No food was included on the tour, but we did stop at a Traveler’s Gas Station/Rest Stop/Grocery Store, where we picked up some expensive sandwiches, chips and drinks. Most things in Iceland are expensive though, so we were prepared.

• Our guide did all the driving, and let me tell you, on our way back to Reykjavík, she drove through a significant blizzard, in the dark. I was glad she was the driver, instead of Bob or I.

• A glacier hike is not for everyone. There is a fair amount of rugged hiking involved, and if balance is a challenge, the ice can be a little slippery, even with crampons.

• We were gone a full day, from 8am to 9pm. The cost of the tour was $330 each. 

• There are many other tour options with Icelandic Mountain Guides, and of course, other guide operators as well. One could tour ice caves (but I’m a little claustrophobic), kayak around glaciers (but motion sickness), and even ice climb (which just sounds hard). I’m certain it’s very obvious to you that glacier walking/hiking was just the right speed for this adventurous gal. 

In the Book of Life, The Answers Aren’t in the Back

by Nancy Bestor

If you grew up reading Peanuts comic strips, or watching A Very Charlie Brown Christmas every single holiday season like I did, chuckI’m certain you’d enjoy the delightful Charles M. Schulz Museum, in Santa Rosa, California, just as much as I did.

I watched most of the Peanuts television specials, and clearly remember rooting for Charlie Brown to talk to the little Red Haired Girl, wishing he would get more valentines, wanting Linus to see the Great Pumpkin, and desperately wanting Charlie Brown to kick the football before Lucy pulled it away. Thus, on a visit to my nephew at Sonoma State, I dragged him and one of my daughters to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, because although they vaguely know about Peanuts, I knew that it was something I’m interested in, and let’s be real, it’s all about me.

snoopyThe museum opened 16 years ago in the hometown of Peanuts creator, Charles M. Schulz, and is home to several permanent exhibits including original Peanuts comic strips, other artwork by Schulz, and a recreation of his original studio. Some of the most interesting exhibits include Mr. Schulz’ high school artwork, which easily demonstrated his talent, as well as a bedroom mural, beautifully restored, which he painted in 1951 for his daughter in their Colorado Springs home. The mural features early Peanuts characters, including Snoopy on all fours.

Another great exhibit is a 22-foot high ceramic tile mural, created by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani, made up of 3,588 Peanuts comics. When viewed from a distance, the mural forms the image of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. When you get up close, however, you can read each strip. It is impressive.mural

We took a free 60-minute, docent-led tour that day, which I highly recommend. Our tour guide was able to tell us all sorts of interesting facts about Mr. Schulz, and let us in on some of the secrets behind his characters, many of whom were based on real life, including the little Red Haired Girl (whom Schulz may or may not have pined for). We also learned that in 1968, at the suggestion of a reader, Schulz introduced Franklin Armstrong, an African American character and friend of Charlie Brown.

The Peanuts comic strip ran from 1950 to 2000, with Mr. Schulz writing and illustrating every single strip, on average about seven strips a week. It’s a part of my childhood, kidsand if it’s a part of yours too, I’d suggest a visit to the Charles M. Schulz Museum the next time you’re in the Santa Rosa area.

Notes:

Museum admission is $12, but students, children, and seniors pay a discounted fee.

The museum is not huge, we spent about an hour and a half there, and saw most everything in the building. As mentioned in the story above, docents lead tours on a regular basis during open hours, and I highly recommend taking part in some or all of the tour.

 

Got Trip Delay Insurance? Apparently, We Do!

by Robert Bestor

“Sometimes you’ve just got to suck it up and pay the last minute hotel fee.” That quote is from our August eNews and apparently it’s dead wrong. Well, at least in our case it is.

You may remember (if not, click here) that we recently got stuck overnight in San Francisco. Due to “weather,” we missed our Medford connection by 10 minutes and since it was late, we had a decision to make; sleep on the floor at SFO or book a last minute hotel room that was sure to be over-priced. We chose the latter (since we’re over 50) and forked out $180 for about five hours of fitful sleep on a lumpy bed.

Well, thanks to reader David S. of Los Gatos, CA, we now know that our Chase Visa MileagePlus Club credit card Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 3.50.55 PMwould have reimbursed us up to $500 per ticket. Here is the info from the Chase website under “Trip Delay Reimbursement”:

If your common carrier travel is delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay, you and your family are covered for unreimbursed expenses made with your MileagePlus Club Card, such as meals and lodging expenses, up to $500 per ticket.

500 bucks per ticket!? Heck, we could have booked the Four Seasons.

To get the benefit you must make a claim to Chase within 60 days of the incident. Unfortunately we missed that deadline by about a week.

So do yourself a favor and review your credit card benefits package before your next trip. There might be something in there that you can use. I just did and am now pleasantly aware that our card also provides Baggage Delay Insurance, Lost Luggage Reimbursement, Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Travel Accident Insurance and more, including of course, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver Insurance. That last one I knew about!

Usually the large print giveth and fine print taketh away. Not in this case however. Next time we’ll know, and I’m sure we’ll book ourselves a sweet suite!