Ode to Road Trips Past: 36 Hours in San Francisco & Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail

Locals might poke fun at the stereotypical Hawaii tourist fantasy of grass skirts, coconut bras, and hula-dancing maidens bearing flower lei at luaus, but really, we’re no different when it comes to the Mainland. The truth is Hawaii folk harbor some pretty quirky fantasies about the Lower 48, too. We obsess over IKEA and Trader Joe’s and how many jars of cookie butter we can smuggle home in our suitcases. We yearn for snow days and wood-burning fireplaces. Fantasize about RVs and cross-country road trips. Also, squirrels and raccoons are the most amazing wildlife ever–and no, I’m not even close to kidding.

When I was a kid, there was this commercial that aired between Underdog and the Flintstones. It featured Kalani, a local boy whose family owned property in Montana. Kalani had his very own babbling brook to splash in and an endless backyard of pine forest for horseback riding. He urged Hawaii kids to sell their parents on the merits of beautiful Ponderosa Pines. Come visit me, Kalani, and we can go to Yellowstone anytime we want! I begged my parents daily to move to Ponderosa Pines. Sure, I was only five, but I knew what I wanted, and what I wanted was that. I was sold on the dream.

Fast forward a few decades, and after one fun/exhausting/expensive-as-heck trip to SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Legoland, and Disneyland in 2011 (don’t get me wrong; I love all things Disney!), I recalled those childhood fantasies of RVs, road trips, and Ponderosa Pines. Thus was born the annual family road trip and the dream to see our nation’s parks. To be sure, our road trips looked a lot different in 2013. There were afternoon naps and potty breaks for our preschooler. Motel beds. Restaurant meals twice a day. Hikes were under 2 miles, and parks were sprinkled in almost as an afterthought between museum visits and city activities. Given the chance to go back though, I wouldn’t change a thing. These baby-steps laid the foundation for our appreciation of the size and grandeur of our nation, and perhaps more significantly, the kids’ love for our National Parks and the outdoors.

Road Trip 2013 began with a 5.5 hour flight to Oakland, CA . Flying with an antsy four-year-old was…well, challenging, but we touched down intact just after 11 pm. It was no less challenging to convince said four-year-old that what his little body perceived as 8 pm Hawaii time was in fact very, very late in California time. Between our excitement and the time change, no one slept much, but the troops rallied to hit the ground running early the next morning. Our first stop: San Francisco!

Day 1:

Part of my road trip/Ponderosa Pines fueled fantasies included hanging off a cable car Doris Day-style, so we parked at the Embarcadero and hurried to the cable car turnaround on Powell and Market. There was already quite a line brewing at 7:30 am, but in no time at all, we boarded a Powell and Hyde car and were off to the races–and I mean that literally, because man, those cable cars move fast! The scaredy cat in me reconsidered the hanging from the rails/certain death plan and settled for outward facing seats instead.

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Bright and early at the cable car turnaround on Powell and Market

Our next stop was Fisherman’s Wharf for a Golden Gate Bay Cruise. Prior to our trip, I’d found a 50% off Groupon for Red and White Fleet tours and purchased 10 am tickets to circle Alcatraz Island and sail under the world-famous bridge. Given another chance, we’d probably tack on a day tour of Alcatraz as well, but we loved our boat ride nonetheless. Free audio tours sharpened our bearings and helped us pinpoint historic San Francisco landmarks. Being on the water turned out to be a fun way to experience San Francisco with young kids.

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Tickets for our GG Bay Cruise
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Red and White Fleet cruise; with a Groupon, the cost was very reasonable
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Time sure flies…I can’t believe they were ever that little!
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We had perfect weather!
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Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge
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Circling Alcatraz; next time, we’ll be sure to book a day tour here

Once back at the wharf, we set about to the important business of filling our bellies. And to those of us with Lower 48 fantasies, nothing says San Francisco like Boudin sourdough bread bowls brimming with steaming clam chowder. To this day, I’m unconvinced there’s anything more satisfying than tearing into piping hot sourdough to sop up ladlefuls of creamy clam chowder.

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Fisherman’s Wharf, 2013
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I still can’t believe we ordered 4 of these! Honestly, 2 would’ve been more than plenty
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There’s nothing for it but to pick it up and eat the whole thing!

Our post-lunch walk along Fisherman’s Wharf from Pier 39 to the Exploratorium measured in at a mile, but with a preschooler in tow, that mile felt more like five. Poor guy; with little sleep, a new time zone, and no nap on the horizon, a mile was a lot to ask. We arrived at the Exploratorium on foot in just over an hour–a little worse for wear but without any major meltdowns.

The Exploratorium offers interactive exhibits and multiple explorations in science, art, and human perception. It’s an eclectic mix, falling somewhere between art gallery and science museum with a dash of Brain Games to boot. All I know is we could’ve easily spent the entire day here once we got to playing. The kids loved the interactive physics games and especially enjoyed the Out Quiet Yourself exhibit, a scientific and meditative exercise in walking as quietly as possible across a gravel path against a sound meter.

After five hours at the Exploratorium, we shifted into low gear (literally) to drive down Lombard Street, aka the Crookedest Street in the World. Just as we hit the top of Lombard, though, I glanced back to find all three kids fast asleep. The hubby and I enjoyed the twisty descent alone, letting the kids catch a few well-earned Zs.

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The kids might’ve fallen asleep, but the hubby and I enjoyed Lombard Street

Even though I’m fairly sure we consumed our body weight in sourdough and clam chowder earlier that morning, we still managed to put away a golden batch of fish and chips at The Codmother Fish and Chips, an authentic joint run by a lovely British woman with a penchant for deep-fried and delicious. It’s been years since I’ve visited the UK, but this stuff was at least as good as real-deal London fare minus the newspaper cone. We wholeheartedly recommend it!

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The Codmother, located just off of Fisherman’s Wharf
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I couldn’t resist posting this one: proof positive that I might’ve packed our itinerary a little too full 😀

Not quite ready to head back to Oakland just yet, we splurged on dinner at Alioto’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. Critic reviews may be mixed, but for us, Alioto’s was the perfect mix of charming ambiance, sunset views, and iconic location. And what’s more iconically Fisherman’s Wharf than steaming bowls of spicy, brothy crab cioppino? Watching the sun sink below the horizon, we savored our seafood, thankful for the experience. A short trek over the Bay Bridge took us back to Days Inn, Oakland for the night.

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Crab cioppino and sunset at Alioto’s–delicious end to a great first day

Day 2:

Complete with an historic carousel and sand slides for cardboard racing, Koret Children’s Quarter in Golden Gate Park turned out to be an unexpected trip highlight for us! To this day, the kids reminisce about the cardboard slides and intricate rope towers they monkeyed around on. Our resident birder (aka the oldest) spotted his first hummingbird, and we loved the novelty of finding Queen Wilhelmina’s Tulip Garden and neighboring Bison Paddock smack-dab in the middle of the city. If these features sound completely incongruous, it’s because they are–with good reason: Golden Gate Park is HUGE. We’re talking multiple museums, windmills, and bison paddock huge. So when we decided to visit onsite California Academy of Sciences for our youngest, whose only road trip request was to see dinosaur fossils, we figured it might take as long as 15-20 minutes to circle the block. Did I mention it was Free Museum Admission Sunday?

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Koret Children’s Quarter, Golden Gate Park
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Hangin’ around
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They slid here for hours; people often leave their cardboard slides for others to enjoy
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Historic carousel in the children’s quarter
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Tulip Garden, Golden Gate Park

I hear you laughing at our delusion.

After two hours navigating gridlock and the assembled hordes, we finally managed to park and snake our way into the 5-city-block-long line. No exaggeration, we couldn’t even see the museum from where we stood! Still, the line moved quickly, and we were grateful to gain (free!) entrance within an hour. Sadly, a docent informed us that the Academy’s paleontology collection had moved and that their only remaining fossil was the T-Rex displayed in the lobby. Lucky for us, long-term focus was not our 4-year-old’s strong suit, and he was soon enamored of the earthquake simulator and indoor rainforest. We would’ve loved to spend more time at CAS, but it was 2 pm, and we had a 3 hour drive to Fort Bragg ahead of us.

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Free Admission Sunday was wonderful, but if you’re pressed for time, it’d be better to visit on a regular day to minimize crowds/traffic
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Thank goodness they had a T Rex–made this little guy so happy!
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Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge; bidding goodbye to SF

We nixed Point Reyes National Seashore from the itinerary for lack of time (though we will be stopping here to backpack this summer!), tracing Highway 1 to the exclusive coastal city of Mendocino instead. It’s not difficult to understand Mendocino’s appeal: here, wind-ravaged cliffs fall precipitously to the tempestuous Pacific; inland, bucolic hills roll gently toward redwood havens. It’s the kind of drop-dead gorgeous that beckons you like Siren song. It’s no wonder we couldn’t resist succumbing to an off-itinerary hike to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse in pursuit of the bewitching Golden Hour.

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Point Cabrillo Light Station
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Fort Bragg coast, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail
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The light was so beautiful at that hour
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The fact that there was no one on the trail made it all the more special

There are few things in life I consider magical, but this Point Cabrillo Lighthouse hike made me believe: golden light low on the horizon, crashing waves against lonely, jagged cliffs, a sweet doe that appeared out of the brush to hold our gaze a long moment. With the lighthouse keeper’s lamp aglow in the distance and wildflowers amid tall grasses as far as the eye could see, it was almost as if we’d stepped into a scene from a Thomas Kinkade painting. The dirt was soft, the hiking was easy, and though we never found the actual trail to the lighthouse, we weren’t lost. We were exactly where I’d always hoped we’d be–out there, chasing the dream. img_20130622_231234img_20130602_192346img_20130602_192414

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The deer stepped out of the brush right after this shot was taken

 

One Perfect Day on Bainbridge Island

I’m a little embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve watched Dr. Derek Shepherd sail into Seattle at sunrise, arms slung over the ferry rail, the weight of the world etched into his jaw. Christina and Meredith each have “their person,” and Grey’s Anatomy is definitely my show! Recreating this iconic Grey’s scene (albeit minus McDreamy, unfortunately) was one of the highlights of my first solo trip to the Emerald City. Fast forward five years, and I’m still enamored of Seattle’s ferries. It was a thrill to experience the ride through the kids’ eyes after a lovely day spent on Bainbridge Island–a day which turned out to be one of our trip favorites!  

Streamliner Diner

We initially intended to hit Bainbridge Island following an overnight camping stint at Dungeness Spit on the Olympic Peninsula. However, plans shifted, and with rainstorms forecast for the rest of the week, we instead found alternate lodging in Federal Way and drove an hour and a half to Bainbridge. Online reviews steered us toward Streamliner Diner for breakfast, and I can happily confirm the fabulous reviews we’d read were well-deserved. A stainless steel diner with funky, retro decor, Streamliner Diner delivers tasty fare and generous portion sizes at moderate prices. Of particular note were the delicious omelettes–sausage and pesto, as well as a caramelized onion, spinach, bacon, brie variety–and homemade pear turmeric muffins. Hash browns were crisped to perfection; the coffee: full-bodied and strong. After two weeks of grab-and-go trail breakfasts, we gorged ourselves silly.

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Sausage and pesto omelette, pear and turmeric muffin
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This little guy put away that entire steak, 2 eggs, hashbrowns, and a biscuit!
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Hashbrown perfection
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Shampooed hair after a week felt like a minor miracle!
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Streamliner Diner, Bainbridge Island

Waterfront Trail

Bainbridge is the kind of town that begs to be explored by foot, and two-mile Waterfront Trail provided the perfect antidote to our gluttony. A scenic and peaceful stroll through the harbor, marina, and surrounding neighborhoods, the Waterfront Trail’s western loop intersects many of Bainbridge’s main attractions. We watched rowers row, picked berries off straggly bushes past their prime, shaded our eyes from the sunlight gleaming across the water. With no set schedule and no reason to hurry, we lingered on the docks, watching kayakers paddle their way across the marina. If Seattle is a city on the pulse, then Bainbridge dallies to a dreamier beat. Strolling through town feels like vacation. Locals smile and chat up day trippers; one local boater recognized us–or more likely, the horrifying amount we’d just consumed at Streamliner Diner. “Walking off that huge breakfast you just ate?” he asked with a wink. Eventually, Waterfront Trail wound inland toward Eagle Harbor Waterfront Park, where we spent the better part of an hour playing American Ninja Warrior on playground equipment. The swings beckoned, and we were hard-pressed to find a toddler having more fun than our teen and pre-teen (and mama!) on those swings that day.

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Blue skies and plenty of sunshine made the Waterfront Trail one of our favorite walks
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Eagle Harbor Waterfront Park swingset

Bainbridge Island Historical Museum

Our walk led us to Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, a converted schoolhouse and island gem dedicated to the preservation of Bainbridge’s rich, diverse history. Don’t let its small size fool you–admission is not free, but the museum is well worth the $10 per family fee. We were lucky to receive a guided tour from our docent, who was both knowledgeable and gifted at bringing history to life. From the history of the Suquamish tribe to the role of sawmills on the island to an award-winning exhibition of the Japanese-American internment during World War II, we found ourselves immersed in the museum’s interactive displays and videos. We were particularly interested to learn the fate of island JA families who were evacuated to internment camps following President Roosevelt’s decree. As an American citizen living in Hawaii, my mother-in-law lost her family, home, and livelihood; her father and sisters were deported while she and her mother were relocated to Tule Lake Camp, a place as foreign to her as Japan. Like other internees, her story is one of struggle, endurance, and triumph–one that I did not fully appreciate until viewing Ansel Adams’s Manzanar collection. Calling it his life’s most important work, Adams set out to capture the internees’ indomitable spirit and determination to thrive in spite of public mistrust and government injustice. Without a doubt, the war was a time of suffering for many Americans; the museum’s commitment to representing diverse perspectives gives us hope that we are not destined to repeat the mistakes of history.

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The Waterfront Trail winds through the museum
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Entrance to the museum
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Exploring an outdoor exhibit
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WW II evacuation decree
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Ansel Adams’s Manzanar Collection

Mora Iced Creamery

How do you describe the little scoop of heaven that is Mora ice cream on a cone? Luscious, creamy, decadent–everything that ice cream should be–and a host of other complexities you didn’t know it could be. Full-flavored yet delicate. Decadent but light. Nuanced and multilayered. It’s no wonder this humble iced creamery has been raking in national awards and praise for years. Their signature MORA (blackberry) cone was simply divine; coconut, espresso mocha, and French vanilla were equally wondrous. I’ve visited Bainbridge multiple times in the past without stopping at this local institution, and believe me, my stomach grieves the loss of those uneaten cones. I would ferry to Bainbridge Island especially for this treat. It’s that good!

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Mora Iced Creamery, Bainbridge Island
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Is there anything better than receiving an ice cream cone?
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French Vanilla meets Blackberry
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MORA (blackberry) signature flavor ice cream–divine!

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

Less than a five-minute trek from the ferry dock, the art museum made for a wonderful conclusion to our walk. Admission and parking are free. The museum houses a range of eclectic works, showcasing artists from the greater Puget Sound area. We especially enjoyed the ‘Heaven on Fire’ exhibit by artist Barbara Earl Thomas, whose profound vessel work and writing collection moved us. For parents who worry that the museum might not interest youngsters, the museum offers a free scavenger hunt written activity that kept our kids engaged. Upon completion of the activity, they received pencils made with denim, reminiscent of the denim used to insulate the museum–a fun and free keepsake to remind them of our time on Bainbridge.

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Bainbridge Island Museum of Art
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Vessel work by Barbara Earl Thomas

Ferry Ride

We felt like rockstars when we pulled into the ferry terminal with literal seconds to spare. WSDOT runs a tight ship, adhering to departure times like clockwork. We parked our car on the bottom level of the ferry and made our way to the upper levels. The kids marveled over the sheer size of the ferry–they couldn’t believe there were manned snack bars, lounge areas, and levels of seating that required minutes of walking to access. The hubby took the kids to the upper deck to enjoy the open air; highlights included a pod of dolphins and ferry goers hand-feeding seagulls (not a sound practice, obviously, but still fun to watch). Seeing Space Needle from the water was a treat, though nothing could beat the majestic views of snow-capped Mount Rainier. My brother once told me that Seattleites lived for July. Riding the ferry into Seattle that warm summer day, I finally understood why.img_20160712_145914img_20160712_152215img_20160712_14580420160712_145826_richtonehdr  

University of Washington

Once back in the hustle and bustle of Seattle, we drove a few minutes to the University of Washington. Our oldest is a high school freshman this year, and the realities of college and his inevitable departure have hit us hard. In my (sad and pathetic) attempt to at least keep him close to family, I encouraged him to “fall in love with” (okay, “tour” might be the technical term here, but it’s all semantics) the UW campus. From apple and cherry tree-adorned walkways to gothic-spired libraries with secret Harry Potter-style reading rooms, UW boasts a huge and beautiful campus. Our son’s radar perked up at the sight of the Husky Union Building, a student center equipped with bowling arcades and X-Box game rooms outfitted with high def flat screens. We peeked into lecture halls, hung out in the Quad, and soaked in the flavor and vibe of the campus. Three hours and several miles of walking later, the oldest confirmed UW firmly in the ‘maybe’ category. I’ll take it!

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University of Washington
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Suzzallo Library, Harry Potter Reading Room

Pink Door

Hidden in historic Post Alley beneath an unsigned namesake pink door, Pink Door is an Italian bistro as renown for its aerial trapeze/burlesque shows as its sumptuous Italian fare. Though perhaps less appropriate for children later in the evening, 6 pm was a perfect time for enjoying an intimate family dinner here in Pike Market. On the menu: linguine alle vongole paired with crusty bread, Penn Cove mussels and clams drenched in briny broth, a decanter of house red to share. Where the dinner menu is elegant and refined, the dining room exudes energy, dynamism. Candelabras, lighted mirrors, and gold-trimmed decor evoke a sense of theatricality just shy of tacky (in a good way!). At once over the top and understatedly casual, everything about Pink Door invites you to linger–and linger we did, indeed. After weeks of hiking, backpacking, and camping, the knowledge that this was our final night of vacation made the splurge bittersweet. Tomorrow, we’d fly home to Hawaii and real life. Tonight, though? An amazing meal, unforgettable sunset, and an espresso nightcap at First and Pike sound like just the way to go.