Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sea Lions, Trolleys and Wine- Oh My!

We said good-by to the Mouse and headed for the cooler weather of San Francisco. It was a nice short flight and Ava was fuss-free. We quickly navigated SFO and located our escort to our hotel. Our driver was great as he pointed out some of the historical spots and neighborhoods we would surely explore over the next few days.

We settled into our room (which again looked nicer on the internet- are our standards really that high?) and headed out to explore Ghirardelli Square and grab some dinner.

The walk to the square was nice and even though we had to dress a little warmer than the previous week, we still managed to divulge in a little "milkshake therapy." How can you visit Ghirardelli and not sample the chocolate, right!?

Michael really wanted to take us on a boat tour of the bay he had taken when he had previously visited the city. It seemed like a good idea but once we were out on the water we began to realize we had made a mistake. First, Ava didn't want to sit. She wanted to play. Second, the water, while appearing calm while docked, quickly became rough and choppy- and the wind was relentless. The captain invited Ava into the main cabin to hide from the cold. It was a nice thought but in retrospect we should have taken a pass.

Our first night in the hotel was close to awful. Ava was wired and after finally getting her to sleep (at 9:40!!!)and getting ourselves in bed we heard someone attempting to enter our room. At first we thought we were hearing the neighbors door but we quickly realized that it was in fact our door. And the person on the other side was relentless. Michael yelled at them (thinking it was a drunk with the wrong room) that this room was in fact already occupied and they would need to recheck their room number.

A few minutes later our room phone rang. We quickly answered it in total terror that it would wake the now sleeping beauty. On the other end? The front desk clerk asking us why we were still in the room. According to them, we were supposed to check out today and they had already given our room to someone else. What!? It was a very good thing for the clerk that it was Michael on the phone for he is definitely the most diplomatic of us. After that they gave us some peace - until the garbage compactor that was right under our room started up.

The next morning we set out for the pier to catch the first boat to Alcatraz. It was very foggy on the bay, and it was quite a sight to see The Rock slowly materialize out of the cold mist. The island itself was not very big, but it was still a hike up several switchbacks to reach the cell block at the top. The tour guides go to great trouble to tell you about the gardens of Alcatraz and the volunteer gardeners who tend them, but most of what they were growing looked like weeds and smelled like cat pee. Michael ran ahead to try to beat the other tourists to try to get some empty shots of the cell block, but somehow there were already people there, even though we bought tickets for the "first" tour of the day. By the time he came back down, Ava was a very fussy girl. We soothed her and took a turn through the prison listening to the audio tour. We learned some interesting tidbits, but it was soon time to leave the island and find lunch.

After lunch we decided to trek over to Coit Tower, which is situated on the highest land in the city. It didn't look far - maybe a mile from the pier at the most. Looks are deceiving, and we found that GPS on your phone does not take into account elevation changes. A 15-minute stroll ended up taking over an hour, and it was over some brutal terrain. I always thought that movies set in SF exaggerated the slope of the streets. If anything, they don't show just how severe the grade is. We reached a point where hundreds of stairs were inevitable, and that was when Ava decided to nap. So the two of us each grabbed an end of the stroller and bore her up the stairs, much like royalty being carried in a litter. We ended up hot, tired, out of breath, but faced with magnificent views of the bay once we reached the top. That was when Tam noticed the sign saying take the 11 bus to Coit Tower. "Oh yeah." she said. "We were supposed to take that bus at the pier."

The tower was neat, and thankfully had an elevator to take you to the top. There were nice views of the city, but we didn't linger too long. Our next stop was Chinatown, where we did some shopping (we found two beautiful silk dresses that are going to show up in the Halloween blog post) and stopped to see the chinese fortune cookie plant. Afterwards, we took a cable car back down to the Embarcadero, and Michael even got to hang off the side of it. We stopped in at Pier 39 for a little shopping, a little food, and a carousel ride for Ava. Then it was back to the hotel for another evening of Ava not going to sleep until after 10:00 and all of us having trouble sleeping because of the noise. By then we had also realized that Ava was not going to sleep in her crib - she would only sleep in bed with us, flipping and flopping around for hours before she would finally snuggle in close to one of us.

The next day was an early one as Michael picked up the rental car and we headed out of town across the Bay Bridge (not the Golden Gate) to head for Napa Valley. Our first stop was actually on the way to Napa, and it was the Jelly Belly factory. With huge inflatable Jelly Bellies and all the free samples you cared to try, it was a huge hit with Ava. We passed on the official tour, because we had a full day planned. We drove into Napa and found the Scientopia children's center. It was tucked away in an industrial park, so we were a bit disappointed until we walked inside. It was amazing, and built just for curious little kids like Ava. The staff was great and the variety of activities was huge. Tam and Ava stayed and played while Michael headed for the Oxbow Market and some of the tasting rooms.

After that we visited the Domain Carneros winery, had lunch at the Boon Fly Cafe, and then drove north through the valley. We stopped at the Castello di Amorosa, an imported 15th century Tuscan castle, but did not go in for the tour. We did stop and visit the Sterling vineyards, which are accessible via a cable tram. We were struck by just how much Napa Valley reminded us of our trip through Tuscany a few years ago. Maybe next time we will stay in Napa Valley for a night, but this time we drove back into SF.

The next day we headed out of town again, but this time we went north across the Golden Gate bridge in Monterey to visit Muir Woods and see the giant redwoods. We headed to Muir Beach first. Not part of our plan, but there was no parking to be found at Muir Woods. Of course, Ava fell asleep right before we got there, so Michael grabbed his camera to go explore while she and Tam napped in the car. It was cold and grey out, and the beach was pretty bleak. So we didn't bother to wake Ava - we just went back to Muir Woods and lucked into a great parking spot. The three of us hiked in and finally got to see the redwoods. They are enormous. Far bigger than any tree we had ever seen, and the park was very nice. We got a much better lunch there than we expected, and we headed back towards town to visit the Discovery Bay Center - another place made just for kids. We got there kind of late so we didn't have a whole lot of time to explore, but Ava played for over an hour, pretending to be a frog and then an ant,and picked out a Curious George race car from the gift shop. There was a great view of the bridge from the center, and we headed back across the bridge after some pictures.

Of course, Michael took the wrong exit and we ended up near the Presidio, but some good navigation from Tam brought us back over to Lombard, so we figured we would drive down through the curvy section. We did, and Michael was thankful that the rental was not stick shift with all the crazy angles of the streets. We returned the car and grabbed dinner again at Pier 39, followed by a visit to the sea lions.

Our next day was our last full day in the city, and we started out with the open-top tour bus. We should have started out with that our first day, because we learned about some great places to visit and eat. We hopped off at Golden Gate park, where we strolled past several museums and gardens on our way to the Japanese Tea Garden. Ava had fun climbing on the big circular bridge, and rearranging the park's Feng Shuei by moving a few rocks around. Sorry about your Chi, San Francisco.

We hopped back on the bus for the freezing drive across the Golden Gate and back, as well as to see a few other sights before stopping off to see the "Painted Ladies," a row of ornately painted Victorian houses right across from a lovely park. Apparently one of the houses was supposed to be where the family in the show "Full House" lived. Up close, they looked a bit run-down, but were pretty from a distance. We decided to do something a little different for dinner that night. Instead of heading to the water, we walked a few block into Little Italy and stopped in at the first hole-in-the-wall restaurant we came across. It was called Michelangelo's, and it was the best meal we ate the entire trip. Part of it was the food, and part of it was the fact that Ava slept in Michael's arms through the entire dinner. It was like we had a grown-up dinner all to ourselves, with wine and conversation and everything. Baby girl woke up as we were leaving, so she didn't miss her chance to ride in the cool little shopping baskets they had at Walgreens.

Our flight left VERY early the next morning, so were were awake at 3:30 and out the door getting picked up before 5:00. Ava slept through the shuttle bus stops to pick up more passengers, and what we're pretty sure was either a drug pickup of drop off by our driver. She was a perfect little angel on both the flights, and we made it back home without incident.

It was a fun trip. It was a long trip. It was an exhausting trip. Had we brought along somebody to help with Ava, it would have had lots more relaxation and rest. This was not a trip where we got to unwind. But all in all, we had a great time, and we saw some really cool places and added another snowglobe to Ava's travel collection.

We're Going to Disneyland!

Back in February, Tam and her friend Shantel ran in the Disney Princess half-marathon. In what can only be viewed as scientific proof of the "runners' high" phenomenon, they were brave enough to sign up for a second 13.1 miles with The Mouse. But this time they would run at Disneyland, out west in Anaheim. It started out as Tam and Shantel flying in the day before, running, then flying back home the day after.

But then I asked "how far is San Francisco from Anaheim?" So a three-day quick trip for Tam turned into the Johnson Family Big Vacation for 2011. It became an epic journey that spanned three cities and ten days. It also marked the first big trip that we have taken without bringing along a nanny.

"No problem," we said.

"Ava is big enough now that she's easier to handle," we thought.

"We have her outnumbered," we reasoned.

We will be accepting applications for a travel nanny before our next big trip.

We arrived in Anaheim without any problems - Ava behaved very well on the flights, and even caught a nap to help adjust to the time difference. We checked into the hotel, which ended up looking much better online than in person. The lobby looked great, but the room was a little run down. (non-functioning light fixtures, toilet plumbing "fixed" with a wood screw, etc.) But the location was great - it was less than a 10-minute walk to the entrance to the parks. The Grand Californian Hotel was much nicer, but would have cost about four times as much, so we made do.

The race was Sunday, so we had a full day to enjoy Disneyland beforehand. We grabbed breakfast at the hotel restaurant, which was surprisingly good, and then Ava decided that she wanted a nap before the park. She slept two hours in what would prove to be THE ONLY NAP she took the entire vacation.

We hit the park in the early afternoon, and couldn't help comparing it to Disneyworld, which we are much more familiar with. Disneyland may be the original, but it is much smaller. Maybe 1/5 the size, but with nearly as much crammed into the space. There were some familiar rides (Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, The Haunted Mansion)but there were also some unique to California. Ava was thrilled to be there, grinning and squealing "Mickey! Mickey!"

She had her autograph book in tow, and was ready to visit with some of her friends. Over our three days in the park, she met Chip & Dale (she did not trust them to give back her book), Goofy, Mickey, Minnie, Alice & The Mad Hatter, Pluto, Pooh, Eeyore, Ariel, and her favorite princess of them all - Belle.

After the big race Sunday morning, we headed to California Adventure. While Michael rode California Screamin', Tam and Ava strolled around taking in the sights and sounds. Ava really, really wanted to ride the BIG Mickey ferris wheel, but Tam wasn't so sure. Tam is not a huge fan of heights and that wheel was huge! But in the end, the ride was conquered by us all.

Then we were off to "Ariel's Undersea Adventure"- much more Tam's speed. Ava loved all of the fish but like most of the rides there, it was really, really loud. Tam made the mistake of showing Ava a stuffed Flounder as we exited the ride. We thought for sure we would be heading home with a stuffed fish in tow but eventually Ava gave up the fish in exchange for a red, Swedish one.

Ava had lots of fun in "A Bug's Land"! She rode Flik's Flyers and Heimlich's Chew Chew Train. She seems to prefer the rides that fly through the air- much like her Daddy!

After a few more rides and a fruit smoothie we headed back to Disneyland. Ava wanted to ride the train and play in Toon Town...again. We ended the day a little early because we were all exhausted. We also wanted to stop at the Disney shops and get Ava a special toy for being so awesome! We strolled through several shops before focusing on a Beauty and the Beast playset. Once Ava saw it, she wanted nothing else. She and Michael played "Belle" and "Beast" while we waited for dinner.

Our last day with the Mouse was a bit slower. It was nice taking in the parks over several days and not feeling so rushed to see everything. This was the day Ava would meet her princesses! After waiting in line for what I am sure seemed like FOREVER to Ava but was actually closer to 30 minutes, it was our turn to meet royalty. First up was Ariel. Ava has never really watched The Little Mermaid in its entirety. She has seen parts of it while visitng a friend. Belle has always been her favorite princess as she has seen Beauty and the Beast enough times to quote it- literally. To our surprise, Ava ran to Ariel and jumped in her lap. After hugging her and kissing her she began chatting away with her like they were long, lost friends!

Belle did not receive quite the same reaction. Ava was shy and hesitant with her. Which as most of you know, is very unlike Ava. But after a few moments she warmed up and gave Belle a hug good-bye.

We wrapped up our final night in Anaheim with dinner at The Rainforest Cafe and watching fireworks by our hotel pool. We will miss you Mickey...until February!