John Hancock Observatory, March 2011

My wife and I took a mini vacation to Chicago last weekend. This was our second trip to Chicago, the previous being way back in 2003. Back then, we visited both the (then) Sears Tower (now, Willis Tower) Skydeck and the John Hancock Observatory. While the Skydeck is definitely taller, you simply cannot beat the view from the Hancock Observatory. The John Hancock Center tower is much closer to Lake Michigan (see this map), therefore you get a better mix of lake and city views. This time around, we skipped the Skydeck and opted instead for the more scenic JHO. Here are a few photos from that excursion.


Chicago Hancock Observation Deck North Shore
Chicago Hancock Observation Deck North Shore

Chicago Hancock Observation Deck 900 N Michigan Ave
Chicago Hancock Observation Deck 900 N Michigan Ave

Chicago Hancock Observation Deck South Shore
Chicago Hancock Observation Deck South Shore

My wife and I both agree. Unless you have a compelling reason to say you’ve “been there,” skip the taller Willis Tower Skydeck in favor of spending more time at the John Hancock Observatory. You won’t regret it!

Vacation to San Francisco, October 2010: Muir Woods

We stayed up late the night before, so we did not hit the road until nearly 10 AM. Lori made delicious scrambled eggs with chopped up bits of leftover steak from the night before, so we had plenty of fuel for the (unbeknown to us at the time) long trek ahead.

I had plugged the directions from Google Maps into my Droid phone, as they had looked the most accurate to me the night before. Things went very well until we got to Olema, CA (10 minutes out from our rental home) and the directions told us to turn on to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. I knew from the night before that the route was supposed to stay on Highway 1 all the way down. I ignored the turn, trusting that the navigation would re-route us correctly. More on that later.


Day Seven RaptorOne of many raptors soaring along the coast

Day Seven Muir Beach Overlook LoriLori poses at Muir Beach Overlook


The drive south out of Point Reyes Station was very scenic, and the roads were twisty and fun to drive. It reminded me a lot of the drive we took up the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to Monterey on our honeymoon. Unfortunately, there was a heavy fog rolling in from the ocean, so we did not get to see much of the actual ocean itself along the way.


Day Seven Muir Beach Overlook Spotting StationsMuir Beach Base End Station

Day Seven Muir Beach Overlook Guarding the CoastA sign explaining the purpose of the Base End Stations.


We were fine following the directions right up until we passed the sign for Muir Woods National Monument. We both saw the sign, but trusted the navigation which told us to keep going. I thought there might be a different way in to the park, so we kept going. And we kept going all the way to Sausalito, where the navigation told us our “destination” was the intersection of Turney and Bonita Streets. FAIL.

So then I punched up the directions which were generated by using the GPS co-ordinates given on the official Muir Woods National Monument Web site. Those couldn’t be wrong, could they? Well, we ended up back in Mill Valley, but the nav lead us deeper into a twisty maze of very narrow residential streets until we ended up at our “destination” — someones driveway!

After many “words’ exchanged between us and several miles of twisty, narrow residential roads traversed, we finally emerged back in what appeared to be the down town area of Mill Valley. I stopped a couple of times to get my bearings and compare those to the map (minus any help from the nav). I was then able to plot a route back to where we saw that Muir Woods sign a few hours previous and struck off in that direction.


Day Seven Muir Woods EntranceSign at the entrance to Muir Woods

Day Seven Muir Woods Dwarf Deer

A very tame dwarf deer inside the park


What should have been a 50 minute drive turned into 40 minutes of pleasant, scenic driving followed by a couple hours of being utterly lost. We finally arrived in a parking spot around 1 PM. Fortunately, Lori had packed some leftover apple muffins from the night before so we were able to get some nourishment while we were lost. We spent the next 2 1/2 to 3 hours walking through the woods taking pictures and enjoying our hard-earned prize.

And now, lots of photos of trees!


Day Seven Trees 1The lighting was a bit challenging because it was dark in the woods even though the sun was shining

Day Seven Trees 2
Some fire damaged trees. There were several throughout the park

Day Seven Trees 3
Quite a few trees had fallen across the path, but only the sections blocking the trails had been removed.

Day Seven Trees 4
Rays of sunlight burst between two tall trees.

Day Seven Trees 5
From the bend in Hillside Trail where it doubles back on itself. We had just walked along the right hand side and continued to the left.

Day Seven Trees 6
This photo really shows the contrast between the bright sky and the dark forest floor. A stream ran down the middle of the park with trails on either side and bridges crossing it at several points along the way.


Vacation in San Francisco, October 2010: Point Reyes Station and Sonoma Winery Tour

Lori prepared a breakfast of eggs and bacon which we had purchased at the Palace Market in town the night before. Our vacation rental home was perfectly situated just outside the main street area, so we were able to walk to the market.


Day Six View From The Rental Home
The morning view from the back deck of our rental home in Point Reyes Station, CA


After breakfast we got ready for our trip through Sonoma County, intending to stop at several wineries for tastings and to pick up some bottles of wine to have each night during the rest of our stay.

Our trip started with about an hour drive over scenic country roads, through Novato and towards Viansa Winery, the first stop on our trip. At Viansa, Lori ordered a $5 flight of their standard vintages, and I went for the $10 flight of their reserve wines. I was a big fan of their special reserve Merlot which was only for sale right there at the winery. We ended up purchasing one bottle to have that night with dinner.


Day Six Viansa Winery Garden Statue

Statue in the garden at the Viansa Winery Day Six Viansa Winery Surrounding LandscapeSurrounding landscape at the Viansa Winery


Next, we drove up the road to Gundlach Bundschu winery. Here, we both had the same flight of wines for about $5 each. Lori really liked their Gewurztraminer which was a drier than usual rendition. We ended up purchasing a bottle of that for the next night.


Day Six Gundlach Bundschu Pinzgauer 712Sadly, we didn’t get to ride in the Pinzgauer at Gundlach Bundschu
Day Six Gundlach Bundschu CaveOne of the caves at Gundlach Bundschu
Day Six Classic Gundlach Bundschu BottlesClassic Gundlach Bundschu bottles prove this is one of the oldest wineries in the region.


We then headed up the road a bit further into Kenwood to visit the Kenwood Vinyards Winery. Since there were over 26 wines to choose from, we decided to each get a $10 flight, but share the tastings so we could taste as many as possible. Again, I really liked a couple of the Merlots and Lori liked their Gewurztraminer. We landed in between with a bubbly rose which we decided would make a good celebratory bottle for our last night here.


Day Six Kenwood Vineyard Tasting Room
The Tasting Room at Kenwood Vineyards


After Kenwood, we decided to take a break from tasting and have some lunch so we headed over to the Chateau St. Jean winery which was just a mile or two up the road. Lori had picked this vineyard because it was described as “just like being in France.” Neither of us have been to France (yet) so we couldn’t really tell if they pulled it off, but we did feel as if we had been transported to a different land. We passed through a beautiful garden area and took many photos before heading to the cafe for some lunch. I ordered a turkey sandwich, some cheese and crackers and a bottle of Chardonnay to share. We just relaxed and enjoyed the food and scenery for the next hour or two. We walked around the garden area again before hitting the road back to Point Reyes Station, about an hour and twenty minute drive which wound through Santa Rosa and Petaluma.


Day Six Chateau St Jean Late Afternoon Lunch

Day Six Chateau St Jean Buildings
Lunch and the administration buildings at Chateau St Jean


Back at home base, we took another short walk to the market to get steaks and a big yam to share for dinner. Lori also got some ingredients to make apple muffins using the apples in the yard of the house. We weren’t really hungry yet, so we lounged around the house for a few hours before starting supper. This turned out to be a bad idea, though, because the yam was so big it took way too long to cook. We ended up having our wine and steaks around 8:30 PM. That translated to 10:30 PM Iowa time, so Lori was very tired by then.

After Lori retired for the night, I stayed up a little longer to research the route for our next day’s trip to Muir Woods National Monument before heading to bed myself. The exact location of Muir Woods seemed to be an Internet mystery, as both Google Maps and the official park Web sites gave two different sets of directions. This spelled out bad news for the next day. . .

Vacation in San Francisco, October 2010: Powell and Market Streets, Union Square and Driving to Point Reyes Station

I got a later start this day because I packed everything up at the hotel, checked all our bags with the bellman, then checked us out before hitting the streets around 9:00 AM. I walked around the Powell St. station for a bit before heading away from that area. I tried to wander fairly randomly, weaving through the streets joining Powell, Stockton and Grant Streets. I ended up taking my first photos at the China Town gate at Bush and Grant. I wandered a couple of blocks into China Town before heading back down toward Market Street.


Day Five Chinatown GateChinatown gate at Bush and Grant Streets


I wandered up and down Market Street several times, plus I ventured off on a few streets adjoining Market. I experimented with some street photography techniques I had studied the day before to see if I could capture some SF life. I think I did a better job this time around.


Day Five Market Street Smoke Break

Day Five Union Square Sleeping and StudyingSmoke Break on Market Street; Sleeping and Studying in Union Square


After walking a bit, I realized I had not yet had breakfast. Using my Droid’s Places look-up, I quickly researched a nearby cafe called Honey Honey Cafe & Crepery. I stopped there for a latte and their Breakfast Crepe with a side of potatoes. While it wasn’t quite as good as the Butler and Chef from a few days before, it was a very close second and a very lucky find.


Day Five Honey Honey Breakfast CrepeHoney Honey Cafe Breakfast Crepe


After breakfast, I walked up and down Market Street a few more times, trying to capture some more street photos. After I tired of that, I headed over to Yerba Buena Gardens to grab a drink and rest in the shade until Lori’s conference was over.


Day Five Sleeping on the CornerBeggar and his puppy, both sound asleep on the street corner


After catching the shuttle back to the airport, we had our choice of either a bright yellow VW Beetle or a tan Dodge Charger to rent for the rest of the week. Although the bug was tempting, a quick assessment of how much luggage we had led us to choose the Charger with its larger trunk instead. On our way to Point Reyes Station, there was no toll at the Golden Gate Bridge because we were going north bound. We would, however, have to pay that toll on our way back. After the Golden Gate Bridge, our route wound through some very scenic and windy roads until we arrived at our vacation cottage in Point Reyes Station, a town of 350 people.


Day Five Golden Gate Bridge CrossingLori captured this dashboard shot with my camera
while I was busy driving across the Golden Gate Bridge


We were both very hungry and had spied a restaurant on the way in called The Farm House Restaurant & Bar At Point Reyes Seashore Lodge. We hopped in the car and drove back down to the town of Olema (only about 10 minutes away) to have dinner. I had a 23 ounce draft Lagunitas IPA and Lori had a glass of their house Pinot Grigiot. We both had the Pulled Pork BBQ sandwich with delicious yam fries.

We then headed back to the house and relaxed on the back porch the rest of the afternoon while doing some laundry to get us by the rest of the week. The sky was very clear that night, and there was very little light pollution. I could just make out the Milky Way. I also spotted a few satellite flares overhead and saw a few shooting stars.


Day Five Rental Home DeckThe back deck at our rental home in Point Reyes Station


Vacation in San Francisco, October 2010: SOMA, Embarcadero, Castro, The Haight, and Sushi

I wandered around quite a bit this day. I started out at South Park at The Butler & Chef Bistro. There I ordered a latte and “La Parisienne,” a hearty buckwheat crepe with ham and cheese. This delicious breakfast filled me up so well, I was not hungry until much later that afternoon.


Day Four Butler and Chef BreakfastMy excellent breakfast at The Butler & Chef


After breakfast, I walked down to AT&T Park, took some photos, then started heading up the Embarcadero from the South Beach area towards the Ferry Building Market. On the way, I stopped at Pier 14 just north of the Bay Bridge to take some more photos. When I got to the Ferry Building, I hung around the area for a bit. At that time of day (around 10:30) they were just setting up the outdoor stands.


Day Four Boats near AT&T Park
Day Four Pier 14 PanoBoats near AT&T Park and a stitched panorama of photos from Pier 14


Next, I hopped on the F line streetcar to Fisherman’s Warf. I took that car to the end of the line before hopping off. I walked around the Warf area for a bit, then hopped back on the streetcar heading back to Market and 5th street. I hung around that area for a little while, then hopped back on the streetcar line and took it all the way to the other end of the line, stopping in Castro.

In Castro, I walked back up Market, turning at Noe St. toward Haight St. At Haight St. I started walking uphill, but decided to grab a bus the rest of the way. I took the bus past Haight-Ashbury toward the Golden Gate Park end and got off there. I took a brief stroll through that end of Golden Gate Park before turning around and heading up Haight St.


Day Four Gargoyles between Castro and HaightGargoyles guarding the entrance to a home on Haight Street


Once through Upper Haight and part way through Lower Haight, I turned at Steiner St. heading back toward Market St. I caught the streetcar again at Market and Church, taking that all the way back to 5th St and Market.

By this time it was late afternoon, my legs were completely exhausted from the past several days of walking, and I had skipped lunch. I decided to stop again at the Thirsty Bear to take notes on my photos, eat and have a few beers. I ordered the bocadillos (house made mini-burgers of lamb, pork and beef; hard-boiled egg, caper aioli. with summer squash escabeche) and the empanadas (braised pork & queso fresco, roasted squash romesco & spiced pepitas). For beer, I tried their Full Belly seasonal followed by the Meyer IPA and finishing with a Koslov Stout. While there, I researched street photography techniques hoping to improve my skills for the next day.

Lori had just finished up her conference for the day, so we met back at the room and made plans for dinner. Since I wasn’t super hungry we decided to go out for sushi. A few days earlier I had noticed a sushi place just north of Union Square while walking down Powell street. I researched it online and found it was very highly rated. We took the cable car from the Powell St. Station up the hill to Sutter St.


Day Four Cable Car at Powell Station

Day Four Maru SushiCable car at Powell Station and Maru Sushi


At Maru Sushi I ordered a large hot sake and the Chirashi bowl (sashimi over rice). Lori had the Yummy Yummy roll and we shared an appetizer of crab jalapeno poppers. We then walked back down Powell St. to our hotel where we again crashed for the night.

Vacation in San Francisco, October 2010: Japantown, Chinatown, Coit Tower and Financial District

This was Lori’s first conference day, so she was not able to join me for the touristy stuff. We did get to have coffee and a pastry from a nearby Starbucks together before parting company around 7:45. I then walked up Powell Street to Geary Street to catch the 38 bus line at that corner. I hopped off at Geary St and Laguna St. I was very early, and most of the shops did not open until 11 so I had to walk around for a bit. Japantown isn’t very big so that did not eat up a lot of time, but I got some good photos of the Japantown Peace Plaza Pagoda.


Day Three Japantown Peace PlazaJapantown Peace Plaza Pagoda


To kill some more time and re-fuel for the day, I stopped at O Izakaya Lounge for a Japanese-style breakfast bento. Grilled salmon, scrambled eggs, miso soup, rice, fruit and vegetables were all present.


Day Three O Izakaya LoungeJapanese breakfast at O Izakaya Lounge


By the time I finished breakfast some more shops had started opening up. Soko Hardware was my first stop. It was a regular American hardware store that also carried a lot of Japanese goods. Most of the Japanese products were downstairs, but there were some traditional Japanese woodworking tools upstairs. This place had the best pricing for iron teapots in the area.

Sanko Cooking Supplies was near Soko Hardware. They also had iron teapots, a very large selection of table service, and small appliances such as rice cookers.

I then walked through the Japan Center Mall which has the Peace Pagoda between its two buildings. Most of the shops were still closed, but there were many people hanging around the restaurants and shops which were open. There were enough open ones to keep me busy until the rest opened at 11:00. Kinokuniya Bookstore reminded me of a Barnes and Noble, but it had about 90+ percent Japanese language publications and books. That made me wish I had at least some Japanese reading ability. I also stopped in a store called Sanrio with a ton of pink Hello Kitty merchandise to snap a few pictures on my phone which I sent to Lori.


Day Three Sanrio Hello Kitty OverloadIs this much Hello Kitty in one place even legal?


The Katachi knives store had all sorts of cool Japanese swords ranging in price from $25 to $2500+. They also had knives, statues and figurines. I resisted the temptation to pick up a sword and have it shipped back home.

Asakichi Cast Iron was a tiny shop on the bridge spanning across Webster St. between mall buildings. Here I purchased a small ceramic koi figurine for Lori. They also had Samurai figurines, boxes, tea pots and other figurines all in cast iron.

I left Japantown on the same 38 bus route back to Powell and Geary Streets. From there, I hopped on one of the Powell cable cars taking it up the hill to California Street. I then walked down California turning at Stockton to head into Chinatown. I wandered around a few blocks in Chinatown for the next 45 minutes or so, then decided to grab some lunch at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe. I headed over to Columbus Ave, then up to Mario’s in the North Beach or little Italy area near Washington Square.

Mario’s was packed around 1 PM, but I managed to grab an outside table with one chair. As Lori had warned me, service was very slow. I had to hang out at my table for quite some time before the waitress acknowledged my presence. Once she did, however, the service was fine. I had the meatball panini sandwich (by Lori’s recommendation) with a Hop Head Red beer from Green Flash Brewing Company.


Day Three Marios Sandwich

Day Three Marios BeerSandwich and Beer at Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Cafe


After lunch, I walked through Washington square, then headed uphill to Coit Tower. Since Lori didn’t have much luck capturing the murals inside the tower, I attempted to do a better job with my point and shoot camera. I also paid the $5 admission to go to the top and took photos from each of the windows before heading back down into Chinatown for an afternoon snack.


Day Three Coit Tower View

Day Three Coit Tower MuralA view from the top of Coit Tower,
and one of the mural panels inside at the bottom of the tower.


I wandered through Chinatown a bit more, taking some photos along the way. I then ended up at the AA Bakery where I purchased an egg custard. That I took with me to the Transamerica Pyramid where I found a quiet seat in their Redwood Park to eat it. After the custard was gone, I took a few photos in the park and of the building, then headed over to California Street to catch the cable car back up the hill.


Day Three Transamerica park

Day Three Transamerica PyramidSculpture in Transamerica Redwood Park and the Transamerica Pyramid


I stood on the front corner of the cable car and shot a short video with my camera as it went up the hill on California Street between Kearny St and Grant Ave“. I got off again at Powell and California, then walked down Powell back toward our hotel. I stopped in at The Chieftain to have a couple of beers while waiting for Lori to finish up her conference for the day.



Video shot from the front of a San Francisco cable car


When Lori contacted me, she had made plans for us to go on a double date with one of her co-workers and her husband. We started off at The View at the top of the Marriott Marquis with drinks and appetizers watching the sun set while we talked. Next, we headed over to The Thirsty Bear for some tappas and beers. Finally, we ended the evening at Mel’s Drive-In on Mission Street for some dessert before heading back to the hotel to rest before another big day.