SFO to LAS with hearts left behind

Our second hotel was a pleasant boutique hotel with otherwise great staff (see yesterday) who recommended a breakfast location not too far away. However they weren’t serving breakfast any more so we took ourselves quite by chance to a San Francisco classic diner Sear’s Fine Food which was great. Lots of antique paraphernalia and photographs and a splendid old world atmosphere and great bacon, eggs and pancakes. When we left it we went back to the building where the car was garaged and noted a fabulous art deco exterior on 450 Sutter. The lobby was amazing all marble, gilt and mirrors. Don’t miss it if you’re ever in that area.

Union SquareWe wandered around Union Square taking in its historical significance as a place of meetings and protests, admired the Dewey Monument statue of the Goddess of Victory high above us and thought idly about taking a cable car ride – one of the musts in San Francisco which we had failed to do in our previous days here. We had seen the lengthy queues down by Pier 42 and in Market Street and thought we’d have to wait for ever.


But at the stop in Union Square we managed to board the second car that pulled in. It is quite an experience and one we’re glad we did. As transport it is comfortable enough and a historic reminder of the early days of the city. It gives you the clearest impression of the vertiginous nature of many San Francisco streets and the utter chaos that seems to await the cable car after cresting every hill. The guards are also characters determined to maintain the sense of fun in taking this iconic ride – cable cars are not included in our three day travel card.

Cable car stop  Cable car RideCable car chaos  Hoppin off

By then it was time to make our way back to the hotel pick up our luggage and make for the airport. We had a rather slowly served lunch at the normally excellent Blue Mermaid and had to get a taxi back to Union Square. The driver told us he’d tried having a London taxi as a tourist attraction in The City but it couldn’t manage the hills and was knackered in two years.

I failed to take the correct exit on the way to the airport and SatNav again took us on a fine tour of the suburbs before delivering us to the car rental return area. San Francisco airport was great – the Air Train ride from the car rental centre to the international terminal was easy and the terminal had some very interesting displays on the history and development of San Francisco. We boarded quickly and easily with our “pre” status accorded by Virgin America in Boston and made the short trip to Las Vegas a destination included in our trip not because of any burning desire to visit Sin City but because it was convenient for the drive to the Grand Canyon, the next real item on the agenda.

We got a cab to the Hard Rock Hotel a recommendation from seasoned Vegas visitors as being a little bit off the strip and preferable to many. I’m no prude and have travelled extensively but I have to confess to a feeling of shock on walking in to the reception area of the hotel to find a pair of pole dancers strutting their scanty stuff at either side of the bar area that bordered reception. On a closer examination – well you have to don’t you – they were both so disinterested and disinclined to perform that the experience was neither erotic nor truly sleazy given their location. Impression number two wasn’t good either. Despite checking no-smoking on the booking form we were allocated a smoking room. To be fair it didn’t smell too obviously but there’s a principle at stake. We were asked if we could bear with it tonight and they’d fix it for us while we were away at the Grand Canyon. The basic room rates are so low as the resorts make their money in other ways that it was cheaper for us to pay for four nights rather than one and then two, and it meant we only had to take an overnight bag on our trip next day.

IMG_0723We wandered around the huge hotel/casino me resisting the temptation to purchase some really awful Beatles dolls – well Dee is a big fan! We then ate an acceptable dinner in one of the few eateries that remained open and retired to our not-too-smoky room.


Tioga Road and the Northern Sierra

IMG_5501We decided not to go back into the valley next day but to drive the Tioga Pass eastwards through the sierra. It is an amazing road but not for the fainthearted. It is very mountainous with twisting roads, vertical drops of 2000 feet with no Armco or stone barriers – just my kind of drive except for two twenty minute hold ups for road works which made the already narrow road single track and short bursts of alternate flow didn’t seem to be on the agenda. I think the 4×4 just in front of us were contemplating getting out their portable BBQ at one point!IMG_5494 Olmsted point

Half dome from Olmsted

As we travelled on passing Tioga Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Olmsted Point the out-turn that gives a great view of the Half Dome from the east we were very pleased with our decision.  As we paused there we thought of our trip to Walden Pond with Pat and Joe. Joe is an expert on and admirer of Olmsted who as well as co-designing Central Park in New York and the “Emerald Necklace” of green spaces round Boston was one of the architects of the national parks movement. Route 120 which is the Tioga Pass Road is the highest paved road in the US apparently and is closed from November to May each year so we felt privileged to enjoy this true wilderness, much as we had in Shikoku and Hokkaido last year. To be so far from any signs of habitation, enjoying fabulous views and the sounds of wind in the forest, birds overhead in beautiful sunny conditions was just great.

Mono LakeWe exited the road at Lee Vining on the shores of the weird Mono Lake which appears to have a significant number of clones of Lot’s Wife. It is a saline lake and the accumulation of salt rises up in tall pillars a bit like outdoor stalagmites. We had a lunch stop at the gas station and rest stop which was fine and took the decision to turn left and go north on the interstate 395 and then head west and back to San Francisco on the 108 through the northern sierra as an alternative to retracing our steps via Merced.

Good decision or bad decision? Probably the proverbial curate’s egg. As we swung off the sun-drenched interstate and started the climb towards the mountains we noticed the temperature drop (despite A/C in the car) quite dramatically, wondered why the blue sky was now jet black and were soon in the middle of the mother of all thunderstorms.

This was literally half an hour after the picture above and half a mile away

It only lasted about twenty minutes but was really scary. No other vehicles in sight, a twisty mountain road narrower than the Tioga Pass Road of the morning and torrential rain with sky-splitting forks of lightning – even I had to admit these weren’t the happiest moments of driving in my life. However we soon made our way to a high pass which acted as a sort of celestial watershed returning us to the sunny blue side of the mountain and leaving all that black wet stuff behind.


The drive was if anything more spectacular. Massive forests including the Stanislaus State Forest with isolated shacks, sudden flower strewn meadows, streams and lakes, the occasional camp and adventure centre and certainly no road works and the weather stayed good throughout the rest of the route apart from a quick shower as we entered Stanislaus. Route 4 crosses the Sierra Nevada through Ebbett’s Pass which as you can see is quite high up. This road is again usually closed from November to May because of snow. All the words that can be used to describe landscapes of this magnificence have become clichéd. So I’ll just say that we both descended from the sierra feeling refreshed, rejuvenated by the experience and extremely glad we turned left not right.

The SatNav decided on a rather unusual route back to San Francisco which involved a tour through the suburbs of Modesto before getting us back on the 385 and into San Francisco – an early evening journey we weren’t looking forward to as we had decided to change hotels just for this one last night and go from Japan Town to Union Square right in the heart of the city.

As it happened it wasn’t too bad and we found our hotel, parked the car in a parking garage just round the corner and checked in in time to listen to the last knockings of a jazz gig (who finishes jazz at nine pm?) and eat at the highly rated hotel restaurant, the Burritt Room. It was pretty good too even if the service le a little to be desired from a rather bossy maitresse d’.