Polaroid of the week: Sunset over Santa Monica, California

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polaroid of the week usa california santa monicaIt seems like the travel gods aren’t on my side this year: I wish I could say that my journey to the U.S. went without a glitch, but I almost didn’t make it here. I wasn’t allowed on the plane – again. (Does this sound familiar?!) I will talk about it in more detail in my monthly round-up; at the moment I am still digesting this little major travel mishap.

I eventually made it to L.A., and a few days under the Californian sun helped me recover from the incident and to relax before starting my housesit. I stayed one block from the beach in Santa Monica, the perfect location to enjoy the nightly spectacle of the magnificent sunsets over the Pacific and to go on long runs along the promenade.

Most of my days were spent in Santa Monica and Venice – even though it wasn’t like I hadn’t been to a beach in ages (my last beach day was about a month ago in Thailand), I cherished my beach time, knowing that these would be my last beach days for a very long time. However, I ended up braving the L.A. traffic to venture into the city to visit some of the museums I wanted to check out, hunt down new street art in West Hollywood, and try some of the restaurants that had been recommended to me. I have to admit that after the stress earlier in the week, I cut down my ambitious itinerary considerably and decided to take it slow instead, knowing that I’d be back in L.A. sooner or later anyway. Overall, I couldn’t have chosen a better place to kick off my U.S. summer travels – thanks for the great time, L.A.!

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Views from above: San Francisco

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Being built on various hills, San Francisco has a number of viewpoints for magnificent vistas of the city and the bay. Here are our Top 5 views:

Telegraph Hill – Coit Tower

Coit Tower, which sits atop Telegraph Hill, offers both fabulous views from the top in addition to some fantastic murals inside. Even without entering the tower, the views from the 284 foot-high Telegraph Hill stretch over much of San Francisco. You can walk there easily from Fisherman’s Wharf or Chinatown and overlook the entire San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz and the Financial District.

Coit Tower is open daily from 10am to 5pm, $4.50

Treasure Island

The vista point on Treasure Island offers the best views of mainland San Francisco’s financial district and the Bay Bridge. The small island in the San Francisco Bay (which is only accessible by car) is best visited at sunset or at night when the Bay Bridge and twinkling lights of the skyscrapers are at their most stunning.

Twin Peaks

A name more familiar to some as a television cult classic, the San Francisco area of Twin Peaks lays south west of the city centre and has the second highest altitude (910 ft / 280 m) in all of San Francisco (Mount Davidson being the highest). Twin Peaks might also be the most famous view point of the city by the bay. In good weather you have all of San Francisco spread in front of you including the entire bay. In addition to its views, it also is home to a lot of wildlife such as raccoons, butterflies, hawks and skunks.

Bernal Heights Park

The viewpoint from Bernal Height Park is nowhere near as famous and only half the height (433 ft/132 m) of the Twin Peaks vista, but the views are equally as beautiful, especially of the Financial District, the Bay and both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge. Well off the beaten tourist path, Bernal Heights park is the perfect spot to sneak off too for a quiet picnic.
Buena Vista Park

With a name like Buena Vista, you can be sure the view is likely to be good. Just a short walk from Haight & Ashbury, Buena Vista Park is one of the highest hills in the city (569 ft /173 m) and once you conquer the steep climb to the top, you will be rewarded by the splendid views over the city.  Though the hill is very popular with dog owners and dog walkers, during the week, it is possible to enjoy the views from the top with few people around you. Not only recommended for the views, sprawl out on the lawn at the top with a good book or set up a romantic picnic for two.

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San Francisco’s largest Don’t Miss attraction – Golden Gate Park

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You have walked the Golden Gate Bridge, been to Chinatown, gone to the Mission District and Haight & Ashbury, hung out the side of a Cable Car, seen Fisherman’s Wharf, enjoyed the views from Coit Tower, looked at the Painted Ladies, visited Alcatraz AND still have some time left? Why not spend the day at Golden Gate Park and escape the flocks of tourists? The park apparently has over 1 million trees, there are 10 lakes, waterfalls, and even a herd of bisons! Golden Gate Park has just about as much to do within it as the rest of San Fran’s tourist attractions combined.

Though its name sounds otherwise, it is not located by the Golden Gate Bridge (although you’ll find two huge parks there too: the Golden Gate Recreation Area on both sides of the bridge and the Presidio just South of the bridge). Instead, Golden Gate Park stretches for 47 blocks from Stanyan Street to the Pacific Ocean, bordered by Lincoln Way in the south and Fulton St in the north – both top-notch addresses if you are looking to rent condos in San Fran. The park is more than 3 miles long and half a mile wide, which makes it even bigger than New York’s Central Park and its 4.12 km2 (1.589 sq mi) makes it one of the largest urban parks on the planet. You can easily spend an entire day just exploring the broad parkways and the variety of activities the park offers.

So what’s there to do? Not only joggers will enjoy the countless paths and meadows of the park, there’s something for anybody who likes to be active: on Stow Lake you can rent paddle and row boats, it’s the perfect place for a bicycle tour (bikes and even segways can be rented), there are great paths for inline skating, the park has a polo field which can be used for football or other sports and there is even a golf course.

Flower lovers will admire the Botanical Garden (free!), the Conservatory of Flowers, the Rose Garden and the Japanese Tea Garden; art lovers get their fix at the De Young Museum of Art and the California Academy of Sciences is one of the world’s largest natural history museums. Every Sunday between May and October, the Spreckels Temple of Music offers free concerts at 1pm.

In order to see as much of the park as possible, we took a long jog  through it and still only managed to see a fraction of the park.  Our favorite part of the jog was through the Botanical Garden which even has Redwoods! We also caught an awesome spontaneous bongo-drum jam while having a post-run picnic in the park.If you want to enjoy some good food with a view, there are two restaurants with view over Ocean Beach: Cliff House Restaurant & The Beach Chalet.

Tip: The Observation Deck in the De Yong Museum offers fantastic views of the park and the bay and is free of charge.

How to get there:

Take the Muni (light railway) line N-Judah from Powell and Market and get off at Irving Street & 9th Ave.

On the weekends, there are also inter-park shuttles. If you have a car, there are various parking options throughout the park.

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San Francisco on a shoestring

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San Francisco was one of our favorite cities during the American leg of our travels. The city is filled with life; it could take a lifetime to discover all of its secrets. It could also take a big budget if you’re not careful. However, with a bit of planning, exploring the streets of San Fran doesn’t need to eat through your budget. Here are the Globetrottergirls’ tips on getting the most out of San Francisco on a shoestring budget.

1. Take a free tour

San Francisco offers some great walking tours with its voluntary guides (tips are welcome, of course) which have some incredible knowledge of their hometown which they are more than happy to share with you. If you choose a tour in one of the less-known neighborhoods you are likely to find out much more about San Francisco than any guidebook can offer. Tours run daily, schedules can be found here.


2. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge

Walking the Golden Gate Bridge reveals how collosal this grand piece of architecture really is. Looking 245 feet / 75 m down into the water or 500 feet / 152 m up to the top of the huge pillars will show you how tall the bridge actually is. And when you crossed the 1.7 miles long bridge you can enjoy the views of San Francisco from a big vista point before walking another 1.7 miles back.


3. Take a street car instead of a cable car

The trademark San Francisco cable car is a fun ride. Once. But the cable cars don’t get you where you need to go, plus the tram offers excellent views for much better value for money. Rather than spending $6 on a ride in a cable car, for $2, a ride on the F Line gives you a tour from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Castro. The ticket is valid for 90 minutes in case you want to take a closer look at something you see on the way.


4. Free museums

San Francisco has a number of museums that are free of charge, such as the Cable Car Museum, the San Francisco Fire Department Museum or the Museum ItaloAmericano.

Many other San Francisco museums have a free or half-price day every month, such as the De Jong Museum, San Francisco MOMA (half-price Thursday evenings 6:00 p.m. – 8:45 p.m, $9.00) and the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts (all 1st Tuesday of the month), the Exploratorium (1st Wednesday of the month), California Academy of the Sciences (3rd Wednesday of the month) and the Asian Art Museum (1st Sunday of the month or $5.00 after 5:00p.m. on Thursdays).

A detailed list on all San Francisco museum deals can be found here.

*free / 50% discount*

5. A stroll across Chinatown & Financial District

San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the biggest in all of North America, and it is the oldest. Enter through the Dragon’s Gate on Grant Street and explore the countless Chinese stores where you can get anything from Chinese teapots and silk dresses to cheesy souvenirs. The restaurants have authentic Chinese cuisine and often offer special deals on their menus. Stockton Street is less swamped with tourists, but gives you a glimpse of how the Chinese live, including markets. At Portsmouth Square you can watch older Chinese men play chess when the weather is warm.

Turning into any of the streets that lay right off Grant Street (Clay Street, Sacramento Street, Washington Street) will bring you right into the Financial District with its modern architecture and skyscrapers. Adjacent to the bay, the walk through the Financial District will bring you to the Embarcadero and the ferry station by the Bay Bridge.


6. Haight & Ashbury

The neighborhood which is famous for its hippie culture in the 60’s still has some nostalgia of its roots, such as Amoeba Music or the first Ben & Jerry’s, and is still a good place to shop in independent clothes and vintage stores for less money than in the usual chain stores around Union Square. The coffee shops and restaurants are cheaper than eating out in the city centre, plus much more condusive to hippie-watching (and nowadays punks, too).


7. The Castro

The Castro, mainly known for its large queer population, has become a place well worth visiting not only for gays and lesbians. Many individual shops and cafes line the streets and walking up the steep streets to the more bohemian Noe Valley will reward with superb views over San Francisco.


8. Mission District

Often overlooked by San Francisco’s visitors, the Mission District is the oldest part of San Francisco and home to its Latin American population. Here you’ll find endless authentic Latin American restaurants, taquerias and burrito joints where you are served excellent food for very little money. The Mission District is practically an outdoor art museum, with its famous murals and street art which covers buildings and alleys all over the area, so make sure to explore to the right and left of Mission Street. If you are really interested in murals, it might be a good idea to take a tour which will show you even the best hidden pieces.

*$15.00 for lunch for 2 people / mural tours $10.00*

9. Golden Gate Park & Ocean Beach

Golden Gate Park stretches over more than 40 blocks in San Francisco’s West until the Pacific Ocean and is larger than Central Park in New York. It’s much more than just a park – apart from riding a bike (there are several bike rental stations in the park) or walking, you can row on Stow Lake, listen to live music jam sessions, or visit the botanical garden or one of the museums.

Ocean Beach borders Golden Gate Park on the West side and is San Francisco’s largest sand shore. It is a great spot to watch the surfers and enjoy the views of the Pacific Ocean’ huge waves.


10. Lombard Street

Lombard Street is famously known as the ‘crookedest street’, although apparently it is not even San Francisco’s crookedest street, but watching the cars going around its steep curves (eight switchbacks on a 40-degree slope) is priceless entertainment for no money. The street is technically just like any other, which means driving down it yourself (if you have a car) won’t cost you a penny, either.


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Street Art in San Francisco

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The Globetrottergirls are huge fans of street and urban art. We love its raw grit, city themes, fleeting nature and the sport of spotting new works by street art all-stars.

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Along the border – San Diego to Tucson

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After a quick stop off in San Diego, we headed to Tucson, Arizona in time for our house sit in the foothills for the next three weeks. Along the way, we witnessed several extremes from the weather to the landscape to the intense scrutiny of border patrol (without ever having left the country).

We hopped on the  I-8 in San Diego which leads almost the entire way to Tucson.

This interstate runs through California’s San Jacinto Mountains, then parallel to the U.S./Mexican border and then splits from the border continuing straight east as the border runs southeast once past Yuma in Arizona.

The drive through the Jacinto mountains was slow, not just thanks to the road construction, but also the relatively rough driving. The road passes through a surreal landscape which feels like the moon. The drive winds around and down and up and through until the intensity bubble bursts and you head out into the great expanse of the desert valley on the other side of the mountains.

Here the heat took over. It filled up the car, relentless in spite of air-conditioning and windows rolled all the way down. We were melting, sweating, laughing and singing.

We didn’t know if we would notice Arizona’s new Immigration Law, which came into force in April of this year. That is, until our first immigration check in California, before even entering Arizona. Interstate 8 literally hugs the border for several miles, you can see the fences, the wires, and the heavy presence of the U.S. Border Patrol, who had set up various check points along the Highway, randomly checking cars for ‘illegal immigrants’.

Our German Globetrotter girl being of legal immigration status, we were relieved when we sped through the border patrol checks, first in California and then again in Arizona. The second time, in Arizona, we had to pull out of line and join the unlucky ones whose belongings were unpacked being sniffed by police dogs.

Having been checked by border patrol twice from within the U.S., plus the growing  tension in the Mexican border cities, we decided to fly into Mexico City after our house sit and Northern Arizona road trip. No need to push our luck at one of the land crossings.

Until then, we’ll be testing the first real travel&work month, as we both have freelance projects that will keep us busy over the next three weeks – we will see how working remotely goes with a tempting pool and two sun chairs in the backyard…

The border fence between the U.S. and Mexico

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Take a ride on a cable car – San Francisco

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Sure, the cable cars in San Francisco are loaded with tourists. The ratio of tourists to San Franciscans is easily 10 to 1. Who cares, we say! We loved it, and would recommend riding on a historic San Francisco Cable Car to everyone.

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San Francisco: Painted Ladies and a garden of shoes

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Plonked down in the grass of Alamo Square on a particularly sunny day in San Francisco, tour buses of every variety pass by the most famous ladies in San Francisco: The Painted Ladies. The ubiquitous hop-on hop-off double deckers and the more private shuttles like Mr Toad Tours hover around the square, past ‘Postcard Row” as this famous row of houses is known.

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Whale Watching in Monterey Bay

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Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco is filled with wildlife watching experiences, so it seemed natural to sign up for a whale-watching tour to see some of nature’s largest mammals further off the coast of California. Little did we expect to have to hold on for dear life out on the open sea, and one of us spending more time clenching on at the back of the boat feeding her breakfast to the birds. We GlobetrotterGirls were expecting a boat trip filled with images like this:

Or at least something like the spottings shown here.

The reality, however, looked a bit different…

Migrating whales pass California’s coastline at all times of the year – grey whales migrate from Mexico to Alaska in April and back down south in December, humpback whales pass through California in the Spring, Blue Whales can be seen between June and October.

This popular whale-spotting location is home to countless whale tours, many of which boast guaranteed whales or your next trip free. So,

We decided to take the tour with Monterey Bay Whale Watching, one of various whale tour operators in Monterey. They seemed to offer the best value for money – the longest tours, marine biologists on board, over twenty years of experience.

However, as we were followed by the Pacific Explorer, a boat of another tour operator, during the entire tour, in retrospect any ol’ tour operator would get you the same whales at a lower price.

The tour started off well enough, with light blue skies, sunshine, and no wind – that is, until we left the harbor.

Out in the open sea we were greeted by meter-high white cap waves which would give us a good shaking for the next three hours. And I am not talking about some light ups-and-downs. We had people throwing up over the railing the entire duration of the tour (one of us, included!).

Everyone who was not feeding their breakfast to the fish was holding on hoping to spot one, two or even three whales to make up for the gruesome (weather) circumstances. The sea must have been even too rough for the whales though. We did not see a single one.

We did spot a school of dolphins who happily swam along the boat, though it was a serious challenge to even hold our cameras to take pictures without fearing a trip overboard.

The dolphin spotting in no way made up for lack of whales, especially considering the miserable three-hour seacoaster ride.

Back in the harbor, we saw a sea otter, pelicans and hundreds of elephant seals sunbathing on top of the quay wall, but the entire boatload of  nauseous tourists did not enjoy tooling around the harbor just so the tour company could justify having taken us out at all. Had we left out that 30 minute harbor tour at the end, we would have only been out for half the time promised in the brochure.

In hindsight, we should have done our homework. The crew didn’t mention a single spotting from previous days – instead they repeatedly mentioned how low the chances are to see a whale, and on the websites of the whale watching tours in Monterey not a single spotting was listed in the last week.  We were given a raincheck and can come back any time for a second round of whale-spotting, but as most of us were out-of-towners, I wonder how many rainchecks will actually be cashed in from this trip.

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