Taylor’s Travels – San Francisco, USA
Long distance travel with a toddler for the first time…a new adventure.
“What are we going to do for your 40th?” was the question I posed to Mrs.D back in 2016, with the birthday celebrations coming up in May 2017.
“I’m not to sure, it would be cool to spend it in New York” replied Anj jokingly with a huge smile.
“OK, done. Let’s do it” I replied, much to my wife’s shock.
With no idea how we could possibly afford such a trip, I had just agreed to plan an epic trip to celebrate this special person’s life milestone. During discussions about the trip, we began looking at the flights and we thought, oh my god, Auckland to New York is such a long trip to take with Taylor in one go. We agreed to split the trip up and take in San Francisco en route to the Big Apple…because a trip to New York alone wouldn’t be expensive enough. Did I mention that whilst on the American west coast, we decided to fly in and out of Las Vegas to do a wee trip to Bryce Canyon? Yep, this was turning into an epic birthday celebration, a cake and candles would have been a much cheaper option, but you’re only 40 once eh?
Our flights for the American adventure looked a little like this…
AKL – LAX – SFO – LAS – SFO – EWR – JFK – SFO – LAX – AKL
This is how we came to be packing up on the 20th April 2017 (our wedding anniversary) to take Taylor on his longest travel adventure as a toddler. In all honesty, I was brickin’ it, as the last time we had travelled so far (further in fact) with the little man, he was only eight weeks old and he just slept, a lot, this time around he would be a lot more…energetic. Packing just takes longer when you have to include a little person and his needs. I swear we must have packed every piece of clothing Taylor owned, despite knowing we were going to shop up large in the States. What we had decided, was to pack one suitcase into another, to both avoid carrying lots of luggage and to have a case ready and waiting for the shopping. This was a great idea until the fuckwit luggage handlers at either Auckland Airport or San Francisco Airport threw our case around and ripped off a wheel on our suitcase. I have to publicly apologise to both Mrs.D and Taylor for the expletives I used whilst trying to drag a three-wheeled case around for the first few days of our trip.
Part One of San Francisco
The flights to start our trip went well, the ageing cabin crew weren’t all that helpful but what can you do, we had packed to be pretty self-sufficient. We passed through TSA relatively unscathed but here is a heads up for you. If you’re entering the USA through one airport but traveling on to another, your bags don’t automatically make their way to your final destination. You have to pick them up at the first airport where you enter the country and get them checked. That’s what a country on heightened security gets you. It’s not really a big deal, it just would have been nice to know this info ahead of time.
After getting over the disappointment of a broken suitcase and Taylors pushchair being damaged at SFO, we jumped on the San Francisco transit and were introduced to the awesome public transport system in this part of the world. We were heading towards twenty hours of unslept travel when we finally arrived at the AirBNB we had booked for our first couple of nights in the good ol’ US of A. Our accommodation was in a suburb called Excelsior, thirty minutes by bus to the San Francisco Ferry Building. Anj and I were both excited by the description of the place, with our own little place to stay surrounded by animals, which Taylor would love. It’s amazing how a description can conjure up one idea and reality can be something so very different. Yes, the tiny space we had booked was surrounded by animals, but those would be annoying dogs, fat chickens housed in a small coup and lots of flies. This was by far the worst AirBNB experience we had had and really not what we needed after travelling so many hours. Alas, it didn’t dampen our spirits, too much, and within an hour of arriving, we off exploring (to be honest, this was more to get out of the shithole we were staying in and sleep could wait).
Welcome to San Fran!
Our spirits were lifted somewhat as we went to the local dairy (kiwi-ism for corner shop) to ask about getting a travel pass. The shop owner was really helpful and told us not to bother with a travel pass. The reason being is that when you jump on a bus and pay the standard fare, you get given a ticket which has times on it. Dependent on the time on the ticket is how long you can travel for, yes you read that correct, for a standard fare you can jump on as many buses as you want within a certain time period. And if you get a very generous bus driver, you can get a ticket which can last almost all day!
The itinerary for our trip meant we had a couple of days in San Francisco at the beginning of our trip, a day after our road trip to Bryce Canyon and a few days at the end of our trip once we had been to NYC. Fortunately, our AirBNB was only for the start of the trip, phew. It was great as we could explore and get our bearings that first couple of days and made it a lot easier to navigate the city later in the trip. Despite the accommodation not being great to begin the trip, it was located a little out of the city and off the tourist track, which meant we experienced a different side of San Fran, an authentic side. That first bus ride into the city took us through some “interesting” suburbs and introduced us to local characters.
It wasn’t long before Anj and I was asking each other “how did people find their way to new places before Google maps came along?”. It really did make it so easy to find our way around, from knowing which bus to jump on to finding much-needed coffee places. Don’t get me wrong, we still got lost quite a few times during our trip but nothing that had us fearing for our lives (unlike we did when we once went to Whatipu, just outside Auckland lol). As it was getting late on in the day, the focus on that first day in San Francisco was to find somewhere to eat. We just happened to stumble upon one of the cities iconic eateries…Mels Drive In on Mission Street. The original Mels Drive In was used in the movie American Graffiti. The Mission Street location is one of their most recent places to open but the food is still as good. We wanted an American meal to kick off our trip and we weren’t disappointed.
The first day in SF!
We were up early and eager to explore as much as could on our first full day on the Amercian west coast. Our plan was to have breakfast at a recommended weekend market, but it had been cancelled due to a Climate Change march…welcome to California. The march was full of both Americans and tourists who rightly agree that there is such a thing as climate change (unlike their guy in charge). This was a pretty cool experience in itself, seeing all the awesome placards being held up by toddlers through to hardened pensioners. Having made our way through the crowds we came to the Ferry Building Market Place. A real treat for our tired eyes, with an abundance of great food places and a coffee place called Blue Bottle, which was just the tonic for this dad. With breakfast done and the Dickson bellies full, we began to walk. Something you should know about our trips, we tend to walk a lot. It really is the best way to see places and it’s something we’ll instil into our little traveller.
After walking for only ten minutes we stumbled upon a cart made out of skateboards, which Taylor loved and would have stayed at all day. It did give us an idea for Christmas pressie haha. The cart was stationed right outside the Exploratorium. This is an amazing place to take your kids if they’re older than seven years old, we just felt Taylor was a little too young to really appreciate it. We carried on walking and found something which did peak Taylors interest. An animal expo at Alcatraz Landing (Pier 33), which also happened to be where you can buy tickets for the Alcatraz Experience (unfortunately the times I could have gone on the excursion were fully booked). Not only did the little man have the chance to race a tortoise, he also got to hold a snake with dad and mum, although this wasn’t our best parenting moment as he totally freaked out. You live and learn.
It was at this expo where it became apparent that whatever we did, we had to allow extra time for a really lovely reason…people loved our little boy. People would smile and talk about the cute things Taylor did but there was one thing that just stopped people in their tracks. At nearly two years of age, he knew quite a few words and the way he said “Thank You” just melted hearts. I think it was because they weren’t prompted, he just knew to say thank you in the right context of being in social situations. Anj and I are constantly giving ourselves invisible high fives when this happens, as we made this happen.
Carrying on our trek along The Embarcadero we suddenly found ourselves upon one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist spots, Pier 39. We had sufficiently knackered out Taylor by the time we arrived at this pier and he was fast asleep in the stroller. Fortunately, the good people who had planned Pier 39 had thought about parents and the need to make it stroller friendly. As I mentioned this is a top tourist spot, which does mean there are a lot of souvenir shops and the food is a tad pricey. We kept it really simple, had a wander around, popped into a few of the shops and just picked up some ice creams…lunch of champions! Would highly recommend heading to the pier early in the day when there are fewer crowds, especially if you’re trying to push a stroller around.
Our first day in San Francisco was passing us by so quickly and so before the jet lag took hold, we headed towards Fishermans Wharf, as we figured we may as well hit as many tourist spots as possible in one day. This little part of the city really reminded me of the tourist beach spots in the UK. Lots of souvenir stores, lots of litter and lots of people wandering around aimlessly. One thing that did stand it apart was the long row of fish stalls and restaurants, along Taylor Street no less. After much deliberation, we grabbed Boston Clam Chowder and Lobster Bisque Bread Bowls from Nick’s Lighthouse. This is one of the wonderful things about travel, trying amazing local foods, which have been made by generations of family members. It also gives our little guy the opportunity to try new flavours. How many toddlers do you know that would chow down a clam chowder? Another proud parental moment.
This was the end of our first full day in SF. The next day we had to be at SFO airport by lunchtime to fly to Las Vegas for our road trip (another blog is coming soon about this trip). We stumbled across Canyon Market as we were looking for somewhere for brunch before catching the transit from Glen Park Station to the airport. An amazing array of local foods and great coffee. We picked up food for the rest of the day, which was a good thing as it ended up being a very long day indeed…a story for another time.
Part Two of San Francisco
After our road trip around some national parks, we found ourselves back in San Francisco for twenty-four hours before flying to New York. We stayed at the Super 8 in San Bruno, as it was conveniently located near to the airport. Getting to the hotel was a bit of a mission, as the hotel shuttle bus was somewhat slow in arriving but once we were at the hotel, it was a great place to call home for the evening. The hotel very kindly stored our luggage for us whilst we spent twelve hours of exploring before heading to the airport…again. Having made the most of the free breakfast, we walked to San Bruno train station and caught our first double-decker train into the city, which Taylor was very excited about. Did I mention the public transport in San Fran is awesome?
We headed straight back to the Ferry Building, for a guaranteed decent coffee. En route we stopped by the AT&T Park, which is the ballpark for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. Due to the timing of our trip, we didn’t get the chance to take in a baseball game, but it’s still on my bucket list. This time around I just enjoyed seeing an impressive stadium. Most of this day in San Fran was dedicated to food and exploring the area around Union Square. For lunch, we treated ourselves to a meal at The Cheesecake Factory. The portion sizes were insane, especially off the kid’s menu. We ordered a grilled cheese sandwich for Taylor and it was definitely an adult size portion. To be fair, it wasn’t just the size that was epic, it also tasted epically good. We probably didn’t need cheesecake after the mains, but it would be rude not too right?
The highlight of this day was Taylor finding a water fountain in the Financial District and he proceeded to get soaked from head to foot. After all the travelling we had done up to this point, it was great to let our boy run wild and just enjoy being an almost two-year-old. The stuff which Anj and I enjoyed had no sense of wonder to Taylor, which was something that really hit home on this trip. Regardless of what the parents wanted to see and do, you really have to allow time and plan activities for the kids when taking them on your adventures. Taylor played in that fountain for a good half an hour and it was probably the most fun he’d had during that first week of the trip. After we changed his clothes, we headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and off to New York we went. Just wait until you read about the highs and lows of being in the Big Apple.
Part Three of San Francisco
Ten days later, we were landing back on the American West Coast, having seen in Anj’s 40th in New York, we now had our final couple of days of our trip to the States. To savour this time, we booked a hotel smack bang in the middle of the CBD. This was no easy feat, as the accommodation in this city is crazy expensive and even more so the closer you get to the main hub. Alas, we found the Hotel Des Arts (thanks in no small part to the recommendation by Anthony Bourdain on The Layover), which was both affordable and surprisingly comfortable. By this time we had accumulated quite a bit of luggage, so it was fortunate that we could get from the airport to Market Street station by taking a single journey and then it was only a ten-minute walk to the hotel. The old school elevator in the hotel was a little difficult to navigate with so much stuff, but we eventually got to our room and was greeted by some very cool artwork. That’s the thing about Hotel Des Arts, there is amazing artwork everywhere, created by local and internationally renowned artists.
The other great thing about this hotel is that it’s located just around the corner from iconic Dragons Gate and the entrance to China Town. As we had just flown across America and were ready for bed, we summoned up the energy after dumping our bags, to go for a walk around this little corner of the city. Wandering down Grant Avenue, our senses were hit by a different world of sights and smells. Taylor was loving all the bright colours, from the lanterns adorning the streets to the shiny shop windows of more souvenir shops. What with being overwhelmed with choices of where to eat dinner, I sought advice from my trusty pal, Google. There was a restaurant which Barack Obama had dined, Great Eastern and we figured if it was good enough for Americas last good president, it would be good enough for us. We walked in and were literally the only ones in there. The staff, of course, loved Taylor and treated him as if he were the next Obama. The food was good, I imagine they rely on the above publicity as opposed to serving excellent food, but it certainly satisfied us, weary travellers.
Our penultimate day in San Francisco started with meeting a friend and then hunting out a playground for Taylor to stretch his little legs. I think if there is one thing this city could use more of, it’s kids playgrounds. They seemed few and far between. Alas, the one we did find certainly kept the mini Dickson entertained for a while. There was one thing on my to-do list for this city which was still to be ticked off and that was to visit In-N-Out Burger. For some reason, only known by the Instagram algorithm experts, my Instagram feed had been inundated with photos from this burger mecca in the lead up to our trip. We duly waited in line for a while and finally got our hands on much-anticiapted burgers and fries. Did it live up to the hype? Nah, not really, the burgers weren’t very warm and the fries were limp. Although us parents were a little disappointed, Taylor loved the burgers and it was probably the biggest meal he had ever eaten. That’s one way of enduring the business world, is to look after your future patrons.
For the rest of the day, we were true tourists and jumped on a tourist bus to take us around the city. The driver giving the running commentary was a wealth of knowledge and I think we really lucked in, as he was an encyclopaedia of the history of San Francisco. It also gave us movie buffs the opportunity to see landmarks which we recognised from various movies, from the road used in the Bullit car chase scene to the original Mels Diner. Unfortunately, tourist buses are no longer allowed to go near the famous Painted Ladies houses, due to residents complaining about all the traffic (which seems fair enough). We went across the Golden Gate bridge, which just blew my mind from an engineering perspective and the views from the other side of the bridge across to the city are fantastic. The bus ride then took us through Golden Gate Park and Haight-Ashbury which saw the birth of the Summer of Love in the sixties.
And that was our trip done.
And before we knew it, we were on our last day of the trip and getting packed up to head back to New Zealand. Once again we had an evening flight, so we were thankful to be able to leave our luggage with reception. We wandered down the street and stumbled upon the best breakfast place of the whole trip, Noah’s Bagels. The bakery smelled amazing and inside you can find every kind of bagel you could think of. We ordered bagels and they came straight out of the oven, still warm, soft and oh so delicious. This was a great way to start our final day. After bagels, we headed to the playground, then hit the stores in Union Square. We went for our final meal, lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, once just wasn’t enough. With bellies full, we picked up our luggage and made our final trip to San Francisco airport. It was with a hint of sadness that we were leaving this fine city, as we had had a great time exploring, but after three weeks of travelling around and a distinct lack of sleep throughout, we were ready for our beds back in Aotearoa. Hopefully, we will be back one day, when Taylor is a little bit older and we can continue our exploration of San Francisco.