Friday, January 17, 2014

E.T.R.A. (Exhaustive Trip Report Ahead - you have been warned): California Edition


Originally posted as "R is for...." on The I's Have It, November 28, 2012.  Now with bonus photos!

 I do totally recognize that it's really boring to read about someone else's vacation.  That being said....

R is for...Remembering.

Wednesday, October 3.  We had a crazy early flight, both because we were flying on points and because I had high hopes that the early hour would mean my children would go back to sleep once we were in the air (I know I don't need to tell you how THAT worked out, right?)  We flew out of Wilmington at 5:35am, with two stops and two plane changes ahead of us, full-to-capacity flights all.  About five minutes before we boarded, Milo started to freak out: "No plane! No fly! Me TRAIN!" so we had to totally lie to him, for the rest of the trip as it turned out, and tell him oh yes indeed, we are boarding A TRAIN right now.  I don't think he believed us AT ALL, but for some reason our deceptions soothed him.  I was absolutely not going to be the person on the plane with the kicking and screaming toddler, so, whatever it takes, amirite?



The flights were pretty uneventful, and the layovers pretty smooth and painless, so I won't bore myself with any details, except the funny memory of Milo deciding that he'd hitch a ride on Adrian's rolling suitcase instead of walking through the terminals.  

Ride, ride, ride, hitchin' a ride....
We arrived at John Wayne/Orange County Airport slightly before 11:30 am, their time, so it was easy to ignore the fact that we'd already been on the go for 12 hours, and jump in a cab, excited to hit the ground running.

This was the first of several cab rides on this trip, and the first opportunity for me to appreciate, all over again, my husband's ability to talk to absolutely anyone.  I think the Somali cab driver who delivered us to the Disneyland Hotel that day probably hadn't had such an enthusiastic passenger in, well, possibly ever.  Adrian has a small amount of knowledge about a vast array of subjects, and it was really a pleasure to listen to him ask this man about his life, and respond with interest and knowledge.  A skill I wish I had, and one I sincerely hope he passes along to our boys (instead of my tendency to stammer and murmur "mmm-hhhmmmmm" a lot).

We arrived at the Disneyland Hotel in due course, and were suitably impressed by our surroundings.  Disneyland only boasts three hotels, and the Disneyland Hotel is the middle one, in terms of price and amenities...but I have to say, my socks were pretty well knocked off.  I really regret that I didn't manage to snap a photo of my kids on one of the tea cup chairs in the lobby!  My favorite part of the lobby, which is located in the Fantasy Tower, is the abundance of Mary Blair inspired art and decor.  I really love Mary Blair, she might be my favorite Imagineer.

Anyway, our room, as I expected, was not ready, so we stowed our luggage with Bell Services and started exploring.  The front desk said they would call us when our room was ready, but after a morning of entertaining ourselves and our children on airplanes, both phones were pretty dead, so I found a handy outlet to do a little charging while Adrian and the boys explored the pool area.  They reappeared twenty or so minutes later, just in time to meet Chip, Goofy and Rafiki, RIGHT IN THE LOBBY OF THE HOTEL!  I couldn't believe it!  We are SO accustomed to the WDW philosophy of character meet and greets, which involve long lines, lighting quick interactions, and very strict handlers shuffling everyone along....we discovered, in the course of our stay, that Disneyland has a much more relaxed attitude about characters, and we would often come across characters just hanging out, waiting for someone to notice them.  It was, for my autograph-collecting boy, kind of a revelation.

Rafiki in the lobby!  Imagine that!

The nice thing about Disneyland is its size.  It's small.  Everything is walkable, and easily.  We set off for Downtown Disney, which was literally across the driveway from the hotel.  We strolled around, enjoying some impressive displays at the Lego store, and stopping to eat at Naples Ristorante, our favorite Italian restaurant from our previous Disneyland trip. We stuffed ourselves pretty full (it was our first, and as it turned out, ONLY real meal of the day) and were getting ready to leave when the hotel called to say our room was ready, and we'd been upgraded to a pool-view room in the Adventure Tower.  Sweet!  We headed back, taking time to enjoy the Jungle Book/Jungle Cruise theming of the tower lobby, with a mind to hit up the pool.

Cool Adventureland stuff in the tower lobby.

As it turned out, Adrian took the boys down to the pool while I unpacked...by the time I got down there, Max was on his forty-seventh trip down the Monorail slide and Milo was pretty ready for a nap.  I had a quick dunk with Milo and then we headed upstairs for a nap...and that is all she wrote about our first day in California.  We fell sound asleep, it was probably around 4pm, awoke briefly when Max and Adrian came in to "lie down for just a little bit".....and then it was the next morning.

With all that sleep, it was no problem at all awakening my family to get to Extra Morning Hour at Disneyland Park.  We had a delicious breakfast at Tongaroa Terrace (one of the restaurants at the hotel, the french toast with bananas and caramel sauce was TOO good.)  My plan had been to enjoy an hour or so at Disneyland, then scoot over to California Adventure to take advantage of our non-weekend day in Cars Land...but this never actually happened.  We spent the whole day in Disneyland, or at least we stayed from 8am until about 4:30pm...we were having too much fun to leave!  We started in Fantasyland, at Dumbo, and then spent a lot of time taking in the attractions that are not also at WDW - Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Alice in Wonderland, the Matterhorn (well, two more rides on Alice while Adrian and Max did that one), Snow White's Scary Adventures, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, and the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-through.  
You can go inside Sleeping Beauty's Castle!

We headed into New Orleans Square, with our eyes and bellies on some Mickey-shaped beignets, and happened upon a Jack Skellington meet-and-greet, so Max and I had to do that.  Off to Critter Country, to enjoy the better-than-WDW Winnie-the-Pooh ride (except WDW still has the best queue area for that ride) and then a trip to Big Thunder Mountain for Max and Adrian, while Milo and I checked out the Big Thunder Ranch Halloween Carnival.  Again with the characters just standing around!  We walked in, and there was Woody, just standing there.  No one trying to see him, no line.  Milo almost fell over, the only thing that could have made it better was Buzz (but then, what would a Space Ranger be doing in Frontierland?)  The Carnival area was pretty cool.  Last time we were at Disneyland, this was a character meal with Woody and Jesse, with some additional entertainment by Billy Hill & the Hillbillies.  The food is still available, but it's now quick-service.  And Billy Hill & the Hillbillies were still entertaining.  But it was decorated for Halloween, with fun games and amazing carved pumpkins, and a really cool Villain meet & greet that Max and I did once he was done on the roller coaster.  Although I am a fan of the low-key, no waiting in line character interactions that seemed so prevalent in DL, I also have to say that I REALLY like the new trend towards making the whole thing more of an event, like we experienced with Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in WDW.  In this instance, a small group was led into a tent, where several children (including Max) were selected to wave their magic wands around over a cauldron to summon a character....only their "spell" goes wrong and a villain appears instead, in a burst of smoke and crazy lights.  Our villain was the Evil Queen, and she was great.  Max and I ended up last in the line for autographs, and she spent about fifteen minutes talking to Max.  It was really great.

She was a really good Evil Queen.

From there, we hopped on the train and did a loop, then hit up Autopia (which is just like the Tomorrowland Speedway) and Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters a million or so times (Milo's absolute FAVORITE - "me shoot more bad guys, Mom!") with a trip through Space Mountain for the big guys. Max reports that the Halloween theming added to Space Mountain made it a lot scarier than usual.  And then...we were all done.  We asked Max if he was ready to go over to Cars Land, and he really just wanted to head back to the hotel.  We strolled back through Downtown Disney, and stopped in at Little  Miss Matched to add to Max's crazy sock collection.  The sales clerk was very taken with him, and asked him to come back the next day to show her which socks he'd worn.  He was thrilled.

It was just about sunset, so we headed for the pool, stopping by Trader Sam's (the best, the very best, tiki-themed bar I have ever seen) for drinks, which we sipped by the side of the Monorail slide splash pool, watching Max slide to his heart's content, and watching Milo fling himself into the water over and over again, chasing after a Winnie-the-Pooh bath toy he'd picked out earlier.  It was too chilly for me to be tempted by the water, but it was pretty much a perfect evening by the pool.  We stopped by the Minnie hot tub for a moment, and then retired to the huge outdoor fireplace, where we found out we could order food from Trader Sam's.  We snuggled in, chatted with other guests, ate some awesome wings...like I said, perfect.  We had the boys upstairs and in bed by 8pm, and were totally content to watch "Glee" (and eat another order of wings.  And have another round of drinks.)  I love going to bed Disney-tired.

The next morning was not as smooth as I would have liked, and I have to take full responsibility for mis-reading the park hours and Extra Morning Hour schedule.  We thought we were arriving at California Adventure for EMH, but, as it turned out....we arrived at regular opening time.  Crap.  We high-tailed it as fast as we could for Cars Land, but I felt snappish and pissy, and had only myself to blame.  Adrian and Max bolted for Radiator Springs Racers, determined to ride it before the line got outrageously long, and I made a quick left into Mater's Junkyard with Milo.  We only had about a twenty minute wait for that ride, and it was lots of fun for both Milo and I.  It is, essentially, a Scrambler, my favorite of all midway rides, but with excellent theming and tons of charm.  We strolled on down the main drag, taking tons of photos, and meeting Lightning McQueen outside of the Cozy Cone.  Next up on our tour of Radiator Springs was Luigi's Flying Tires.  Fantastic queue area, I could have taken three times as many photos as I did, but about halfway through the thirty-minute wait, Milo started to say he didn't want to go on the ride.  I was reluctant to get out of the line, because I didn't want to have to wait again if and when he changed his mind, so we made it all the way to the end before he very definitely said NO and we ducked out.  Honestly, I feel no sadness at all about missing this ride.  It looked....really lame.  All over the queue area are big signs, instructing you how to maneuver your ride vehicle....but from my observation, very few people actually got the hang of it in the two minutes allotted for each ride cycle.  It might have been more fun when the gigantic red, green & white beach balls were bouncing around in there, but they have inexplicably been removed, making this ride, in my inexperienced opinion, a dud.  Really disappointing.

We meandered down towards the Stanley statue, which is when Adrian appeared and my Radiator Springs Racers adventure began....(This is a whole 'nother post to be shared, in which I will wax poetic about the entire Cars Land experience.  Aren't you excited?)

Max and I reunited with Adrian and Milo, who were eager to take us on the Little Mermaid ride.  Milo loved this ride, so much, and I have to say, it was pretty great.  The new generation of dark rides are pretty spectacular, especially in comparison to, say, Snow White's Scary Adventures.  (I also must admit that I was pretty excited to get to experience this ride before anyone who frequents WDW.  It's the little things.)  We headed into the Paradise Pier area, splitting up again so Max and Adrian could do California Screamin' while Milo and I did Toy Story Midway Mania.  We had a highly enjoyable lunch  at Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta and squeezed in a few more rides before it was obviously and undeniably nap time.

We had tickets for Mickey's Halloween Party that night, so after a nap and a swim, we got into our costumes for the party.  In honor of our Cars Land motivation for this trip, we chose to dress as characters from that movie...but with a twist.  I certainly was not going to a) ship bulky, representational Cars costumes across the country OR b) spend all night maneuvering around a theme park in such a get up, so we went for a more "fashion inspired by Cars" kind of a thing.  (I confess that I have been spending a fair amount of time scrolling through this website lately, which definitely served as inspiration for this type of approach.)  We had to detour through Cars Land before hitting the party, both to take pictures of ourselves there and to check out the neon by night.  Totally worth the effort, as not only did we get some great pictures, but several cast members recognized who we were meant to be right away, which thrilled Max to no end (he had been a bit skeptical about my approach to these costumes).  Max also got to squeeze in a ride on Mater's Junkyard AND found some Mater buck teeth to complete his costume, so I judge the detour to be a success, if a bit time consuming.





Actually, that detour may have been the MOST successful part of the evening.  We are used to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at WDW, which tends to be a nice break from crowds.  The Halloween party at Disneyland was the total opposite.  It was PACKED.  I guess a lot more locals attend?  Anyway, it was a madhouse.  We entered the park and immediately got into a line to meet Jafar, Max's favorite and most sought-after villain.  Just as we reached the front of the line, Jafar left, and was replaced by Frollo....SUCH a disappointment.  

He's NO Jafar.

Adrian had strolled off with Milo to get a drink, and we had a hell of a time reuniting with them due to cast members trying to herd non-party-goers back towards the exit. We finally found them in Adventureland, and made a beeline for Fantasyland.  OY!  Such a scene.  What I really couldn't get over were the massive lines for the trick-or-treat stations!  I mean, candy is great and all....but I didn't pay fifty-some-odd bucks per ticket to wait in line for a bag of M&Ms.  We hit up Alice in Wonderland a couple of times, then just kept trying to get away from the crowds.  We found ourselves at It's A Small World, which was deserted, and entered the queuing area.  Stupid me says, "Oh look, Max, there's the meet & greet area for Merida, I hate that we missed out on that."  Melt-down was rapidly approaching, when we realized that by getting into the Small World corral we had scored a prime viewing location for the Halloween parade, which was starting that very minute.  We were right at the very start of the parade, which was chock full of characters....phew.  Crisis averted.  The parade passed us by, and we continued down the chute to Small World.  I love It's A Small World at Disneyland, because it's huge, and it has characters in the appropriate lands (but done in the awesome Mary Blair style), I wish so much that they would add the characters to the WDW version.  Milo loved this ride, so when we popped out and realized that the Merida meet and greet was back in action (hooray!) Milo and Adrian were happy to go and ride a couple of times while Max and I met the new Scottish princess.

As luck would have it, just as Max reached the head of the line, Merida went on break.  Arrgh.  But the cast members were really great, and entertained him (and were entertained BY him, of course) for the five minutes or so we waited.  They fussed over his costume and took him on a tour of Merida's tent, and generally made him feel so important that when Merida returned, it was practically anticlimactic.


Merida and Max

Fantasyland was still a madhouse, so we scooted around the backside and into Frontierland, where Max and Adrian were able to hop onto Big Thunder Mountain pretty quickly, and Milo and I ate a soft pretzel while watching Captain Hook terrorize some folks over on the SS Columbia.  Thus inspired, we had a quick turn through Pirates before braving the line for The Haunted Mansion.  As I said, I'm not a big line-waiter, and especially not for the Haunted Mansion, but at Disneyland they completely retheme the attraction with The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I was happy to bend my own rule for a chance to see it.  We were not disappointed.

While waiting, we formulated what I thought was a brilliant plan for the rest of the evening....as the clock ticked on towards midnight we decided to hop on the train in New Orleans Square (right outside THM), Adrian and Max would hop off in Fantasyland to ride the Matterhorn, Milo and I would continue on to Tomorrowland to shoot bad guys with Buzz again, and then we'd hop on the Monorail to Downtown Disney, effectively cutting our walk back to the hotel in half.  This worked like a charm, and Milo and I even got to ride Buzz twice before midnight...and then we discovered that the Monorail was closed for the evening.  Disappointing, and it made for the one and only time on the whole trip that Max really complained about walking.  I really can't say that I blamed him, he went hard for almost 16 hours that day.

I always like to book a character breakfast for the day we leave Disney, as it seems to make the leaving a bit easier.  I booked the Critter Breakfast at the Grand Californian, to give us an excuse to explore that hotel, and because it promised to provide at least a couple of new character interactions and autographs for Max's collection (the breakfast is hosted by Chip & Dale, and we had never met them, or at least we hadn't until we ran into Chip in the lobby of the Disneyland Hotel on our first day).  Despite the early hour (7am) following a very late night the night before, we ended up having a really great experience.  The Grand Californian is beautiful (it's actually a LOT like the Wilderness Lodge at WDW, all Arts & Craftsy), and, as we were the first reservation of the day, the food was fresh and the service attentive.  But the best part was definitely the characters.  We had a total of six characters, all new to us, and all visited our table multiple times and spent a LOT of time with the boys.  Dale, in particular, was very attentive and playful, and really made the boys feel special....in addition, we got to add Koda and Kenai (Brother Bear), Meeko (Pocahontas) and Terk (Tarzan) to our collection.  All in all, very satisfactory.

Max and Milo and their new best friend.

We returned to the hotel to finish packing and snap a few last photographs, and then it was off on another cab ride, all the way to the downtown LA Doubletree, which actually turned out to be a pretty cool hotel.  It's right on the edge of Little Tokyo, and in fact, until recently purchased by Hilton, the hotel had been an independently owned Japanese hotel...which was definitely reflected in the decor.  We arrived around 10am, and were pleasantly surprised to find our room was available.  We settled in, then returned to the lobby to wait for Mel, our limo driver.

When we started planning this trip, we knew we wanted to spend a day in LA, just to get a taste.  Max is, as we know, is pretty enamored of all things show business, so he was dying to see the Hollywood sign, Grauman's Chinese Theater, Beverly Drive ("you know, that road with all the giant palm trees?").  There are any number of tour bus companies that will take you to these sights and more; for about $300  the four of us could have jumped on a bus and seen everything we could have ever wanted.  But something kept me from making any reservations, and I finally realized that the thought of spending 8+ hours on a tour bus with the kids, needing them to behave nicely, not being in control of food and bathroom breaks...it just didn't seem like a great idea.  One evening, Adrian said, "Huh, you know, I wonder what it would cost to just book a limo to take us around to the places we really want to see?"  The more I thought about this idea, the more brilliant it seemed, not only because we would be more in control of our activity, but I thought Max would think it was REALLY cool to get driven around LA in a limousine.  Very little effort found me the perfect service, for the same price as one of the tour buses.

Riding in style.


So we were picked up by Mel, who was a real character.  Older guy, had obviously lived in LA and worked on the fringes of the movie business for a very long time.  Full of trivia that would have been really exciting twenty years ago, but very entertaining and accommodating.  He was totally onboard with what we were trying to accomplish, and did a great job hitting our top spots.  First up was a drive around downtown, checking out the Walt Disney Concert Hall, then up to the LA Reservoir, stopping at the perfect view of the Hollywood sign, where we hopped out and took lots of photos.  

A dream come true for this kid.

We cruised around Burbank a bit, catching a glimpse of a couple of movie studios (including the famous Warner Brothers water tower - I could help but sing the Animaniacs theme to myself) before heading over to Grauman's Chinese Theater.  We got out of the limo and walked around a bit, but it was a total madhouse and we pretty quickly strolled off down the Walk of Fame, trying to dodge as many musicians aggressively hawking their cds and over-eager tour guides trying to entice us on to their buses as possible, and found a pizza place.  Thus fortified, we met back up with Mel and set off again, checking out the Jim Henson Studio and the Hollywood Bowl,  and cruising down the Sunset Strip to see the Viper Room and the Whiskey A Go Go as the boys nodded off.  Mel got a little salty as the day wore on, and delighted in showing us the Playboy Mansion, the house where Michael Jackson died, and taking us on a ridiculous turn through the Beverly Hills Hotel valet area, where he pretended that "the lady" - meaning me - "unfortunately left her purse at the bar at the Beverly Wilshire, so we'll have to return there before they can check in."  Pretty silly if you ask me, but Mel was having a good time.  We managed to wake Max up long enough to enjoy his ride down Beverly Drive, and then we made our way back to the hotel.

Milo slept on, so Max and Adrian went off to explore Little Tokyo while I spent a little time reorganizing the luggage.  I double-checked the Amtrak luggage policy, and discovered that we were each allowed TWO checked bags, plus two carry-ons....and made the fateful decision that we would certainly check both of our large suitcases, rather than wrestling them through the train station and onto the train ourselves, all the while juggling five or six tote bags and two excitable children.  Little did I know how that decision would come back to haunt me....

The happy wanderers returned, and we set off for Olvera Street, an easy walk from the hotel.  When we arrived in the square, some organization, or maybe a restaurant, was distributing meals to the homeless, and the low wall along the sidewalk was lined with folks taking part.  Max was visibly uneasy, which made for an interesting conversation at dinner.  If you are homeless, by circumstance or by choice, I imagine Los Angeles is as good a place as any to be so.  It's warm year round, and there are many resources available...anyway, it was a very interesting end to a day spent driving around Beverly Hills in a limousine.

We had a nice dinner at Las Golondrina Cafe, which came highly recommended by one of the porters at the hotel and claims to be the oldest Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.  I don't know if it is, but it was long on ambience, a little short on taste.  We strolled down Olvera Street a ways, but at that hour all there really was to see were vendors, every other one of which was selling the same crappy tourist crap that's made in China.  Sigh.  There was some pretty cool, authentic Mexican stuff that I would not have minded taking a closer look at, but all the bins of cheap plastic toys at knee level pretty much meant we spent the whole time prying stuff out of Milo's hands.  So we headed back to the hotel and explored the rooftop garden for a bit before calling it a night.


The next morning, after a delicious steamed curried chicken bun that Adrian fetched from Little Tokyo, we set out for Union Station, which immediately reminded me of my favorite part of train travel: the awesome Art Deco styling of it all.  I can't get enough of Art Deco, and I often wonder why I don't surround myself with more of it.  I love that Amtrak has embraced this aspect of their history, and utilizes it everywhere, in signage and furnishings. It really evokes the romance of train travel, at least it does for me.

Union Station, Los Angeles

Anyway, we checked our bags (duhn duhn DUHHHHHHHN) and boarded the Coast Starlight with very little fuss.  I was very excited for this portion of the trip, for several reasons.  After our trip to Washington, DC on the train, I discovered how very comfortable train travel is, compared to plane or even car.  Yes, it takes a lot longer.  But you don't have to do the driving!  And you have so much leg room! And no obnoxious security check-points!  Adrian and I have been discussing for some time the possibility of planning an extended train trip, as in, cross-country, and I thought this would be a good way to try it out, without committing to two or three days.  And finally, I was really in love with the way this trip fell together as a series of stand alone yet connected adventures; any one part of this trip would have been a treat all on its own, really.  At best, our day of train travel would be another on the list of great experiences, at worst, it would serve as a nice mental division between the first half of the trip and the second, a relaxing day to rest tired feet and regroup for our attack on San Francisco.

Anyway, the trip from LA to Oakland (the train does not go out onto the SF peninsula) is about twelve hours.  We left LA at 9:30am, so we would not be spending the night on the train.  We decided to book a Family Sleeper anyway, so that we could have plenty of room to stretch out, and let the kids have a bit more freedom.  The fare included two meals in the dining car, and was really a very good deal.  As an added bonus, we got Gabriel, the most fabulous porter.  I love him.

We settled into our cabin, which was great; it ran the whole width of the car, so we got windows on both sides and didn't have to miss a bit of the views.  There was room to stow our carry-ons, there were hooks to hang sweatshirts on, there was an outlet for charging our various and sundry electronics.  Max and Adrian went off to explore, and came back with reports of games that could be borrowed (although the checkers set we grabbed was missing too many pieces to make actually playing possible), an adults-only wine & cheese tasting scheduled for the afternoon, and an actual movie theater, on the bottom level of the club car.  We whiled away the morning, watching the concrete LA River pass by, eating crumbly madelines that Max fell in love with in Little Tokyo, reading...our appointed lunch time came, and we headed up to the dining car for a leisurely, slightly boozy lunch.  Moments after we sat down, the train hit the coast for the first time, and we spent our meal being treated to the most amazing views of the Pacific Ocean.

Milo, enjoying the view over lunch.

After lunch, I tried in vain to get Milo down for a nap so that I could go to the wine & cheese tasting.  Oh well, next time, right?  Max and Adrian entertained themselves, in and out of the room, the club car, the movie theater, the shower (!)....we got off to stretch our legs in San Luis Obispo, and had a nice visit with Gabriel (swoon).  We had the last dinner service, so we took our time, then got a little dozy until we finally reached Oakland, just about twelve and a half hours after we set out.

Here's where the worst part of the trip happened.  We got off the train, slightly disoriented, not sure which bus we were supposed to get on, and no one really there to point us in the right direction.  We finally figured out where to go...standing around outside the bus, watching the luggage handlers lining up bags to be stowed...and not seeing ours.  At all.  Very harried luggage handlers, firm instructions to "just get on the bus, please"....uneasy feelings.   Long drive across the Bay in an overheated bus, trying to must excitement for my first glimpse of this city that has topped my "I want to go to" list for as long as I can remember, but stressing over the very real possibility that our bags are not traveling with us.  Taking a mental inventory of what is in the carry-ons: some dirty laundry, some toiletries, an iPad and some guide books.  Arriving in San Francisco, but where do we get off the bus?  Here?  The next stop?  How many stops are there?  Does this driver have any actual English words in his vocabulary?  And where are the bags????

We reach our stop.  We confirm that we are without luggage.  We get in a cab, we go to the Hotel del Sol.  Adrian spends quite a bit of time on the phone with various people at Amtrak. We are instructed to call back the following morning, and we go to bed.

The next morning we arose bright and early to call Amtrak, and were told that they are hopeful (!) that the luggage is still on the train and they can intercept it in Eugene, Oregon (!!) and put it on the train heading back to Oakland.  The alternative is that the luggage was put on the wrong train to begin with back in LA, and is God knows where, now.  I resigned myself to the thought that we will not see our luggage again until several weeks after we get home, and Google the nearest laundromat.  We put on last night's clothes and set out for the Cow Hollow Laundromat, around the corner.  Washed some clothes, trekked to the Walgreens for replacement toiletries and prescriptions, back to the laundromat to take stock of what we have.  Everyone had at least two complete sets of clothes when all was said and done, EXCEPT ME.  I had a couple of shirts, some underthings and socks, but the only pants I had were the ones currently on my body, a pair of light khaki linen pants that I thought would be perfect for train travel but were now beyond wrinkled, not to mention covered with streaks and spots of a million different Milo-snacks.  Argh.  I'm not exactly an off-the-rack kinda gal, so I was a bit stressed about my clothing situation.
Trying to keep my sense of humor intact at the Cow Hollow Laundromat.

We decided not to let the luggage situation ruin the day, and set out for Golden Gate Park.  The Hotel del Sol is in the Cow Hollow/Marina area of San Francisco, which is slightly off the beaten path, in terms of being able to walk to attractions, but very well serviced by various bus routes.  We got to know the bus routes very, very well, but on this first day, we had a misstep or two.  We took the correct bus to Golden Gate Park, but got off prematurely and ended up with a very long walk to our first destination, the Japanese Tea Garden.  We had read about the tea garden in a book before we left home, and Max was dying to check out the drum bridge.  It did not disappoint.  

Adrian and Max atop the drum bridge.

From there we set out for the California Academy of Science, and spent several happy hours exploring.   Consulted the map and set out for what we thought was a nearby bus stop....after several long blocks we realized we'd missed a key note on our map, which indicated a change in scale...right in the area of the map we were using.  Needless to say, we did not make that mistake again.  We had just made it back to the hotel when Amtrak called to say our luggage was waiting for us at the Ferry Building!  Hallelujah!  We didn't even have to go to Oakland for it!  Milo needed a nap, so Adrian and Max went off in a cab to pick up the bags.  All hail the conquering heroes!

Luggage!  Hooray!

Dinner that night was local, right around the corner from the hotel was Mel's Diner, which had caught Max's eye earlier that day on our walk back from the laundromat.  One patty melt and one carafe of wine later, I was more than ready for bed.

The next morning our primary goal was to ride a real live cable car, so we took a bus down Van Ness Street to the California line and rode it all the way to the other end, down by the Ferry Building (passing Grace Cathedral along the way, my one real Armistead Maupin moment of the trip).  It being Tuesday, we were pleased to explore the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building, scarfing up some blood orange olive oil and smoked salt to bring back home.  From there we took a trolley (for those keeping score, at this point in the trip we have now traveled via airplane, taxi, train, bus, cable car and trolley, not to mention flying elephant, teacup, spaceship....) to Pier 39, an awesomely overwhelming tourist trap if ever I have seen one.  We had a crepe, took in the view of Alcatraz, visited the Ghirardelli shop and looked at the sea lions (they smell)(BAD), all the obligatory Pier 39 things, I guess, before heading to North Beach to check out Little Italy.  Max wanted to check out a haberdashery, where he of course had to buy a hat and of course made some new friends in the owners, and then Adrian said the fateful words:
"Hey, let's go to Coit Tower!"
The man had been absolutely obsessed with Coit Tower, it came up during every single conversation we had about San Francisco during the planning stages of this trip, so of course I said, Yes!  Let's go to Coit Tower!  It's right around the corner!  Let's go!

Let me clarify:  it was right around the corner, and straight up Telegraph Hill.

Dear Reader, I nearly died.  It was during that hellacious climb up Telegraph Hill, watching my mountain goat children get further and further ahead of me, enduring the sympathetic backward glances from my barely-out-of-breath husband, that I decided there was nothing to do but start running again as soon as I got home.  It was humiliation, horror and self-loathing, all wrapped up in one endless twenty minute death march.

So yeah, Coit Tower was great!

Coit Tower
We made our way back down the hill, and decided to take a break at a handy playground.  When traveling with smallish children, never underestimate the power of an unplanned, well-timed playground stop.  The kids get to run around, unchecked, for as long as you need to sit and recharge your batteries.  It's a win-win.

We got back on the bus to Cow Hollow, and decided we needed to stop in at the Glass Slipper  Silver Cloud for a drink and a snack.  The Silver Cloud (I don't know, at some point I decided the name of this place was actually the Glass Slipper, I can't explain) has absolutely nothing, as in not one thing, to recommend it, other than it was between our usual bus stop and our hotel.  It's non-descript, from the outside, and fairly seedy, on the inside.  It has one of those rambling menus that goes on for several sticky, laminated pages, and can't really decide if it's Tex-Mex, Asian, or straight-up Amerrrcun bar food.  It has, interestingly, a rather extensive karaoke selection, and multiple stages for performance of same, although sadly, we never went in there during karaoke time.  Anyway, it was as likely a place as any for getting our drink on in the early afternoon, the way you only do all the time  while on vacation.

Throughout the day, I had been exchanging messages with my cousin, Chris, and we finally made a plan to meet for dinner back in North Beach, so after a pit-stop at the hotel we set out again, this time in a taxi that we asked to drive us down the crooked block of Lombard Street.  We met up with Chris and her boyfriend, Eric, back at the same park we had visited earlier in the day, and proceeded to have a lovely and delicious dinner at Rose Pistola, which is like a fancy restaurant that has decided to be family-friendly, simply because no one else is.  It was really delicious, with a very upscale menu and extensive wine list, but they truly did not bat an eye when Milo decided it was time to run a few laps.  Eric was particularly great with the Milo situation, and we had a very enjoyable, if somewhat rowdy, dinner, followed by gelato across the street.

Gelato!
We headed back to have a quick swim...it was too cold for me, but the boys were happy to jump in.  I really can't say enough nice things about the Hotel del Sol.  I was really determined to not stay at a chain hotel for this portion of the trip, San Francisco kind of claims to be the birthplace of the boutique hotel, and I really wanted to experience something new. I am usually a Hampton Inn girl, but I wanted to try something new.  The Hotel del Sol was highly recommended as a family-friendly property, the location was good, it had a heated pool (a hot commodity in San Francisco!) and it just seemed, in photos, to be a funky and colorful place.  In reality, it was...funky and colorful.  We really loved it.

The next day was our final full day in San Francisco.  I had heard wonderful things about the Exploratorium, so that was our goal for the morning.  We took the bus to the Palace of Fine Arts and strolled around there for a bit...I only wish the morning had not been so gray.  The Exploratorium is on the backside of the Palace of Fine Arts, but we discovered that we were too early so we walked across the street to Crissy Field to get some photos of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Back to the Exploratorium, where I think we could have spent the entire day.  There was SO MUCH to see, so much to experience.  The boys were all over the place, it was all Adrian and I could do to keep them in sight.  If I had to guess, I would say Max's favorite exhibit was the tornado, and Milo's was the monochromatic room.

Max captures a tornado.
Milo the monochromatic.
I had planned that we would also take in the Walt Disney Family Museum, but the Exploratorium proved too interesting.  Oh well.  Another in a long list of reasons to return to San Francisco, right?  We finally convinced the boys it was time to leave, I think we only really accomplished it because it was well past lunch time.  I put Milo on my back as he was definitely showing signs of needing a nap, and sure enough, he was asleep before we got back to the other side of the Palace of Fine Arts.  We ended up walking all the way back to Cow Hollow, which wasn't a bad walk at all, through a very pretty residential area along the Marina.  We stopped in for pizza - meh - before getting on another bus, this time bound for Alamo Square and the Painted Ladies.  You know, sometimes you just get it in your head that you NEED to see something.  I NEEDED to see the Painted Ladies.  I got my photos, the boys found another playground to play on, and then Adrian got his wish as we hopped back on the bus, bound for Haight-Ashbury.  We NEEDED to get his photo under the classic street sign, you know?  (And, it turned out, we needed to have one last crepe.)

Dirty hippies ;)
To cap off our first San Francisco adventure, we headed for Grant Avenue (via another cable car ride) that evening, where we strolled up and down, perusing the endless gift shops and picking up some easily-packable gifts for friends and family back home before finally picking a restaurant and gorging ourselves on Chinese food.  I am glad we visited Chinatown at night, we got some very cool photos of the lanterns strung across the street.

Cool, right?

The next morning, Adrian picked up the rental car while I finished packing.  I started to get a panicky feeling about all the things we didn't manage to do in San Francisco, and had to keep reminding myself that we DID do a LOT of things, and that San Francisco will always be there. I'm sheepish to admit that even that constant litany did not stop me from making Adrian wait in the Exploratorium so that I could run in and buy the purple airplane that Milo had been pining over, it did not stop me from making Adrian wait in the parking lot while I just "ran in" to the Walt Disney Family Museum gift shop so that I could get a pin for Jeffrey, and it did not stop me from insisting that Max and I get out of the car before we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge so that we could check out the cross-section of cable on display.  And visit the gift shop.  GOD.  I don't know why I wonder where Milo gets his love of gift shops from.

Another thing we saw in a book that we just HAD to see in person.

We finally crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, leaving San Francisco behind us in the morning fog.  We headed up the 101 to Muir Woods, because I was determined that we would not leave the West Coast without seeing a real, live redwood. I had kind of an idea that we would drive up, see a big tree, and be on our way...but the two hours or so we spent exploring Muir Woods ended up being really, dare I say it, magical.  Part of it was the quiet, part of it was the thrill of seeing something that I had never seen before.  Part of it was two small boys who were absolutely enchanted by their surroundings, and part of it was the immersion in nature after a week or so of relentless urban living.  I took about a hundred photos, and none of them really, REALLY captured what I was experiencing.  Peace, I suppose, is the best way to describe it.  I need to find more of it.

Peaceful.
Leaving Muir Woods for Healdsburg took us on a long, twisty drive along the coast, and through some of the most unfamiliar-looking terrain I have ever seen, first hand.  We stopped briefly at a beach overlook, to marvel at the cold and the wind and the cliffs and the raging Pacific, so different from the sleepy shores of home.

Definitely not the Atlantic beaches we are used to.

Milo fell asleep around the time we found ourselves in Stinson Beach.  Hungry for lunch, we decided there was nothing to do but drive on up to the Parkside Snack Shop, which was like something out of 1965.  Stinson Beach, actually, on the whole, was a bit like a trip to 1965.  I felt like I would see Annette and Frankie just around the next corner....

We finally meandered our way to Healdsburg, and up up up Toyon Drive to my aunt and uncle's house.  House.  Uh-huh.  It was like pulling into a resort, or at least a very high-end B&B.  An overnight at Nel Cielo (yes, it has a name) was a really spectacular way to end our trip.  To say the least.

The house and the grounds were absolutely beautiful, despite the fog obscuring the views of the Russian River Valley below.  Aunt Marcia has five grandchildren of her own, and they must adore her because my boys took to her like little ducklings, following her everywhere.  We enjoyed a really relaxing evening at home...some of us relaxing just a bit more than others (ahem, Adrian and Uncle Bob, I am talking about YOU) with some assistance from Uncle Bob's extensive wine cellar.

The next morning, we awoke with no clear agenda other than enjoying one last adventure before we headed for home.  We went off for a little walk, during which the boys delighted in eating apples right off a tree, and then on the recommendation of my aunt and uncle, we set off for Healdsburg, which is, naturally, a very charming little town with a LOT of money floating around in it.  We had a "short skim latte" - Uncle Bob insisted this was the best thing to order - at the Flying Goat (what IS it with coffee shops and flying animals, any way??) and then I ducked into a very upscale children's boutique that had hats similar to the one Max got in North Beach (which Milo had been trying to appropriate for days)...of course, as soon as I got Milo one of his own, he lost all interest in it.  Sigh.  Definitely time for another playground break.

They have a very cool little playground at Giorgi Park in Healdsburg, but I was really surprised to discover it has a huge, messy water feature.  Considering the other people playing that day were largely well-dressed toddlers accompanied by fussing grandmothers...I was really amused that the citizens of Healdsburg decided to include what is basically a mudpit at their playground.  Anyway, I was pretty entertained, in an evil sort of way.

Being in Sonoma, I was compelled to go to a winery, but I didn't really think it was anything Max and Milo would be entertained by.  As luck would have it, the Coppola Winery is only about ten minutes away from Healdsburg, and it was pretty easy to peak Max's interest in all of the movie memorabilia promised by the website.  So we set off for Geyserville, and ended up having a really fabulous time.  Given our small companions, we knew we were not going to do much in the way of tasting, but it was definitely lunchtimeish, so we put our names down for Rustic and set off to explore the winery.  Now, I have never been to Italy, but I have certainly seen lots of pictures...and I have to say, if Mr. Coppola was hoping to evoke the Italian countryside with his winery, well, I, for one, think he did a bang up job.  The beautiful villa, the grapes on the hillside..it was all too picturesque for words.  The few, purely Californian touches only added to the exotic appeal of the place - the enormous, glittering blue swimming pool (apparently, renting a cabana and going swimming at the winery is a thing - how fun would that be?), the enormous teepee full of children's books, the premium parking spaces for charging your hybrid vehicles, the collection of movie costumes and props from the movies of not just Francis Ford Coppola but Sofia as well.

There's my date, being a top model again.

Our table was finally available, and we had a delicious Italian lunch (and several glasses of wine).  Coppola wine is decent, and pretty inexpensive, so we ordered a mixed case of the Director's Cut to ship home, just to say we did it.

Back at Nel Cielo, Aunt Marcia and Uncle Bob were eager to introduce us to petanque (yes, they have a court.  And bocce, but the bocce court was full of patio furniture, so it was easy to see where their true interest lies).  We whiled away an hour or so, I had an early run of beginner's luck but then my true lack of skill at aim-oriented sports showed itself.  The sun finally burned off a bit of the fog, and we were able to really enjoy to views of the valley.  An early supper, and then, sadly, it was time to head for the airport.

All trip I had been seeing Facebook posts from people cursing the new Apple Maps app, and I didn't understand what the problem was...I used the app repeatedly throughout the trip and never had a single problem.  Well, that's probably because I never needed to get anywhere in a hurry.  Until now.  The rental car agency we used had a return site near the airport....and of course, this was the moment Apple Maps failed me.  So much unwanted stress, right there at the end, traffic patterns around large airports are horrible to begin with, and it was dark, and UGH, I hated that fifteen minutes SO MUCH.  Anyway, we finally found the place, returned the car, got on the shuttle...and really got to the airport with very little time to spare.  Milo was asleep, and I put him in the mei tai to transport him from the car to the airport, dreading the moment I would be asked to take him out to go through servurity...and was very pleasantly surprised that I did not have to!  I did have to let them check my hands for, I don't know, gunpowder residue or something?  Whatever, let sleeping babies sleep, you can swab my fingers as much as you like.

The flight home was pretty horrible, for me.  We took off at about 10:30pm, and the boys slept the whole way to Philadelphia, which was great.  Adrian slept the whole way to Philadelphia, bully for him.  Me?  Not so much.  It was so hot, and I suffered several small panic attacks, and didn't get a wink of sleep.  Blergh.  In Philadelphia, we discovered that the agent who checked us in in San Francisco gave us our seat assignments for the Philly-Wilmington leg of the trip as well....and had put Max and Milo sitting together in one row, me a couple of rows back, and Adrian a couple of rows behind that.  Well done.  So I went to the gate agents and they immediately said, no problem, let's shuffle some people around.  I said, oh that would be great, listen, we don't even need four seats together, just two and two, so that each boy can sit with a parent.  Well, they called up FOUR people to ask them to switch seats, explaining it was just to keep kids and parents together.  FOUR people, and we had an EXIT row sear to trade, even....and it was not until they called the FOURTH person that they found someone willing to help us out.  The first woman, was incredibly ugly, even, immediately launching into a diatribe about how she had been inconvenienced by USAir already on her trip, and the agent said, Oh, I'm so sorry, well wouldn't you like this exit row seat and she said NO, and I said, oh please, I just really want to sit with my kids, and she looked right at me with as much disdain as anyone in my life has ever looked at me, and told me NO.  The next two people weren't as ugly, but they also refused to trade.  I really couldn't believe it.  I should add, the first woman was traveling ALONE, so it's not even like we were asking to break up her travel party.  I'm not sure about the others, but in reality...it's like, AN HOUR from Philly to Wilmington.  Surely a grownup can sit apart from their traveling companion so that kids can sit with their parents?  Anyway, someone finally agreed, and I promptly burst into tears.  Luckily I had the foresight to go to the rest room first, but I was really just overwhelmed (see: not sleeping on previous overnight flight) by the difficulty we had in sorting out what should have been a minor problem.

Anyway, the flight itself was uneventful, and before we knew it, we found ourselves touching down in Wilmington, our ten-day California adventure now a thing of the past.

I hate that it's taken me so long to write all of this down, I am sure I have forgotten things that I was sure I would always remember.  Most of all, I want to remember what a good, uncomplaining, adventurous traveler Max was, how much easier it was to get around with Milo than I anticipated, how nice it was to have time to reconnect with Adrian, how inspiring it was to see things for the first time as a family, not one of us showing the rest something they already knew.

I feel like it takes a great EFFORT for us to commit to a trip, but the tripping itself is effortless.  I wish to remember THAT.  And act on it.


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