I booked my flight to Oakland, California on a whim.
I had been talking about visiting Alec, a friend from school who’s from the Bay Area, and one day (after some exasperated prodding by said friend) impulsively booked a flight to Oakland for January 6, 2016. And then promptly forgot about it.
It wasn’t until after the rush of exams, Christmas, family gatherings, friend reunions, and New Years was over that I actually realized I was going to Northern California. The Bay Area holds certain significance for me, a sort of fantastic mystique that I have associated to the San Francisco area my whole life. Growing up in Vancouver, BC, the Bay Area was always described as a warmer, more interesting version of my home city- and so of course I had always wanted to check it out for myself. And suddenly I had the chance.
As the clouds parted and my cheap and shabby Allegiant Air plane began the descent into Oakland, I was oddly nervous, wary that my long held, rose-tinted view of NorCal was going to result in inevitable disappointment.
First thing’s first- tacos. Immediately after landing we zoomed to a nearby taco joint and man it did not disappoint. This restaurant was the epitome of cool- trendy, warehouse style decor, pipes lining the ceiling, vintage photographs pinned to brick walls – and the food was awesome. For the appetizer, we had queso flameado, which is basically just a giant bowl of thick, hot, gooey, melted cheese (I know, right???). And then for the main course- gourmet tacos. I can’t remember exactly the fancy sounding names and ingredients, but I can assure you they were delicious.
The next two days were dedicated to exploring Oakland. Revered as a cultural capital, Oakland sits just across the bay from SF. The city is vibrant and unpretentious; full of murals and taco trucks, graffiti and lights.
We saw Star Wars and visited Wing Stop for dinner (a fast-food chicken place, and a cornerstone of Oaklandish cultural according to Alec and his friends). We had free passes to the Oakland Zoo, and made full use of them, spending hours gawking at giraffes and chimps. Look, I made a goat friend!
Days 3 and 4 were reserved for San Francisco. We hopped on the Bart (which actually stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit- it’s not just a cute nickname for the train like I originally believed), and whipped underneath the Bay. After some uncomfortable ear popping, we were in San Francisco.
My first impression was one of palm trees. I absolutely love palm trees, and adore the fresh, relaxed vibe they lend to any city. Vancouver has a few palm trees (there’s this small area near a beach that the city planners have obviously tried to California-fy), but not nearly enough for my taste. NorCal is saturated with them. Rationally I should have expected this- everyone knows California has palm trees, right? But each curved trunk and swishing palm frond still brought a smile to my face.
Next, COFFEE! Due to our blog name (and because its such a significant part of my life), I feel obligated to share any and all coffee related tips in case any of you find yourselves urgently craving caffeine in the Bay Area. My recommended solution: Blue Bottle Coffee. The company originated in Oakland and is well-known around the area- for good reason, as my latte was delicious.
And can you truly say you’ve been somewhere if you haven’t tried their coffee?
Pier 39 / Fisherman’s Wharf
We spent the next few hours strolling the pier, people watching and exploring the eclectic collection of shops and stands and other attractions.
We went to the Bay Aquarium, which was incredible- they have walkways underneath the Bay so you can see exactly what goes on underneath the opaque waters. Answer: the fish swim around in circles, their vacant eyes boring into your soul.
I also got to touch this bizarre slug-like thingy:
After the aquarium we headed back to the pier to get the stereotypical SF Tourist Lunch: Clam Chowder in a Sourdough Bowl.
It was delicious, but damn near impossible to eat while trying to look dignified and lady-like.
Luckily, those two qualities have never been my concern.
Let’s talk a little bit about how great sea lions are.
Walking along the pier, its the sounds that hit you first. Over the wind and tourist chatter comes the cacophony of overlapping grunts and oinks and deep-throated barks. Next, its the smell- a decidedly unpleasant aroma of murky seawater mixed with feces wafts enticingly across the boardwalk.
We hurried over to join a large and excited crowd of tourists, and spent the next 30 minutes just watching the sea lions. Truly hilarious animals, their thick, cumbersome bodies drag clumsily on land but in the water they transform completely into slick, elegant swimmers. They like to make noise, especially when one rolls over another while sunbathing- the poor soul stuck underneath 1500 pounds of furry, brown blubber lets out a dismal moan of pain, triggering a friend’s sympathetic moans, triggering more moans, until they all blur into a pile of moaning brown lumps on the dock.
Next, the trolley!
The rides are quite expensive ($7 one way) but sometimes they forget to charge you. So just smile at the conductor and pray he doesn’t ask you for the fare- hey, $7 USD is $10 CAD right now! I can’t afford to be virtuous.
We took the trolley from Fisherman’s Wharf to Union Square, and got a great view of the city on the way. The mist and overcast skies of SF winter tend to lend a grey tone to the city, but the pastel buildings definitely make up for it. The trolley rattled up and down hills, through a complicated mesh of cozy apartments, colourful store fronts, and the pleasant bustle of a Friday afternoon.
Union Square was impressive, but since we didn’t have any shopping to do we didn’t stay long. Instead, we decided our day would not be complete without a visit to Ghiradelli’s, the classic San Francisco chocolatier.
We took the trolley all the way back to the pier (they charged us this time, dammit) and walked around until we hit Ghirardelli’s. Its pretty hard to miss- they have a huge, light up sign acting as a beacon for chocolate, drawing people in.
PRO TIP: We figured out pretty quickly that there were delicious samples being handed out at the entrance. Luckily for us, there are multiple entrances. So, we would walk in and out of one entrance, thanking the saleslady profusely for the chocolate, and then repeat the process at another door. When we ran out of entrances we snuck back in through the first one, and the saleslady knowingly but graciously gave us more chocolate. We’re evil geniuses.
As if the samples weren’t enough, we bought a brownie-caramel concoction for dinner, and then gazed in wonder at the giant chocolate making machine. What I wouldn’t give for one of those in my living room…
(On a side note, I was slightly worried that anyone could reach in and dip their nasty, germy hands into the chocolate tub- hopefully this isn’t the actual chocolate they sell).
The next day we drove to the Golden Gate Bridge (after only getting lost a couple times). The bridge is spectacular, and so is the view of the channel: grey skies blur into blue mountains and turquoise waters. Its a beautiful, peaceful spot, despite the insistently whipping wind.
We drove across the bridge as well, but turned back pretty quickly- there’s not much on the other side. And we wanted In N’ Out.
Unfortunately, we never made it to the famed burger paradise. San Francisco traffic SUCKS, and our navigation skills weren’t quite up for the complicated twists, one ways, and no turn signs that are rampant in The City.
The next day we boarded our flight back to Montreal, waving goodbye to the (relatively) warm West Coast weather and to the amazing family who put up with me for five days.
Turns out my rose-tinted, romanticized view of Northern California was actually justified- I absolutely loved it there. The hills, the trolleys, the uniquely West Coast vibes, the distinctive blue-grey beauty- all I can say is that I can’t wait to go back.