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Monterey Bay Aquarium

March 29th, 2007 No comments

JellyfishJoel took David and me to the Monterey Bay Aquarium today. It is indeed one of the best aquariums in the country. The above picture is of a jellyfish that we saw. The jellyfish exhibit is very soothing as you hear vaguely New Age music while walking through the darkened halls and see the transparent jellyfish made luminescent by colored lights in their tanks. The jellyfish serenely glide through the water by pulsing their bell while poison tipped tentacles trail behind them. They appear to have no sense of direction as they swim upside down, right side up, and sideways. I am always impressed by the fact that the jellyfish- an organism with no heart, brain, or bones- can capture and eat fish.

Our next stop was the sea otter exhibit where lunchtime was in progress. Sea otters are one of my favorite animals. This may be a projection of my human emotions onto an animal, but no other animal better seems to experience a “joie de vivre” like the sea otter. I think that people truly feel happy when watching these elegant swimmers play with toys or laze on their backs eating fish.

The Monterey Bay ecosystem revolves around the food and shelter provided by underwater kelp forests. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a wonderful “kelp forest” exhibit that helps visitors understand this unique ecosystem. In the huge tank, sinuous wolf eels, black, white, and red banded sheepshead fish, and spotted leopard sharks swam among the huge swaths of giant kelp. A real highlight of the day was when a diver came into the tank and fed the fish. Impressively enough, he had a microphone in his breathing equipment that allowed him to answer schoolchildren’s questions while underwater.

David’s favorite critter of the day was the Mola Mola, the Ocean Sunfish. According to Wikipedia, the Ocean Sunfish “is the largest bony fish in the world. It is a unique pelagic fish, and specimens of ocean sunfish have been observed up to 3.3 m (11 ft) in length and weighing up to 2,300 kg (5,100 lb).”  David described it as looking unreal, like a “muppet fish.” If you like learning about critters, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is definitely worth a visit.

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Welcome to the Rock

March 27th, 2007 No comments

approaching Alcatrez by ferry

At my suggestion, David and I visited one of San Francisco’s most famous sites, Alcatraz Island. Although a bit pricey, I think that it was definitely a highlight of our trip. We took a ferry from Pier 33 to Alcatraz. It’s a short trip (1.25 miles) that had lots of great photo ops for David. Warning: if you choose to stand on the outside bottom deck, you will get splashed with chilly San Francisco Bay water.

After arriving at Alcatraz, David and I walked around the grounds before going on an audio tour of the famous prison. While Alcatraz is most for the 29 year period it spent as a federal penitentiary (1934-63), it previously served as a fort and military prison. For 19 months (1969-71), Alcatraz was occupied by Native Americans as a political protest against federal seizures of native lands and poor living conditions on reservations.

We had beautiful, albeit a bit chilly and windy weather walking around Alcatraz. David took plenty of photos of the surrounding bay as well as the numerous seagulls and flowers on the island. The gardens of the wives of Alcatraz prison guards have been preserved and were full of blooming irises, daffodils, and calla lilies. Wild plant life has also taken over due to the lack of human occupation so we saw all sorts of plants growing up the rocky walls and in the ruins of abandoned Mission style buildings.

Finally, we toured the prison itself with the aid of a truly excellent audio tour. Alcatraz prison was home to such famous criminals as Al “Scarface” Capone, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Evidently, to become a criminal mastermind, an ominous sounding nickname is essential. The prison cells were shockingly small and grim looking- 5 feet wide, 9 feet long, and 7 feet tall with room for a twin mattress, toilet with no seat, sink, and 2 shelves. On D block were the solitary confinement chambers where the worst of the worst were confined in total darkness for 24 hours a day. A National Park Ranger had a bit of fun with us by waiting until some tourists would walk into the solitary confinement cell and then slammed the door behind them for a minute or so. Another constant source of frustration for the inmates must have been the spectacular views of San Francisco across the bay- so close and yet completely out of reach.

We finished up our tour of the prison and took the ferry back to San Francisco. After the sun set, we amused ourselves by exploring the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf area. We had a surprisingly good time at the Musee Mechanique, (quoting the website www.museemechanique.org), “one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical instruments and antique arcade machines.” For 25 cents, you could hear a player piano, get your fortune told by a creepy looking puppet, watch a ferris wheel made completely out of matchsticks turn, or test how intense a lover you are! It really gave some insight into how people entertained themselves in the days before movies, TV, records, etc.

At the end of the day, we decided to work off some of the junk food we’d eaten earlier in the day. In a quest to see the famous curves of Lombard Street, we hiked up the incredibly steep streets from Fisherman’s Wharf up to Russian Hill. Coming from the flat plains of Plano, TX, the hills of San Francisco were simultaneously beautiful, awesome, and a real workout to walk. After huffing and puffing at the top of Lombard Street (The Crookedest Street in the World), we gave ourselves a break and caught a cable car back to our hotel. If you ever visit San Francisco, the cable cars are a really fun way to see the city since they are open-air cars that travel only 9.5 miles per hour. Finally, we collapsed in our hotel room after a full day’s adventure!

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Dining on the waterfront

March 27th, 2007 No comments

After debarking the Alcatraz ferry at 4:30pm, Suzanne and I headed west toward Fisherman’s wharf in search of a snack. We made it as far as Pier 39, and found ourselves drawn in by the pull of the kitsch, and could not escape. Filled with shopping and restaurants, as well as a carousel, it was the antithesis of life at Alcatraz.

We were hungry so we worked our way down the pier, sampling as we went, including coffee, a half-dozen of Trish’s Mini Donuts, a hot pretzel, and BBQ Salmon Sandwich from Pier Market Seafood Restaurant.

The best part of Pier 39 for Suzanne was seeing the California Sea Lions that “hang” at the pier, since the 1989 earthquake.

We concluded the evening’s dining at In-N-Out Burger, a west coast chain featuring a simple menu of high-quality hamburgers and fries made to order with fresh ingredients. For those not in the know, while the official menu is very brief, there are numerous “secret menu” items offered, including our favorite the Animal Style Burger—a mustard cooked beef patty served on a bun with pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, extra spread and grilled onions.

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Sushi at Sakana

March 26th, 2007 No comments

Gizzard ShadIt was raining this afternoon in San Francisco, so Suzanne and I didn’t want to venture too far on foot from the hotel for lunch. After a false start to a restaurant that was only open for dinner, we went to our backup — Sakana at 639 Post St (Cross Street: Taylor).

While we usually don’t go for sushi while traveling, we thought San Francisco would be the exception, with the proximity to fresh fish, and local Japanese presence, and we did not find ourselves disappointed. We don’t consider ourselves to be experts by any means, this was among some of the best we have had, ostensibly due to the quality of the ingredients available. During our meal, we saw the owner carry in bags of fresh fish on ice, undoubtedly from the local fish market.

Suzanne ordered a lunch special of salmon, and spicy tuna maki, which was very good, but paled compared to the a-la-carte nigiri we sampled: Aji (Horse mackerel), Hamachi (Yellow tail), and Kohada (Gizzard Shad). The flavors of the mackerel and yellow tail were far subtler than I had ever tasted, and the Gizzard Shad was completely new to us. Related to herring and mackerel, it was reminiscent of sardine, but with a more subtle and complex flavor.

The meal, including a large lettuce salad (which we split) set us back about $35, including tip.

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Strolling in Chinatown

March 26th, 2007 No comments

The line in front of the House of NankingAfter I visited a lab at the University of California at San Francisco, we decided to satisfy David’s hankering for Chinese food. We walked up some very steep streets to Grant Avenue where we passed through the Dragon Gate that signifies the beginning of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Apparently, the SF Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside of China. Grant Avenue is the commercial heart of Chinatown and is lined with shops selling tourist kitsch, novelty chopsticks from shop-chopsticks.com, restaurants, and bakeries. Surprisingly, we saw the Sabra Glatt Kosher restaurant on Grant right past the Dragon gates.

David had some of his cravings satisfied at the Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Ave.), where we enjoyed yummy and cheap moon cakes and coconut macaroons. Apparently, Eastern Bakery predates WWII and has been visited by luminaries such as former President Clinton. They proudly displayed pictures of Mr. Clinton enjoying some moon cakes while surrounded by the bakery’s workers. We ate dinner at the famous House of Nanking (919 Kearny St), which is apparently quite well known due to visits by Rachael Ray.

After dinner, we walked back to the Union Square Hilton. The Union Square area is quite posh with lots of choices in high fashion shopping: Neiman Marcus, Tiffany’s, Nordstrom’s, etc. We did discover that the Tenderloin district approaches on the south side of the Union Square area and is rather seedy. Indeed, San Francisco has more homeless people asking for money than perhaps any city I’ve ever visited. Like so many big cities in the US, the contrast between rich and poor is strikingly evident in SF.

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