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San Francisco

 

The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Muir Woods, the Mission District, Fisherman’s Wharf, cable cars, China Town, Coit Towers, the Aquarium, the list could go on. There’s a lot to love about San Francisco, but there’s a strange feeling in the air here, too.

With soaring rents, rising homelessness, countless startups, Google buses, and that ever-lingering feeling of the groovy ’70s, the city has become a melting pot of classes, lifestyles, and ideas. Even after multiple visits it’s still hard to say if the metaphorical electricity in the air is a result of the vast opportunity that is to be had here, or a conflict waiting to happen. A bit of both, we suppose.

At any rate, we love to visit San Francisco because of our friends. We arrived to this lovely city, exhausted from the desert, skiing, and Yosemite. We went jogging and visited Alcatraz; we took stock of our baggage and enjoyed the luxury of our hotel room. On we go!

Alcatraz

Alcatraz was a place Big A really wanted to visit, so we lined up and caught the boat, packed in with the other tourists.

When you look at Alcatraz from San Francisco, you think, I could swim that. In fact, under the right conditions, more adventurous (and supervised) swimmers do, but what made Alcatraz such a great prison location is that the cold rough waters and strong currents were almost guaranteed to drag any escapees under -- almost.

It doesn’t really matter how many tourists there are, the whole experience is really well done, and by the end you barely notice the hoards around you. The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was built from 1910-12 on an island just a scant 1.25 miles off the coast from the highly populated San Francisco. The original function was as a military prison but in 1933 the Department of Justice acquired the site and made the updates required to open a federal prison.

There’s a reason it’s so well known – it was designed to hold troublemakers from other federal prisons – and it often tested their sanity. Holding the worst of the worst, it was the toughest prison in the U.S.

Some of the better-known prisoners, who all seem to have noteworthy nicknames, included: Al “Scarface” Capone (bootlegger, mobster, and gangster), Meyer “Mickey” Cohen (Jewish mafia, Sunset Strip kingpin), Alvin Francis “Creepy” Carpis (gangster, last Public Enemy #1 to be caught), and George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes (gangster, bootlegger). The prison operated for less than 30 years — violence, repeated escape attempts, and high running costs eventually forced the doors to close in 1964.

Monterey

We’ve rented bikes for the afternoon and will go out with the kids. We’ll definitely be stopping to see the seals – they’re actually almost impossible to miss, and you can hear their barking everywhere. The highlight of this city is the Monterey Aquarium. Years ago the location housed a sardine cannery, and now it has been transformed into one of the most unique observation locations for sea life in the country. The aquarium has constant fresh seawater pumped in from the bay, meaning that it hosts an incredible array of native Californian sea life. Central to it all is the Ocean’s Edge Wing, a huge aquarium that you can view from multiple levels. At 28-feet tall, the viewing window is one of the world’s largest single pane sheets of glass. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it, and when you see it — and what’s swimming in there — you hope it’s thick. As visions of B-movie scenes of shark escapes filled my head, the kids had their noses pressed to the glass. It was as close to scuba diving as they’ve come in their lifetimes.

There’s a huge exhibition of kelp, which sounds kind of boring, but it’s mesmerizing. Growing up to four inches a day the kelp has to be trimmed by the aquarists. We didn’t get to see it, but I imagine them floating about in scuba gear, taking a bit here and there like hairdressers of the sea. There are jellyfish in every direction, tuna (which are massive), octopuses, barracuda, sea-horses, different kinds of sharks, and plenty of things we never heard of — like the terrifying Fang tooth fish or the almost cute Dolphin fish. There are interactive displays next to the exhibition, and quite an array of 15-minute shows where the kids can “ooooh” over the animals up close; there’s even a chance to touch a few, like the rays. Kudos to the aquarium – you can see the animals and sea life are well cared for, and that lots of thought has been put into not only “display,” but also providing the right environments for them to thrive. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but having the chance to show Little Z and Big A something like this was worth it.

Big Sur

Big Sur is beautiful, with incredible views over the coastline, but the problem is that the nicer places don’t allow kids, which means we won’t be staying here.

That said, it really is a grown-up place for retreat and meditation – there’s something to be said for the esoteric value of the Big Sur. One of the most famous retreats here is the Esalen Institute. It’s all about the mind/body/spirit connection, but in an intellectual way, not just aging hippies getting mystical. The first lecture was in 1962, and course offerings in the fall of that same year included “Individual Cultural Definitions of Rationality,” “The Expanding Vision,” and “Drug-Induced Mysticism.” Now it’s all a bit more serious, and not so easy to get into – you have to go for 28 days minimum, and that’s as a work student, which means working in the kitchen or cleaning for 32 hours a week! Actually, that might be worth it just for the views ...
Notable teachers have included Ansel Adams, Joan Baez, Gregory Bateson, Ray Bradbury, Buckminster Fuller, Aldous Huxley, Susan Sonntag, and Robert Anton Wilson.