Sunday, 17 April 2011

18. Auckland to Denver via San Francisco in the blink of an eye


Pancakes in Tiburon

Civil War re-enactment

Angel Island shoreline

Lavender and Pride of Madeira

Casey's Arm!

Clara and her menu board


Mike at Golden Gate bridge

Barb and Doug Crawford

A BART train at Orinda Station

San Francisco Cable Cars

The Golden Gate from a heliccopter

The new Bay Bridge under construction


Sealions beside Pier 39

Alcatraz

Tom Medin and Mengleng discuss coffee

Italian French Bakery

San Francisco coffee culture

Who's that with Mike Soute
Returning the Camper Van to United is as easy as pie, but at Air New Zealand’s premium check in, I again have the devil of a job trying to persuade the woman that my International ticket takes precedence in deciding baggage allowance and that I should not be paying extra for my second checked bag.
She also refuses to check my bag through to San Francisco, which I know to be nonsense.
In the airline’s, as always excellent, Koru lounge, I discover Pat, who’s rather more switched on. Not only does he sort out various inconsistencies he has spotted on some of my onward connections, he personally goes and retrieves my baggage and has it properly tagged all the way through to San Francisco, negating the need to check it in again at Los Angeles. I have to clear customs there, but that is all.
Another touch I love in Air New Zealand’s lounges is that the concierge on their long haul flights comes into the lounge to sort out any queries any premium cabin passengers may have. Beauregard (yes, really) is having to deal with a party of Canadians and Americans who are booked on the flight, but who are getting rowdy and obnoxious after playing a series of drinking games.
But both Beau and Leigh, the flight services manager, read the riot act to those booked on our flight prior to boarding and, barred from having anything more to drink, I am told later that they drop into an alcohol-induced sleep almost immediately after take off.
In the lounge I am invited to take the opportunity of ‘Putting my feet up and experiencing Bliss’. This turns out to be a complimentary reflexology cum massage treatment. I tell the Taiwanese man doing it that I just find it tickly!
While enjoying the excellent Herb crusted lamb and Kiwi red wines onboard, I take in two pretty good films, ‘The hopes and fears of Gazza Snell’ and ‘Tamara Drew’.
The totally lie-flat beds in the B777-200 are really comfortable and I sleep like a baby until 7am.
Los Angeles arrivals is an absolute shambles. There are queues moving slowly for both immigration and customs. I race through various car parks in a route directed to by Beau, to catch my flight to San Francisco with only a few minutes to spare, despite having over two hours to make the connection.
The Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) has given me a pass letter, which I have to show with my Press ID to travel for free. But it’s a pain. The staff at the gates don’t have time to read the letter, which is several paragraphs long, and, almost every time I use it they look at me as if I am an alien from another planet. I suppose I should just say that I am Scottish!
At Orinda station, I am met by my host, Barb Crawford, whom I have never met, but who rented one of my apartments in Spain. She turns out to be, as described, a woman in black with a black car!
There’s time for only a quick shower at the Crawford’s home, during which I am exfoliated and anti-aged, before my next appointment. Having travelled through three airports in the past 24 hours, Barb thinks it would be a nice treat for me to see Oakland International.
Actually, the trip is to pick up husband Doug, who has been dealing with affairs on the west coast after losing his mother and is almost as weary as me.
We repair to the rather oddly named Ruth’s Chris steak house in Walnut Creek, where I enjoy the best T-bone steak ever. The cheery server tells us that Chris had a chain of steakhouses originating in New Orleans and Ruth bought him out. Or maybe it was the other way rround. In any case the old name was incorporated into the new one. Barb’s fillet is excellent too, but I have no idea why Doug opts for something with noodles. Perhaps it’s explained by the fact he’s a doctor.
Barb and Doug are among a very few Americans I know who are mad keen on English Premiership football and have brought up their daughters in the same vein. Doug is even daft enough to be a referee.
I am sleeping with Fernando Torres and the whole of the American Women’s football team in younger daughter Leah’s room.  I should stress that Fernando is unaware of this arrangement, which is just as well, because one of the women is scarily tattooed. For legal reasons, I also need to make plain that Leah now has an apartment in San Francisco.
Their own kitchen being closed for a makeover, Doug, Barb and I drive to Tiburon, where we enjoy an excellent breakfast at the New World Café. I have the pancakes with some sausages that are called bangers on the menu but are chipolatas to me. There is so much I have to leave one pancake and donate my toast to the other two.
We are there for a reason. None of us has been to Angel Island State Park and you can catch a ferry to it from Tiburon. As we wait to get onboard, a whole class of little Civil War-uniformed children get off, having just completed a re-enactment.
I have the secret password ‘Cove Café’ to get on board, but we only secure a safe passage after I offer unlimited Vietnamese Dong.
I love US State Parks and Angel Island is no exception. We hire bikes and do a complete 5 mile circuit. The views of the Golden Gate, the Bay and Alcatraz are so wonderful, that we take three hours to get round! The wildlife and scenery is great, the history of it being the west coast’s Ellis Island is enthralling and there is much to do and see.
What especially impresses is the Cove Café. The menu is innovative, well presented and extremely tasty. I take a photo of Clara, who has made a splendid job of designing the menu board.
We start chatting to Amy and Casey, two of the uniformed staff. Casey’s arm in fact appears in this blog. I promise to mail it back. I also promise not to mention that Amy is wearing the wrong hat band, so I won’t. Well not again.
A staff member is cutting down some invasive ‘Pride of Madeira’ plants, one of which he gives to Doug to take away.
Moments later a volunteer challenges him for ‘removing a native plant species’. Despite Doug going into deep disguise under a woolly hat worn back to front, a Park Ranger says the same thing as we board the ferry. It’s just as well that I have Amy and Casey’s business cards or west coast America might be waking up today without a respected physician and eminent football referee. (PROPER football, not that silly game with all the padding).
We drive up to Hawk Hill, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, which offers a splendid view of the Bay that very few visitors get to see. (Almost all are taken to the Vista Point, just beside the structure, which is not nearly so impressive). There are also some fascinating old defences from World War 2.
Back home, Doug and I have a couple of beers while watching Chelsea and Manchester United in the Champions League and eating an excellent Italian takeaway from one of their local restaurants.
In the morning, I catch the BART downtown (the lady at the gate says ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’, when I proffer my ID and letter) to catch a bus to catch a helicopter. As you do. Unlike in the UK, there is hardly anyone reading a newspaper. They all seem to be texting. Maybe each other. As a result, the carriage is amazingly quiet.
On the way to Sausalito, A.D., the 26 year old driver, tells me that he has never been on a cable car. It’s probably because he comes from Oakland, just across the bay. When I ask him if I can catch a ferry to Oakland and get the BART back, he doesn’t know. He’s been studying to be a dental technician, so probably doesn’t get out much.
But, joking apart, the cable cars are very expensive and are all crammed full of tourists posing as sardines. So I decide against.
Fred the pilot of our San Francisco Helicopters Bell Jet Ranger is a bit of a joker. He tells me he got his licence after sending off a few coupons from cereal boxes. His musical choice as we sweep under the Golden Gate Bridge is ‘Superman’. Very funny, Fred.
We spend thirty minutes exploring the Bay Area. As we have three humourless Germans in the back, Fred diplomatically avoids mentioning that the defences on Hawk Hill were built to protect San Francisco against the German and Japanese fleets.
Visibility is perfect, Fred is brilliant and the aerial views of the Golden Gate, Bay Bridge, the City, Alcatraz and the Bay are spectacular.
I have time to potter about the harbour front area. A.D. advises against the tourist trap that is Pier 39 and I, only one pier away, have a great view of the sea lions, Alcatraz and the bustling bay,  without any of the hordes.
In the afternoon, Tom Medin has invited me on his ‘Local Tastes of the City Tour’. We are joined by a Singaporean bank compliance officer, Mengleng. Tom talks very fast and even I need to ask him to repeat stuff that I don’t quite catch. Mengleng and I develop an understanding that when she doesn’t quite catch the drift and looks at me blankly, I ask Tom another question. The system works well.
Tom’s enthusiasm for the area and his knowledge of the subject and the local suppliers is brilliant. We learn about different ways of making bread and pastries, how to choose the freshest coffee (Beans, not ground and use your sense of smell), see one of San Francisco’s most tattooed and pierced men make fudge at Z. Cioccolato in Columbus Avenue and enjoy the best pizza I have ever tasted at Romina and Arnold’s in Union Street.
It’s three enjoyable hours really well spent. Tom also does a similar tour of Chinatown.
At Montgomery Street BART, the gate lady says ‘thank you, you are a gentleman’ to me for holding the gate open for a passing woman, who says nothing as she sweeps through. GRRRR.
I am missing airports, so Barb and Doug kindly take me to San Francisco International, the first BART on a Saturday, surprisingly, not leaving Orinda until after 6am.
Jeff Smizac, the President and CEO of the recently-merged United and Continental Airlines, smiles broadly in a pre-flight video, as he talks about providing ‘Great Customer Service’. He clearly doesn’t have to check in as normal folk do. The last time I flew United, they lost one of my bags and, despite knowing where it was, took 2 days to deliver it 10 miles to where I was staying.
Today is a nightmare. Kerbside check-in sends me to First Class, who send me to economy, who want to charge me $60 dollars for my second bag. All because none of the staff can be bothered to look at very clear remarks that link my Round the World Ticket to the one that gets me to and from San Francisco. I have planned on having breakfast in the Red Carpet Lounge, but despite having a Business Class United Ticket back to London, as part of a Business Class Star Alliance Round the World ticket, AND a full-fare First Class seat for this flight, the most unfriendly and unhelpful woman in the world if not the galaxy, won’t let me in.
Despite having arrived at the airport 90 minutes before boarding, I arrive on board the flight to Los Angeles with moments to spare, a frazzled heap. One of the flight attendants serves coffee. ‘Don’t say no sugar. I don’t hear no. All I hear is sugar’. This goes down especially well with the lady next to me who only speaks Chinese.
In LA, I have over two hours lay over, but again, am refused entry to the lounge. My ire is not helped by seeing economy class travellers take their wife and kids in just because they have paid the annual club fee. I send an email to Denise, my ‘best friend contact’ in United Guest response. But she’s on holiday and I get a bland, almost computerised, response in return.
Mr. Smizac, your airline is a shambles and you have nothing at all to smile about in your video. Go under cover. Try it. You will be shocked.
But, Mr. Smizac, do promote Carolyn Rogers, one of your supervisors at LAX. She CARES for your customers, she has compassion and sense. Something no other staff member so far today has shown to be in their vocabulary.

I am sitting in Seat 1A of a United First Class 767 to Denver. The crew is clearly excited about the presence of my next door neighbour who has on board last with more hand luggage than almost anybody else in the history of air travel. When I go to the toilet, they tell me that he is Val Kilmer. The name means nothing to me, but they say it with such respect, I almost bow as I excuse myself to return to my seat.
Val is busy under headphones, while correcting a script, but emerges during a lunch break to strike up a conversation.
He is interested in my travels and I recommend Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands as a place to which he could escape the baggage of celebrity. He’s hoping to take his one man Mark Twain show to the Edinburgh Fringe and I promise that, if he does, I’ll show him that Scotland can be as special and as private as anyone else in the world. He shows me a picture in character and Val looks more like Mark Twain than the man himself. Clearly the rumours of Twain’s death WERE greatly exaggerated!
When I reach Denver and Google him, I discover that I am about the only person on the planet who doesn’t know his name.
But I do have the presence of mind to have a photograph taken in case the almost 3000 folk now reading this blog do want to know who the person sitting next to Mike Souter is.
Which you probably do.

My San Francisco pictures are at


A selection of images from all the destinations visited in ‘Around the World in 60 days’ is at