USA Travel Diary Day 1 – London to San Francisco
26th November 2021
I’m off to the USA for a couple of weeks with daughter no 1. It’s been a while. Since the beginning of the pandemic some 20 months ago, I’ve hardly even left the county let alone the country. But as we are finally allowed to travel to America and I haven’t seen daughter no 2 since she left to work in California 3 months ago, I’ve decided it’s time for my first post-Covid trip.
We have managed to get a cheap deal. The bad news is this means transiting Frankfurt, making a long day that much longer. We get up at 3 am and drive to the airport. The rules of travel are complicated – we have to adhere to those set out by the British, the Germans, the Americans and Lufthansa. We join the check in queue armed with our vaccine certificates, PCR test results, passenger attestation forms, and FFP2 compliant face masks. I assume others who have made it thus far will be similarly prepped, but apparently not. The man in front of us is on day 2. Yesterday he turned up with an antigen test instead of a PCR and got turned away. We try to check in. Our documents are in order but we have a suitcase we haven’t paid for as the Lufthansa booking system wasn’t working when we tried to do so online.. It’s not working at the airport either. We have to go to the ticket desk. The clerk has to phone someone elsewhere with access to a working computer to take our money. She promises a receipt within 5 working days.
We pass through security to the gate. The flight is heaving and pretty much everyone is transiting through Frankfurt. After having our passports checked by a human, we need to scan our boarding passes at electronic gates. These either turn green and let you pass or buzz loudly with a red X – a bit like on Britain’s Got Talent if Simon Cowell decides your act is rubbish. The woman in front of us gets a red X and has to present herself to humans. She is flying to Canada and her PCR test was taken more than 72 hours before the departure of her second flight. She is denied boarding and takes the news very badly. There is a lot of shouting and swearing and jostling as she tries to physically force her way past the check in staff. We present our boarding passes to the machine and get the dreaded red X. We have no choice other than go and stand behind the jostling.
The system has identified we have a bag but no receipt. Luckily, the ticket desk clerk has sent us an email confirming they have taken our money and we are able to board. The flight to Frankfurt is uneventful. We arrive at 9.05 and our flight to San Francisco departs at 10.05. We are parked in zone C and our next flight is from zone Z. This already feels tight, but we’re not to connect the air bridge, but with steps and a bus which drives us to zone A. By the time we enter the terminal, it’s 40 minutes to our flight and the screen shows that it’s already boarding. To enter zone Z, you must pass another Covid document check. The queue is enormous. We can’t even see the end. There’s no way we can join it and make our flight. We join the much shorter business class queue and are hugely relieved that they agree to deal with us.
We make our way to our gate and join our next queue of boarding passengers. By the time we reach the plane, our departure time has come and gone. We finally make it on board and settle into our seats. We are joined by a South African man who has already flown 12 hours from Cape Town and no longer knows what day it is. Our neighbour discovers that the sick bag in his seat back is full of sick. He asks if it’s ours? It’s not, so a flight attendant gloves up and removes the offending article. It’s not very reassuring when travelling during a pandemic, that the plane is so dirty it contains historical vomit. He is offered a keyring, chocolate bar and toothbrush by way of an apology.
Finally, an hour behind schedule, everyone is on board and we can depart. The in flight entertainment isn’t great. Like the vomit, most of the films on offer were produced some time ago, and the first 2 hours consist of idly scrolling through the film index, while the cabin crew patrol the aisles checking no one removes their mask or exposes their nose. I suspect that on a Lufthansa flight, you’d be more likely to get away with exposing your penis than your nose.
Eventually, food is served. It’s 9 hours since we left home and I’m starving. There is no meal choice, everyone gets vegetable lasagne. Our neighbour is particularly disappointed – it’s his second 12 hour flight and his second lasagne and it’s not great lasagne. I ask if it’s nut free. I get a rather abrupt ‘of course – it’s vegetable lasagne’. She neglects to point out that it’s accompanied by a piece of chocolate and nut cake, with no ingredient list and all the nuts have sunk to to bottom so aren’t immediately visible. Luckily, I notice and don’t die before we’ve even left Europe.
The flight goes on and on and on. Most people give up on the entertainment, close their windows and go to sleep. But we are flying over Greenland. There isn’t a cloud in sight and the sunrise over the glaciers and snow capped mountains is spectacular.
Then we reach Canada and it clouds over so I watch Rocketman until lunch is served. It’s a vegetable wrap. I ask if it’s nut free and get a rather abrupt ‘of course, it’s a vegetable wrap’. Again, she doesn’t mention that it comes with a chocolate hazelnut bar. My German is rusty and the ingredient list on the wrap has been written by a Borrower, but half way down, I spot the teeny tiny word ‘Mandel’. I call the air hostess back to confirm that my vegetable wrap does in fact contain almonds. She takes it off me with no apology, despite the fact she has almost killed me twice in 8 hours. I am offered a Hindu meal. There’s no ingredient list but it’s obviously just a piece of bread and butter with cucumber. I take a bite. The cucumber is so rotten it’s turned to grey slime. It’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever tasted. It’s no wonder the plane is full of used sick bags.
Finally we make it to San Francisco. It’s been a long day – we’re now 18 hours into our journey – we’re tired and I’m hungry as half of lunch and all of dinner was inedible. Time to join our next queue to get through US customs. By American standards not too bad – 1 hour 40 minutes. Just the hire car to pick up now, then the 25 mile drive to Palo Alto.
We finally arrive at daughter no 2’s apartment after 21 hours (20 of which required wearing a mask). She has planned fun activities planned for the afternoon. There’s not that much afternoon left and we’re so tired we’re not that much fun. But we manage a dip in the jacuzzi, complete with cocktails, before finally crashing.
USA Travel Diary Day 2 – Napa Valley
27th November 2021
We have an early start this morning – not a big deal for daughter no 1 and me, as our body clocks haven’t adjusted to the 8 hour time difference and we are up and raring to go by 5.30 am. When the kids were little and recently arrived in the US, I used to take them to Walmart in the middle of the night as it was the only place open where they could run around and let off steam until the rest of America was awake. Now she is older and less hyper, we make do with tiptoeing to the living room and checking our social media.
This morning, daughter no 2 and I are running Byxbee parkrun. Daughter no 1 cannot be persuaded to join in. Byxbee park is an area of wetland on the shore of San Francisco Bay. The run takes place on a trail by the water’s edge, lined with herons, geese and ducks. We were promised pelicans, but there aren’t any. The route consists of two out and back loops. I run up and back and up again. At the final turn, jet lag hits me with a thud and the final kilometre is a real struggle. Luckily, it’s Byxbee park’s 50th parkrun and someone has baked a cake. Knowing there is cake at the end helps to ease the pain and I make it to the finish line and cake – very tasty very British Victoria sponge cake. In the US, parkrun is mostly an expat affair – I think the fact that it’s free puts off Americans who seem to deeply mistrust anything free.
Run completed, we set off for our weekend in the Napa Valley. We drive through San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping at the viewpoint for the obligatory photo op.
We park up at tonight’s accommodation in Napa – the ever so classy Napa Motel 6, and walk the final 3 miles, along the Napa Valley Vine Trail to this afternoon’s appointment – wine tasting at the Laird Family Estate (via a grocery store to purchase picnic supplies).
It’s a beautiful setting; surrounded by a rose garden, overlooking the vineyard. We get out our picnic while the first of our wine flight is served. We have a lovely afternoon eating and drinking in the garden in the sunshine. Our flight consists of 3 white and 2 red wines. I thought I didn’t like red wine, but it turns out that once you reach $60 a bottle, I actually do! Once our tasting is over, we choose our favourite wine and purchase a bottle (or two) to continue our afternoon.
Drinking over, we catch a taxi back to town and check into our motel. The combination of jetlag, 10 miles of running/walking and an afternoon drinking mean I am absolutely shattered, and decide my day is done. I settle down on my lightly stained Motel 6 quilt for a sleep, while the girls take a wander into Napa.
USA Travel Diary Day 3 – Napa Valley Vine Trail
28th November 2021
Today we plan to hire bikes and cycle the Napa Valley Vine Trail. From the map, I had assumed it to be a Dr Beeching style trail along a disused railway. In fact, the railway is still there and the trail is a tarmac strip which runs parallel to the track and the adjoining freeway. It’s not, therefore, as idyllically rural and scenic as I’d imagined, but it’s a pleasant 9 mile ride from Napa to Yountville in the morning sunshine.
We reach the quaint little town of Yountville and stop for brunch amidst the tourists and Mamils at The Railway Inn, a café in a converted train.
Then we take a wander along the high street, stopping to purchase the obligatory fridge magnet. Along the way, daughter no 1 manages to lose the card containing the combination number for the bike lock, but luckily, we retrace our steps and find it lying in the road outside a store, where it fell out of her pocket when she put her face mask on.
Now we are able to unlock our bikes, we cycle back to Napa; 18 miles in total – I am not a confident cyclist and this is my longest cycle in the real world, so I am shattered by the time we reach Napa. First stop, the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) because, well it has a giant fork made out of forks and I love a piece of public art.
After a stop at the Oxbow public market; a converted warehouse full of quaint food stores, for refreshments, we stop at Tourist Information for a Napa Art Walk map. We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around town.
Eventually I flag and opt to rest in the park a while. The girls continue to explore a little longer (at least until they’ve located ice cream) but I’m tired and opt to sit in the park in the sun for a while. Ice cream located, they return to retrieve their poor, decrepit mother. It’s time to return the bikes and return to Palo Alto as daughter no 2 has work in the morning. We stop at Trader Joe’s to buy some food and eat it with our last remaining fancy bottle of wine from our lovely weekend in Napa Valley.
USA Travel Diary Day 4 – Año Nuevo State Park
29th November 2021
Today, daughter no 2 has lab time booked so we say we will entertain ourselves, then return via the shops to buy food, so at least when she comes home, dinner is sorted. (This is our intention – in reality, she returns to find us in the jacuzzi drinking cocktails).
We are now well acclimatised to the US; not only do we sleep until 7.30, but we have blueberry waffles for breakfast. Waffles consumed, and daughter no 2 despatched, we head to the west coast, driving down Route 1 to Año Nuevo State Park where, you can follow a trail to a bay where elephant seals breed.
Our first stop is at Pescadero State Beach, where a rock just out to sea is covered with pelicans, resting in between diving missions into the sea in search of fish. I don’t feel I’m properly on holiday until I’ve spotted pelicans. We descend onto the beach where I manage to slip off the edge of a sand mound and land on my arse. Not quite what I planned – plus it scares the pelicans into inertia.
We continue to Año Nuevo Sate Park. Seal mating season is in December. Our visit, right at the end of November, is just as the male seals are starting to come ashore to find good spots on the beach to wait for the ladies – it’s a bit like Germans getting up early to put their towels on deckchairs. First we must obtain the necessary permits to access the observation point (and visit the gift shop for the obligatory fridge magnet). It’s a two mile hike along a trail and then across sand dunes to the viewing point.
The first part involves walking between the ocean and a lake, basically under a pelican flight path. We watch the birds as they come overhead so low that water dripping out of their bills drips onto our heads.
At the first viewpoint, there are telescopes pointing at an island so you can view sea lions on the rocks. At sea, daughter no 1 spots a sea otter. The telescope is powerful enough that we are able to watch the otter lying on its back washing its face as it bobs around in the waves.
After a bit of a clamber over the dunes, we reach the edge of the beach where the seals congregate before moving on to the breeding beach. At first I think the beach is empty, because the seals are (a) much paler in colour than I’d realised and (b) they cover themselves with sand to protect their skin from the sun. In fact, there are around 70 seals lazing around in the sun, just chilling before the action of mating season begins. There are very informative wardens on hand, so by the time we leave, we are elephant seal experts.
After a quick stop at Pigeon Point to see the 19th Century lighthouse, we drive back up Route 1, taking a 2 mile detour inland to Arcangeli’s grocery store. According to Lonely Planet, a trip to Arcangeli’s to buy their speciality garlic and artichoke bread is a must. We order build-your-own sandwiches from the deli. I opt for herb focaccia with Swiss cheese, Pepper Jack cheese, chipotle mayo, pickles and sweet peppers – a winning combination. Daughter no 1 is so hungry she wants to sit in the car park outside the store and eat. I want to return two miles up the road to eat by the ocean rather than a car park. After a brief hangry argument, I win and we eat our lunch at Pescadero Park, watching pelicans swooping off the rocks in search of their own lunch.
We drive back to Palo Alto, stopping at the farmers market to buy vegetables to go with our garlic and artichoke bread. Back at the flat, we decide that we’re on holiday and a trip to the pool/jacuzzi is in order. We finish our swim, and are in the jacuzzi sipping cocktails when daughter no 2 finishes work and tracks us down. Then it’s back to the flat for dinner and check out if the bread is worth the hype – it is indeed very tasty. To be honest, at $7.99 a loaf, it’s probably the most expensive loaf of bread I’ve ever bought, so it ought to be!
USA Travel Diary Day 5 – Silicon Valley
30th November 2021
Today starts with some admin. As daughter no 2 is busy in the lab for the next few days, we are doing the honourable thing and buggering off to Hawaii for a week. So the morning is taken up with laundry, packing and completing the inevitable Covid paperwork – uploading vaccine certificates and answering a health questionnaire. It’s quite detailed.
By the time it’s done, I’ve got a headache, which is unfortunate as I’ve just signed an attestation that I’ve not taken Ibruprofen in the last 24 hours!
Once we’re checked in and have clean pants, we spend the rest of the day on a tour of Silicon Valley. We start by heading south. Four miles south along the freeway is our first stop; Google. It’s somewhat underwhelming as the visitor centre is closed and the Android statues, representing each of Google’s operating systems, have either been removed, broken or cordoned off. Nevertheless, we take a wander round the grounds, taking pictures of some of the remaining statues.
In addition, there’s Google’s resident T Rex fossil, Stan, who is having a patriotic day. And we can’t resist having a go on the office bikes.
Next stop, Apple. A nine mile drive south brings us to Apple Park in Cupertino. This is partially open; we can take a lift to a viewing platform to see the infinite loop (aka round) headquarters. I attempt to treat myself to an iPad in the Apple HQ store, but they’re out of stock!
We round our trip off with burgers. Then drive back to Palo Alto along El Camino Real, stopping along the way for some Christmas shopping at Stanford Shopping Center. Back at the flat, another trip to the pool/jacuzzi. This time we manage to extricate ourselves and start making dinner before daughter no 2 gets back from the lab. Then, after a bottle of Henry Hotspur’s Hard Pressed Cider, it’s time for an early night – we have to be up early tomorrow for our flights to Honolulu.
USA Travel Diary Day 14 – Stanford University
9th December 2021
Today, daughter no 2 is giving us a tour of Stanford University. When I say a tour of the university, we are on foot and the campus is enormous, so although we walk a total of 5 miles, we only cover a fraction of it.
We take in the most important sights; the Main Quad, the Clock Tower, the Memorial Church and the Hoover Tower. Unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, it isn’t currently possible to access the Hoover Tower observation deck, so we head instead for the Book Store.
The Book Store sells books (obviously) but most of the store is dedicated to selling a monumental amount of Stanford liveried goods. You name it, you can buy for an exorbitant price with a Stanford logo (an S and a giant tree) on. They even have a whole section dedicated to Stanford goods for your pets! We resist the urge to buy dresses for the cats and move on with our tour.
Next it’s on to the Sculpture Gardens. American universities are so wealthy compared to their British counterparts and Stanford more so than most. Its sculpture garden boasts the largest collection of the work of Rodin outside of France, including the Burghers of Calais.
In fact, Stanford is so fancy, it even has its own drain covers. Once we’ve finished marvelling at fancy drains and outfits for cats, we round our visit off with the main attraction; a visit to daughter no 2’s office.
Then, while she gets on with some actual work, we head to the mall for some shopping and Trader Joe’s for supplies. Then it’s back ‘home’ for dinner and a late night swim/ jacuzzi combo.
USA Travel Diary Day 15 – San Francisco
10th December 2021
Today we had planned to drive to San Francisco and do touristy things. Instead, since our arrival, it has become necessary to take a PCR test to re-enter the UK. The first struggle was to find a reasonably priced test – the first test I Googled was $449! We finally find somewhere near the airport that only costs $69 so set off for our ‘5 minute’ drive-through appointment. After we have paid, we have to scan a QR code. Daughter no 1 has a Huawei phone – it doesn’t do QR codes, so I pass her mine. This will only scan if connected to wifi, so the man goes to his hut and returns with his wifi code. Next, we must enter an email address. It will only accept addresses which end in .com, my email address ends in .co.uk, so we add daughter no 1’s address. Next we must click a link sent by email. Daughter no 1 cannot do this without wifi access, so the man must go back to his hut (again) for his wifi code. Next we must complete an online form with personal details. Our phone numbers have the wrong number of digits, so aren’t accepted and we cannot proceed past the address page without selecting a US state, despite not living in the US. In addition, we think our test results should include passport numbers. There isn’t a space for that. So the man suggests entering them in the address column, which wouldn’t accept our address anyway. Eventually we’re ready to take our test. The results will be emailed in under an hour, which is almost less time than we spent in the test centre!
Finally, we can depart for San Francisco. We park on the beach by Golden Gate Park. There is a (black) man standing on a car covered in quasi religious slogans shouting at some (white) surfers. At first we’re not sure if this is a specific altercation or just general preaching. It turns out to be the latter. The theme of his sermon is that all white men are racist and therefore exactly the same as Donald Trump. As we pass, he shoots us a scathing glance and adds “and white women” So our day, which started with a bureaucratic nightmare, has descended into racist, sexist insults.
We walk to the entrance to Golden Gate Park, consult the map and list the places we want to visit. We have grossly underestimated the size of the park. A mile later, we haven’t even reached the first item on our list – the buffalo paddock. This is, in any case, an anti climax as the buffalo are all in a shed with just one buffalo arse protruding.
We decide to drive through the park, stopping at the attractions, put pretty soon the road is blocked. We exit the park and try to re-enter further down, before coming to the conclusion that most of it has become pedestrianised since our last visit.
So we park up again near the far end and visit the final few things on our list; the Conservatory of Flowers, the lily pond (which has no lilies) the winter lights (which aren’t lit) and the ‘holiday tree’ which is basically a tree which someone has shoved a star on top of.
Final stop, the De Young Museum to visit the sculpture garden and pick up wifi to get our Covid test results.
Then we set off towards Fisherman’s Wharf. We stop briefly to take some photos of the Painted Ladies (a row of colourful Victorian houses). I get side-tracked by my love of public art; there is a row of billboards further down the street, each displaying a piece of art encouraging people to get vaccinated.
We park up and go for a wander by the piers, stopping at Ghirardelli’s (of course) and a seafood stall to buy a crab cake sandwich. We sit and eat, closely observed by a seagull the size of a goose. Then one final stop at Pier 39 to see the sea lions (and visit the fridge magnet shop).
There is a slight difference of opinion; our parking bay has a 2 hour time limit, so we only have time for either the magnet shop or hot chocolate at Ghirardelli’s. I win and we return to the car, me clutching my new magnet, and drive through the rush hour traffic to Palo Alto. Back at the flat, we spend the final evening of our holiday with a fun filled combination of uploading our Covid test results, booking day 2 PCR tests, completing Passenger Locator Forms and checking in. Oh and there might have been wine…
USA Travel Diary Day 16 – San Francisco to London
11th December 2021
As if California is helping us acclimatise to our return to the UK, we get up to find we have to scrape ice off the windscreen. Daughter no 1 has decided to join us and actually run parkrun this morning – only her 5th ever time. I say I will stay with her, but when the gun sounds, she sets of at such a pace that I can hardly keep up! We slow down a little and just miss her target of going sub 40 minutes; not bad for a non-runner after a week of Hawaiian plate lunches and Mai Tais.
Then it’s back to the flat to shower, pack, weigh the suitcase, repack then set off for the airport. Everything runs smoothly. The check in clerk asks to see our documents, takes one look at daughter no 1’s neat list of labelled PDFs and stamps our boarding pass. The suitcase is 2 kgs under, so the fight about me having to carry my dirty pants was unfounded. We are through security and at the gate 2 hours prior to our flight.
The flight departs on time and the good news is that a huge tailwind puts our ETA 45 minutes ahead of schedule. The bad news is that it’s a very bouncy flight. You know you’re in for a bumpy ride when a flight attendant screams and plonks herself down in a passenger seat! The smell of vomit starts to fill the cabin and it’s the first time I’m grateful to be wearing a surgical mask. Every now and again we hear the instruction “flight attendants check in” and the crew walk through the cabin to collect sick bags and check everyone is still alive. But then comes the command “flight attendants take your jump seats” (turbulence) or “flight attendants be seated immediately” (a shit load of turbulence). We make it back to Heathrow tired but relieved.