Friday, April 17, 2015

2015 San Francisco - Day 1 - Afternoon

(Link to all 2015-April San Francisco / Berkeley trip blog posts)

From the airport, I met a surly BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) attendant who was probably tired of dealing with clueless tourists, and got redirected to a very helpful Information desk. They recommended I buy BART tickets as needed and get multi-day passes for the San Francisco busses. I was tempted to, but I didn't know how my time would be spent between Berkeley and San Francisco, so I opted out. With a bit of help I sorted out how the BART was different from Vancouver's Skytrain (which was really not that much different, thankfully) and made it to my inn.

The weather was sunny, and I apparently missed a big dump of rain in parched California just the day before which caused a bit of havoc. One day of rain does not relieve drought, so water restrictions (throughout California) were in effect. I didn't get a briefing from Inn staff, but I was conscious of it, tried to keep my showers short -- and had a greater appreciation for the carefreeness I enjoyed in British Columbia.

It was generally bright and hot in the sun, cool when the wind blew, and cold in the shade. I saw so many people wearing layers and figured being steamed like clams was the reason why the folks around here did not look like apocryphal "fat Americans". Where were the obese Supersize-Me specimens? Instead I saw lots of tall women and very few heels, even on boots. Alas.

I had asked Flight Centre for a cheap hotel since I figured I'd be out most of the time and really needed only a home base to stash stuff, bathe, and sleep. They booked me into America's Best Value Inn on San Pablo Avenue -- which was rather confusing since it was the Golden Bear Inn when I got there, and none of my documents mentioned this.

At just a 1-Diamond, I didn't have my sights set very high at the Inn, but I asked for budget accommodations so I can't complain as long as it's not a roach motel. The whole neighbourhood had an older-house feel, and that strip of San Pablo Avenue had a rather dilapidated feel compared to the cleaner, newer-looking, and busier area further up in the El Cerrito area jammed full of malls. The Inn rooms were nicely maintained -- my bathrooms was not icky (which can be the case if you have older fixtures with old and blackened cracks), and the room were clean and spacious. There is a small fridge, a fan in one corner of the ceiling above the door to the bathroom, and a thermostat cleverly hidden behind the television. Furniture was heavy and solid.

The card keys annoyed the heck out of me during my stay. For some reason they kept failing on me, though it might just have been my particular keys. They are activated at the front desk, and inserted into the lock (and staff are happy to re-activate or test the keys). I was told that putting them too close to a cellphone might screw them up, but though I tried to be careful with them, they insisted on not unlocking my door randomly. I was provided two card keys, and I started keeping both on me, one in my wallet and another somewhere else on my person or in my bag.
The Inn office is open 8 AM to midnight, so going out late was a tricky proposition if you were worried that both keys might decide to go on strike. I recommend grabbing a business card right away, and having some way of calling the office after hours in case you are locked out of your room. Also, maybe ask for an extra key; or if your keys are failing frequently get new cards altogether.

There was no safe available in my suite so I carried my passport everywhere.
They evidently expect that the cleaning staff will take out your garbage because although there is a garbage can outside the office, recycling is harder to find -- so far behind the office building I thought I was using someone else's bins.

Staff were super friendly and helpful! The cleaners were more reserved but approachable. There is a full-time front desk manager Chris, plus part-time students throughout the week. (Aside: Does the Golden Bear Inn only hire cute girls and handsome guys?)
Over the week my erratic schedule let me have brief chats with some of the part-timers, including Fabiola from Pasadena, in Marketing but studying Political Economics to further expand her worldly knowledge; Maria from Richmond, parking herself in Psychology (?); artistic Pedro, who's into Spoken Word and whom you might hear teaching himself the guitar later in the evening; and Ulysses -- a rarely encountered name to be sure -- a hero's name!

One advantage of going with a small Inn instead of a larger, maybe impersonal and busy hotel, was that I got to connect with the staff more and there's a more personalized feel. They get to leave their post to take care of whatever needs to be taken care of, instead of passing you on to the proper department or desk.

Free coffee, tea, and hot water in the lobby. Paper cups there are individually plastic-wrapped, so I recommend keeping your cup or using your own mug to minimize waste. Free internet access from an apple computer in the office lobby.
Free ice machine right outside the lobby next to the soda vending machine. Despite the generally safe residential area, you may see the odd homeless person come by to get a whole bucket of ice. The staff permit this and unless someone is being aggressive or erratic, there is no need to freak out and call the police.

The Inn is fortunately not in the lower-police-coverage Oakland area, so a not-life-threatening-incident call, such as a call to report what might be a mental health case yelling, singing, and knocking on suite doors will still get a fairly prompt response.
With regard to the safety of the immediate area, there were just two incidents at the Inn during my time there, but I also saw broken car windows between the Inn and the North Berkeley BART. Maybe I got lucky but the one time I was out very late walking down residential streets at almost midnight I saw only a skunk, and later two deer on Virginia at San Pablo Avenue. Your call if you want to go walking late or super-early between the Golden Bear Inn and the nearest BART station (North Berkeley). Uber operates in the area if you feel cabs are pricey, and in any case the distance to the BART is not so far that if you came from San Francisco you might just want to pay the small amount to taxi it back to the inn.
At night, the Inn grounds are extremely well lit, with basically no shadows to hide in. Cameras watch the perimeter and are monitored during office hours by staff in the room back of the service counter.

It was afternoon and I finally got to check in with my friend in Berkeley (silly me, I put the phone on vibrate and missed it buzzing in my pocket). She suggested Off The Grid for dinner, and as it was already 2 PM I skipped lunch and just went walking to familiarize myself with the neighbourhood: Up Cedar Street to Shattuck Avenue, down Dwight Way, then back up San Pablo Avenue to the Inn. There was definitely no shortage of restaurants to try but very little jumped out at me as being particularly interesting. Coming from foodie Vancouver with its wealth of ethnic and fusion eateries, it's not hard to be jaded and I have to admit I'm perhaps too hard to impress.

Shattuck Avenue near Cedar Street felt like West 4th Avenue in Vancouver with its many stores and restaurants. As I headed down toward University Street and the Downtown Berkeley BART station, the ambiance changed to gritty Gastown, complete with panhandlers. Behind that veneer, if you look around and imagine, you can see that this was meant to be a broad, inviting, boulevard -- once upon a time.

Along the way I picked up some free local papers. Nothing really jumped out at me except How Do We Fix Our Broken World on Sunday, April 12th -- advertised in the April 8-14 edition of the East Bay Express. I was really intrigued, especially about the part that said "...the World Teacher has come with his group of incorruptible, compassionate spiritual teachers to take humanity in hand...". Two presentations, but only one day.

On my way back up San Pablo Avenue near Dwight Way I spotted the LongBranch Saloon, which was "open late" -- meaning the kitchen closed 11 pm weekdays, 11.30 pm weeknights, and bar still open after. In this sleepy neighbourhood, they had the monopoly on late-night pubbing with posh plated food. Nearby was also Caffe Trieste (featuring Stich 'n Bitch Wednesday evenings), and next door off San Pablo Avenue was Anchalee, an unassuming looking Thai restaurant with awards pasted on its windows.

So many eateries, so little time. I had to split my 7 days between San Francisco and Berkeley, between visiting my friend and exploring, between trying new restaurants and following up on recommendations my friends had made.
I had looked up supposedly good places on Yelp and Urbanspoon and CynEats, and sought recommendations from friends who'd been there. I aimed to go to some of those places, but in the end practicality meant where my exploration took me is where I ate.

No comments:

Post a Comment