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So Cool You'll Be a Popsicle: California from SF to LA (July 14-23)

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Having been burgered, we made good time to San Francisco, where Tony's friend K very generously hosted us for a week. As she was house-sitting part of the time, we got to see multiple neighborhoods and modes of living in the city, from an apartment in the Castro to a single-family home in a gentrifying Latino neighborhood.

I've always liked San Francisco, and I see new aspects of it each time I visit. This time, K introduced us to a couple of good bars, of which Smuggler's Cove may be my favorite place to drink ever: good cocktails, reasonably priced by San Francisco standards, bartenders kind enough to bring my purse up to me when I forget it, and pirate-themed!  

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One of the serves-four punches at Smuggler's Cove
K. also showed us obscure and intriguing parts of the city that don't show up on tourist maps, like the Columbarium. Tony and I spent an afternoon wandering through the building, reading the messages left for the dead by the living. The cremated remains represent a cross-section of the city: Asian, black, white, gay, straight, children, centenarians, Catholic, pagan. The niches of those who'd clearly died during the pre-AZT AIDS epidemic particularly fascinated me -- some evidently had been mourned by their traditional families, others by the communities they'd created for themselves, while a few had been buried only by a partner and a couple of surviving friends.

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Front of the Columbarium

I was disappointed by only one aspect of my time in the Bay Area, and that was by the part that I'd planned far in advance: dinner at Chez Panisse. I probably should have taken K's advice and cancelled our reservation for a $60 three-course dinner in the downstairs restaurant, in favor of trying the less expensive a la carte Cafe upstairs. The building is pretty and the by-the-glass wines were reasonably priced; I liked the appetizer, dessert and sides.  However, the main course bavette steak was very disappointing: it tasted overcooked and sort of gummy. This was particularly surprising considering that they served the same meal to every customer, so it's not like the restaurant had done badly on just one item from a long menu.

A constant in my visits to San Francisco is that it's always colder there than I expect. It doesn't matter if I go in January, March or July: I never quite anticipate the wind off the Bay. This time the chill held throughout California. We encountered many delightful outdoor places to stop, ranging from a beachfront fast food place with no drive-thru, to a restaurant in Big Sur with a fire pit and gorgeous views of both forest and sea. But every one of them made me shiver.

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The Taco Bell you can surf up to, but not drive through

As Tony mentioned, Big Sur is very short on affordable places to sleep, and we ended up camping out in our minivan. In some ways, this was the best option, as we got back up at 1am to enjoy the middle-of-the-night public access to the Esalen Institute's famous hot springs, then slept from 3:30am until dawn. I wouldn't go out of my way to visit Esalen, but it made for an interesting (and warming!) stop on our drive down the Pacific Coast Highway.

We stopped briefly at Hearst Castle in the morning as it had been highly recommended by a guidebook, but decided that the tours were too expensive -- if you want to see the entire site, it costs over $100. We'd been similarly economically dis-incentivized to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Los Angeles, in contrast to San Francisco, has been a city I've always disliked. We had a nice visit there, seeing high school and law school friends of Tony's and staying in the Little Tokyo neighborhood, but it didn't win me over. Fundamentally, a city that's as expensive as northern metropolises like San Francisco, Chicago, New York and DC, but like a southern city (Houston, Austin, Atlanta) still requires one to own a car and is basically unwalkable, is just not my kind of place.

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That is a gorgeous building. Do you have a picture that I can zoom in on? I think secretly I need a wood cabin like that instead of a split level 70's house.

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