Long Weekend In San Francisco

After dropping the Dodge off at San Francisco airport we got the metro into town, checked into the wonderful Triton hotel, but we headed straight out again – we had a baseball game to go to!

We hadn’t managed to get to a sporting event when we were in New York in 2013, so a ball game was high on the list for this trip. The AT&T stadium has got a great view over the bay and some tasty fast food options – we got to have our first corndogs. The game was a bit boring – at one stage they went well over an hour without anyone hitting the ball, but the atmosphere made the experience worthwhile.

The next morning we had an early start – Jen was doing Parkrun, a 5km run that happens at 9am on Saturday mornings in parks all over the world. The San Francisco Parkrun is a lot smaller than Jen’s regular Coventry Parkrun, it is also the furthest west, so the last one in the world. The run was held at Chrissy Fields, a large park alongside the bay, from the city to the Golden Gate Bridge, so whilst Jen was running I was taking my first photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Jen finished 29th – technically her highest ever finishing position, but also the last in the world that day! We had breakfast with some of the other runners at Chrissy Fields, then walked along the bay to Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the main touristy areas of San Francisco. From there we took the old-school tram to the Ferry Building, which is now a hipster food market, where we had a tasty Mexican lunch. After lunch we had our first experience of the famous San Francisco Trolley Cars. We rode from Market Street, up California Street as far as China Town, then walked back to the hotel. After such a busy morning, we had a relaxing afternoon, a spot of shopping on Market Street and wine at the hotel (the hotel provides complimentary wine in reception from 5-6pm) before heading out to a highly recommended restaurant for dinner. The speciality at the Stinking Rose is garlic, but that didn’t seem to put people off, they were queuing out the door – even with a reservation we had to wait a while for our table. The food was worth the wait, we shared a sort of garlic fondue to start, then for main I had garlic meatloaf and Jen had forty clove garlic chicken.

Our second full day in San Francisco was a very touristy day, starting with a ride on the cable car to the top of Lombard Street. We walked down the iconic windy road and from there back to Fisherman’s Wharf where we boarded a boat for a cruise around the bay. We hadn’t been able to book on a tour of Alcatraz, but the cruise around the bay was a good alternative – we had a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge and learned a lot about the bay area. A highlight for me was seeing pelicans skimming across the water in tight formation. Later we had lunch at an amazing bakery; I had a pizza, although I think Jen’s chowder in a sourdough loaf looked like a better choice. After lunch we went to see the famous Pier 39 Sea Lions, they felt more like a tourist attraction than the sea lions in Monterey. Pier 39 was the closest we saw to a British seaside town. From Fisherman’s Wharf we got the restored 1930’s tram to Market Street, then transferred onto a modern tram across town to Golden Gate Park. The park was a lot calmer than either the touristy Fisherman’s Wharf or the hustle and bustle of Market Street, although when we got to the bottom of the park we stumbled across a music festival. My favourite part was the Japanese garden, which felt a lot like ones I have listed in Japan. To refuel after a long day of sightseeing we went to Mikkeller Bar, where we had food with beer pairings – very similar to when we were in Copenhagen a few years previously.

Monday started with a traditional diner breakfast – we needed the fuel, as we were off on a bike over the Golden Gate Bridge! After breakfast we got back on the cable car, all the way to Fishermans Wharf, where we collected our bikes for the day. We retraced our steps from Saturday to Chrissy Fields, and continued along the coast to Fort Point, an old military fort, pretty much underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort overlooked the narrow entrance to the bay – you could see why it was such a strategic point and why there would have been hundreds of cannons pointing out towards the water. From the fort it was a steep climb up to the Golden Gate viewing point, where we stopped for some photos before crossing the bridge. After climbing up the hill, riding across the bridge and down into Sausalito was easy. It was only when we got to Sausalito that we realised just how many people had cycled over the bridge – the town was full of bikes! We had a nice lunch in a deli and some drinks by the bay, before catching the ferry back to San Francisco. Just a word of warning for anyone doing this in future – the ride to Sausalito is either off road, or on quiet roads, but the ride back from the ferry to Fishermans Wharf is on the city roads – including tramlines. After freshening up at the hotel, we got the cable car back to Fisherman’s Wharf for another wine tasting. The wine tasting was even better than in Santa Barbara. I’m not a wine connoisseur, I rarely drink it, but even I could taste how good some of it was – we bought a zinfandel, which was by far the best wine I’ve ever tasted. We spent so long wine tasting that the restaurants on Fisherman’s Wharf  were pretty empty, but we managed to get our last clam chowder in a sourdough bowl of the trip.

We didn’t have anything planned for the last day of our honeymoon, our flight wasn’t until the late afternoon, so we had another walk around the shops on Market Street and Union Square. Following many recommendations from friends at home, we went to the Cheesecake Factory for our last meal in California. I tried to be healthy by having a salad, but even that was massive. I still had room left for a huge slice of Oreo Cheesecake, but only just.

evo GREAT DRIVES – Scotland’s greatest driving road

I only usually post my own work on this blog, but I absolutely loved this video by Henry Catchpole and the evo team.

The A93 and A939, from Blairgowerie, past Glenshee and the Lecht is my favourite driving road and it is good to see that one of my favourite journalists shares my view. Watching the film brought back good memories from when Jen and I drove this route in my MX-5 en-route to the Isle of Lewis in 2012. It also got me excited for my next road trip to Scotland in two weeks. It will be the first time I have taken the MR2 up there and I can’t wait to get it on the awesome highland roads.

That Aston Martin isn’t bad either…

Tokyo Tower and Odaiba

Odaiba from Rainbow Bridge

I originally wrote this post on a flight back from Japan a few weeks back, but didn’t get round to posting it with the excitement of being back home. I’ve just found it in the drafts folder, so thought I’d press publish!

I have been over in Japan for business again and had a weekend free in Tokyo with my boss and his boss.

On Saturday we visited Tokyo Tower – which looks like the Eiffel Tower, but white and red. We went to the highest observatory, at 250m and had a great view over Tokyo. We got to the top just as it was getting dark and the city’s lights were turning on – perfect timing! The best light show of the evening was over the rainbow bridge on the artificial island of Odaiba – so we decided to spend our Sunday there.

Our first stop on Odaiba was Tokyo Megaweb, although we got there a bit early, so killed time by going on the big wheel next to it. That is the big wheel on the photo at the top of this post. This was actually a good move, as the big wheel is one of the tallest structures on Odaiba, we had a good view of not only the local buildings, such as the Fuji TV building, but also over the rainbow bridge to the main areas of Tokyo. We had gone up in a clear capsule, which was great for all round visibility, but slightly too hazy to be worth taking photographs out of – so all I can do is recommend that you check it out if you’re ever in Tokyo!

By the time we’d been round on the big wheel Mega Web was open, we had a look at the new Toyotas, before going to the classic garage at the other side of the shopping centre. I was surprised to see that the exhibits had been rearranged since my visit earlier in the year. A Ferrari Dino 248 had been added, which was one of my highlights, along with the Toyota AE86, Lotus Élan and Fiat 500.

After spending the morning looking at cars we had lunch, before walking to the rainbow bridge, via the Statue of Liberty and the beach! The mile long walk over rainbow bridge is another great way to get a view of the Tokyo skyline, especially as it is free! We decided we would walk over the bridge and back so we could see from both sides, we went via the south side, with views over Odaiba and the bay and returned on the north side, which faces the city. The photo at the top of this post is from the way out, looking back towards Odaiba, the building on the right of the shot is the Fuji TV building – apparently the ball is another observatory, which I will visit on my next trip to Japan.

Nyhavn – Copenhagen

NyhavnLast month Jen and I spent a few days in Copenhagen, we did all the usual tourist things, Tivoli Gardens, Carlsberg Brewery tour, visited the Little Mermaid etc, but my favourite place was Nyhavn. Nyhavn, which means New Harbour, was made to get ships into the centre of Copenhagen, however these days it is the place to go on a sunny evening. Tourists and locals mingle, either sitting on the side of the harbour with a beer, or having dinner outside one of the many restaurants which line the harbour.

 

Tokyo Mega Web – Toyota Museum

Toyota TS030 LMP1 Car at Tokyo Mega Web

Last week’s Toyota TS040 Hybrid launch prompted me to post the above picture of their TS030 2013 LMP1 car, which I took at Tokyo Mega Web last time I was in Japan. Tokyo Mega Web is Toyota’s brand showcase/museum building, located on Odaiba, across the Rainbow Bridge from the main areas of Tokyo, I had a few hours spare, so went to check it out.

The first thing I saw when I walked through the door was the TS030 World Endurance Championship LMP1 car, I instantly knew I’d like this place! I had previously seen the car at Tokyo Motorshow – that’s another blog post on the list, but it was a great opportunity to get up close to one of the top endurance racing cars of last year without the crowds. I spent a while looking all around the car and getting excited for Le Mans this year, where the new TS040 will be taking on Audi and Porsche.

The top floor of Tokyo Mega Web is split into two sections, motorsport and technology, I checked out the technology section first, starting with the Star Safety System (traction control, ABS, stability control etc) simulator. The simulator set up was good, with hydraulic rams for pitch, roll and bumps, but the message was lost on me, as they had made the vehicle impossible to drive with the systems turned off – I have driven plenty of cars without stability control etc and don’t crash each time I try to turn a corner.

Next was a gesture based system, used to explain new driver assist systems Toyota are introducing to their cars, such as car to car communications, despite working in the car technology industry I think a lot of it is trying to solve problems that don’t exist, along with making drivers complacent and lazier – you don’t need a radar to tell you a kid is running out in front of you – that’s what your eyes are for!

Rather than continuing to get wound up by pointless technology I went to look at the motorsport section, which alongside the LMP1 car had some TRD tuned cars – IQs (almost as pointless as Aston Martin Cygnets?) and GT86s, which looked good and were available for virtual test drives around Suzuka on their Gran Turismo 6 set up. Next to the TRD area was a section dedicated to Gazoo Racing and their success in the Nurburgbring 24 hour races, with Toyota and Lexus.

Downstairs from the technology and motorsport section was more like a large Toyota showroom, showcasing their current Japanese range, I had heard that test drives were available on their track, but apparently my UK driving license doesn’t qualify me to drive their cars. So, I decided to go to their “History garage”, which is located about 5 minutes away, the other side of a shopping mall.

The downstairs section of the history garage housed a model shop – where you could buy a model of seemingly every car, except an MR2, an ex-Allan McNish Toyota F1 car and their workshop; where they were restoring a Cadillac and a Delorean. The restoration work looked very thorough and the restored Jaguar E-type looked stunning. I was most impressed by the 1983 Toyota Levin, better known by its chassis code AE86 – a lightweight RWD hatchback, made iconic in the Initial D drifting cartoon. Most of the cars were to be found upstairs. Despite being a Toyota museum, the first car I saw was a FIAT 500, as they had a European car section decked out like a market place, with Italian, French, German and British cars, including a very nice Lotus Elan. Next up was a selection of American cars, before the Japanese cars, including the Sports 800 – an ancestor of my MR2 along with original Supras, Skyline GTRs and a lovely Mazda Cosmo – Mazda’s first rotary engined sports car.

Wall of sake

Wall of sake

This morning I took a trip down to Harachuku, I didn’t see any Harachuku girls, but I did visit the Meiji Jingu shrine where is wall of sake barrels had been left as an offering to the deities. Opposite them there were also offerings of French wine, as Emperor Meiji brought western clothing, food and drink to the Japanese.

Shibuya

Shibuya

I’m back in Japan for a business trip again and having 24 hours in Tokyo before I head up to the office. One of my favourite places to go in Tokyo is Shibuya, not only is there the iconic crossing, but lots of little shops and restaurants off the side streets.

I spent a couple of hours there this afternoon, first in Starbucks (it has the best view of the crossing, and 22 hours since leaving home I needed some caffeine) then by Hachikō, the dog statue, which is meant to be the most famous meeting place in Tokyo. As well as people to watch, there were cars – S2000s with the roof down, making the most of the winter sun, Jaguars, Porsches, a Lotus Esprit but the one that woke me up was the Ferrari Enzo – the sound of the 6l V12 bouncing off the talk buildings was spectacular!

New York Days 5, 6 and 7: Brooklyn, Broadway, Empire State Building and Home

Great view from the top of the Empire State Building

I had actually written most of this post while I was waiting for our flight home, but the last few weeks have been so busy with work, Christmas, manflu and the 119 Project that I didn’t get round to uploading it. Sorry to those that have been left hanging!

Our last full day started with getting the subway to Brooklyn Bridge, so we could walk across the East River to Brooklyn. The bridge is well over 100 years old and at the time it was built was a real technological marvel. These days it looks 100 years old, the wooden walkway on reminded me of Llandudno pier, from our North Wales trip earlier in the year. When we got to Brooklyn it immediately felt different to Manhattan, there was a lot more space and everything seemed calmer.

After spending some time wandering around Brooklyn we took the subway to West Village and walked towards Chelsea and the Meat Packing district to find some lunch. We stopped at The Diner, opposite the Apple Store. As the name suggests it is a typical American diner, so to blend in, we both ordered burgers and cokes, which tasted lovely after a morning walking around.

After lunch we crossed the road and checked out Chelsea Market, which is foodie heaven in an old brick warehouse, somewhere we’d have liked to spend more time exploring. From Chelsea Market we got onto the Highline, a disused raised subway line, which has been turned into a park. We only had time to walk along a small section, but enjoyed the calmer atmosphere and people watching from above the traffic.

The reason we were pushed for time after lunch was that we wanted to get tickets to a Broadway show and discounted tickets are sold from 15:00 in Times Square. Unfortunately, when we got there, tickets for the shows we wanted to see weren’t available, so we tried going to the theaters directly and managed to get tickets to the Lion King, albeit at full price. After a bit of shopping on Times Square we went back to the hotel for cheese and wine and to chill out for a while before getting ready for the show.

On the way to the theater, we took a slight detour via the Rockefeller Center to see what the tree looked like with the lights on. Although, I must admit it looked pretty impressive I’m not sure it was worth all the fuss from the day before. I’m also not sure One Direction were worth camping out on the street next to the Rockefeller Center, as we saw some fans doing.

The show was better than expected, the costumes and props were particularly clever; and despite it finishing way past our New York bedtime we didn’t fall asleep. When we got back to the hotel we went up to the roof top bar for some cocktails to finish our night off in style.

We woke up to rain on our last day in New York, we only realised how much of a problem this was, when we couldn’t see the skyscraper a few blocks down from our hotel – we’d saved going up the Empire State Building until our last day. Fail! After yet another tasty breakfast at the Library Hotel, we took the short stroll down 5th Avenue to the Empire State Building, to our dismay, as we walked we noticed that the top of the tower was in the clouds. The upshot to this was that the dreaded queues we’d heard about weren’t there, so after passing through another round of airport style security, we were in the lift to the 80th floor. The 80th floor consists of the giftshop and an exhibit about the tower was built, which I found especially interesting as it was built in 1931, the same year as our little terraced house in Coventry! Later, I was told that some of the bricks used came from Nuneaton, Jen’s home town.

From the 80th floor it was only a short elevator ride to the 86th floor, for the outdoor viewing platform. We didn’t stay long, as you can see on the image at the top of this post, the visibility wasn’t great, we could barely see across the east river to Queens, but not only that – it was sleeting. We went back inside and to the original 1931 lift up to the 102nd floor, which was originally intended as an airship terminal. There wasn’t much room on the 102nd floor, so it was probably good that we were up there on a quiet day, even though we could barely see the ground. We decided that we’ll have to return to New York to go up the Empire State Building again.

After that, we went back to the hotel to check out, then out for some lunch before catching our bus to the airport. Earlier in the week we’d spied Le Relais de Venise, which we’d enjoyed a steak at when in Paris in March, so we thought we should see how the New York version compared. As in Paris, the steak frites was lovely and it all felt very French, even if there was a bit more space around the tables than in the Paris restaurant – we need to try the London branches in 2014!

After lunch we started our journey back to Coventry, as on the way to New York everything went smoothly at JFK and before we knew it was the next morning and we were back in the UK. After 4 long haul flights in 20 days I was looking forward to being home for a bit, but incase we had felt that Coventry was a bit too quiet after 5 days in New York, we’d arranged to meet Jen’s friend in Birmingham for some birthday drinks at the Christmas market. I can confirm that Birmingham Christmas maker is even busier than Times Square, which only a few days ago, I wouldn’t have said was possible! Also we seemed to have more transport issues getting to and from Birmingham, than we had getting to New York – it was good to be home!

New York Day 4: My Birthday

View downtown from Top of the Rock
The main plan for today had been to visit the Top of the Rock observation platform at the Rockefeller Center and to do some shopping.

We started off with the shopping, walking up Lexington Avenue to Bloomingdales, where we stopped for a New York cheese cake at Magnolia Bakery. From there we cut across to 5th Avenue, to the underground Apple shop, which we’d actually walked past on Monday without realising. The glass cube entrance was impressive, but would have been even better if it wasn’t full of scaffolding. I like how in a town of high rise buildings Apple built what is essentially a small green house.

Next to the Apple shop is FAO Schwarz, the famous toy shop, so we had a look in there for Christmas presents for our friends’ children, before braving Tiffany’s. I’d never seen so much jewellery in one place, the store was enormous and there must have been millions of dollars of diamonds there. Jen dropped some hints, luckily she thought a lot of it was too bling and not her style and I escaped with my wallet intact.

After advice from a few people who’d been to New York before, we decided to bring forward our trip to Top of the Rock, so that we would be up there for sunset, seeing the city both by day and night. As we were walking down 5th Avenue towards the Rockefeller Center, we noticed that the NYPD were out in force and that there appeared to be something happening at the Rockefeller Center. We got our tickets exchanged and thought no more of it.

After another morning with a lot of walking it was time for lunch. We’d spotted a few branches of Chipotle, a Mexican fast food chain, which seemed a lot like Barburrito, one of our favourite places at home, so we decided to go there for lunch. It did turn out to be like Barburrito, only with bigger portions – great! Just in case we got hungry later on we also stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way back to the hotel – when in Rome and all that.

Later in the afternoon, as we walked back up to the Rockefeller Center it became apparent why the NYPD were out in force – the lights on the Rockefeller Center tree were being switched on. In the States this is a big deal and is televised nationwide. Large crowds had already begun to gather to see performances by Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey, amongst others – it was chaos!

We eventually got to the bottom of the lift for the Top of the Rock, after passing through more airport style security and having our picture taken we were stood in the lift about to go up 67 floors. As the lift started the lights went out to allow us to see the illuminated shaft we were travelling up through the clear ceiling. We got up to the outdoor viewing area on the 67th floor just before dusk, although the sky was quite hazy, so we could only just make out the Statue of Liberty in the distance. We were also able to see just how far we’d walked on day two, Central Park is enormous! It was fun using the augmented reality Top of the Rock app I’d downloaded to my iPhone to identify the various skyscrapers. It was strange looking down on the smaller buildings, then realising that they were still over ten stories high – higher than the tallest buildings in Coventry! Before it got dark we took the escalator, then stairs to the 69th floor, which was better for photos due to the lack of protective glass. As the sun dropped the lights on various buildings began to switch on and soon it was time to take some nighttime images. At night the view down town is better than the view to the north, over Central Park. The Empire State Building was lit up blue and white in honour of Chanukah and dominated the skyline.

When we got out of the Rockefeller Center we had to take a detour back to the hotel, due to road closures for the tree lighting ceremony. We tried a few places for dinner, but ended up at the hotel restaurant, Madison and Vine. The restaurant seemed really popular and we soon found out why, the food was great. I had meatloaf with mushrooms and mash and Jen had steak and chips. After dinner we tried to go to the hotel bar, but it was closed for a private function again so hopefully it’ll be third time lucky tomorrow!

New York Day 3: Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty
The last day of my twenties started with a subway ride from Times Square to the site of the World Trade Center. The subway didn’t seem as efficient as the London Underground, but probably wasn’t as busy as the underground would have been at 9:00 on a Tuesday morning. The new 104 story skyscraper they are building at the site of the World Trade Center, looked suitably impressive.

From there, we walked down past the American Stock Exchange, to Battery Park , to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Even though we were earlier than the time on our pre-booked tickets, we went straight through the airport style security and onto the boat. On the 15 minute crossing to Liberty island, we got to see the iconic Manhattan skyline and tick pretzels off our street food to do list.

The sun had come out by the time we disembarked, so I was able to take some photos of the statue, unfortunately the air was a bit hazy, so I’m not sure how well the photos back to Manhattan will turn out. We started off walking around the island, admiring the statue from all angles – it is a lot bigger close up, the pedestal alone is 10 stories high and when the statue was completed it was then the tallest building in New York! Then, after another round of airport style security we got inside the pedestal, where there’s a museum showing how the statue was build and financed, which was really interesting – a lot of the funding came from private individuals in both France and the United States, and not just the upper classes. In the museum there was also as 1:1 replica of one of Liberty’s feet, with the ankle being above head height it showed the scale of the statue really well. After the museum we decided to skip the queue for the lift and climbed the 195 steps up to the top of the pedestal, for a brilliant view across the harbour.

After leaving the statue we boarded the ferry to the immigration museum at Ellis island, where we had a quick look around before catching the ferry back to Battery Park on Manhattan island. At $17 each it seemed like a bit of a bargain for a full mornings sightseeing.

By this time we were hungry, so we got the subway up to Chinatown, then walked up to little Italy, with the intention of finding some cheap pizza slices. Unfortunately, little Italy was more serious restaurants, than street food, but nevertheless we had a great lunch at the Italian Food Center.

In the afternoon we took a look at the Chrysler building, with its impressive gargoyles, then chilled out for a bit, as the combination of big lunch, jet lag and a busy morning had caught up with us.

After more cheese and wine at the hotel it was time to go out for the last meal of my twenties – the venue for this was Hill Country, a Texan BBQ restaurant. After a 30 minute walk which helped our appetites we arrived and were given our meal tickets, it was buffet style, but everything we ate was to be recorded on our tickets. An unusual concept, but it seemed to work well, and meant you weren’t forced to eat a massive portion, as you paid by weight.

I went for pork rib, beef brisket and their homemade hot sausage, Jen had pork rib, beef rib and a quarter chicken. The food was really tasty, the pork ribs were almost as good as mine and the beef brisket gives me something to aim for next summer!

After the walk back, we tried to visit the rooftop bar at the hotel, but it was closed for a private party, so we’ll have to try again after our visit to the Rockefeller Center tomorrow.