Alameda Island (a quiet spot on San Francisco Bay)

Some friends of mine recently moved from San Francisco to Alameda Island and invited me out for a visit. I didn't expect much, and thought it would just be another Bay Area suburb-–but I was very wrong.

Alameda Island (a quiet spot on San Francisco Bay)

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 6, 2003

Alameda apparently has more Victorian/Queen Anne homes than any other place on the entire West Coast--making it a prime vacation spot for a house-viewing addict such as myself.

The older homes are in a part of town known as the Gold Coast and many of them back onto a private lagoon. You can see the lagoon from many of the streets and imagine yourself owning one of the $1 million homes with your own private dock--there is no public or street access to the lagoon.

Alameda is only 20/30 minutes from San Francisco and just a few minutes from Oakland's Jack London Square.

I've been to San Francisco hundreds of times and had never even heard of this place until my friends moved there in November. I've been missing out.${QuickSuggestions} Plan on spending a long day or two at least. Start out with a walk along the beach, go for a long leisurely breakfast, then walk around and look at the houses, sit in one of the dozens of parks, and go shopping on Park Street. Make sure you're back at the beach for sunset. This is not the place to go for excitement. In fact, if it were any more mellow it would be kind of scary--it's a pleasant place as it is. ${BestWay} Take the ferry, bus, or drive to the island. Once there, you can easily walk around the entire island or take a bus. If you do drive, parking is plentiful and easy to find--unlike most of the Bay Area. The entire island is only 6 miles across and a little more than a mile wide.


Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

Tillies is an authentic neighborhood diner/grill with an extremely friendly staff, great waffles, and even better prices. It's been a fixture in Alameda for hundreds (okay, dozens) of years, and with the exception of one hostess with an unneccesarily shrill voice and unintentionally frightening retro bouffant hairdo, the place never missed a beat as the perfect place to have a basic meal. In fact, we ate either breakfast or lunch there nearly every day during our vacation.

The food is hugely filling and the prices are far (far) lower than similar joints on the other side of the bay. A huge omelet, hash browns, toast, and coffee at Tillies (less than $7) will definitely see you through both a morning walk along the beach and an afternoon's shopping expedition at Union Square.

Breakfast-type food is available all day and the big fat waffles are just as good at lunch as they are at breakfast. They also do takeout and I highly recommend stopping there for sandwiches and salads to take to the beach or park.

The place is usually quite full, regardless of the time of day, but only once did they send us for a stroll around the block to wait for a table to open up.

Conclusion--not the best food on the island, but very decent food served by friendly natives at a very good price.

1500 Webster St.
San Francisco, California, 94501

Kamakura Restaurant

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

Yet another "way too friendly" dining experience in Alameda.

Kamakura is a great sushi place--the fish is fresh and the wait staff could not possibly have been nicer.

The lunch menu is standard Japanese fare such as teriyaki and tonkatsu, but there is also really good udon and I think only one thing on the entire lunch menu was even close to $10--and that was for a huge combination plate that looked much more like dinner, or lunch with leftovers.

The sushi on offer was extensive and the salmon skin and soft shell crab rolls were really really good. The sushi prices seemed extremely reasonable.

Maybe the prices seemed so reasonable just because they were less than those across the bay? I mean, it's way too far to Alameda to drive just to eat at the restaurants there--none of them were THAT good, but when you're on the island there's not much reason to even cross the bridge (or drive through the tunnel) to Oakland for a meal.

Kamakura Restaurant
2549 Santa Clara Avenue
San Francisco, California, 94501
(510) 521-9121

Tucker's Ice Cream

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

What trip to the beach is complete without big fat ice cream cones?

This place makes its own ice cream and it's really good. I almost wished we hadn't found the darn place because all the good I did from walking around the island was undone over and over by their burgundy cherry ice cream. They also have frozen chocolate dipped bananas. I love them!

So, first walk the entire island, try to do it twice if you can, then go into Tucker's and have a sundae. This way, you work off the fat then get to have the fun of putting it back on.

Tucker's Super Creamed Ice Cream
1349 Park Street Alameda
Alameda, California, 94501
(510) 522-4960

Canvas Cafe/Gallery

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

This is absolutely a great place to see and be seen. Across the street from the park, in the neighborhood of the inner Sunset - it even has free parking (a true rarity) in the back.

The food is standard/a bit above average cafe food. We ordered an odd mix of muffins, pita, hummus, babaganouch, croissants, tea, wine all sorts of stuff - we were all tired and hungry as we came here after an afternoon of sightseeing in the Presidio and making holes in the sand at Baker Beach with the kids.

But, on top of the standard cafe fare this is also an excellent (truly) art gallery - I fell madly in love with the work on an artist named Tim Yankosky, and if it weren't for that pesky mortgage I'd have bought one of his pieces.

You can view their exhibits here.

My friends that I was visiting have several pieces on their walls that they've purchased at Canvas. They told me the owner has a committment to unknown local artists, so the work is both beautiful AND somewhat reasonably priced (from $50 but never more than $1500). Unfortunately, I still couldn't afford anything on this trip, but I'll definitely be back.

The cafe was packed - full of of med students from the University nearby, tech types with their heads stuck in expensive laptops sucking down lattes, arty types in black with tiny eyeglasses drinking wine, and moms in casual chic with $2000 strollers. We wound up chatting with some Japanese tourists and one of the stroller moms for quite some time. Her baby fell in love with ours.

I could not recommend this place more highly and here's the URL so you can find your way there: click here.

Canvas Cafe The
1200 9th Avenue
San Francisco, California, 94122
(415) 504-0060

Pasta Pomodoro / Irving

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

How boring am I?

I'm so boring that, in addition to always going to the same two bookstores on every trip, I have to eat at the same restaurant afterwards and always (always) have the same stupid meal.

Maybe I've got a touch of obssesive/compulsive disorder? Unimaginative?

Anyway - Pasta Pomodoro is a chain of really good Italian restaurants that covers northern California quite thoroughly, though I've only ever been to the location on Irving.

Here's my standard meal: the piccolo sized spinach salad with loads of pancetta, grilled red onions, tomatoes, and thick shaves of ricotta salata. It's too good for words and something I'll never make at home. Following the salad I either have the polenta appetizer (polenta cakes stuffed with cheese and spinach, topped with more cheese and broiled in browned butter with crispy sage leaves) or if I'm feeling like more green, I have the grilled asparagus topped with romano cheese - accompanied by a fat tumbler of red wine.

I go in the restaurant each time with hopes that I'll order something different, but I'm completely incapable.

Pasta Pomodoro / Irving
816 Irving Street
San Francisco, California, 94122
(415) 566-0900

New Eretria Restaurant

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

Even though my friends moved to Alameda Island, we were still drawn back to the city again and again for meals at places we've been used to eating when they lived in the outer Sunset.

New Eritrea is one of those places. It's a great Eritrean (as opposed to Ethiopian) restaurant - very large. I've only ever had one thing off the menu, the combination. You order it for the number of people at your table and at $10.50/person it's quite a deal. You get a more than ample helping of several of their main dishes along with a huge round of injera - the bread that is your fork/spoon/napkin all in one.

The combination platter has chicken in spices, lamb in some sort of sauce, something beef, and then a couple of dabs of vegetable dishes - all served on yet another piece of injera on a very large round metal tray. Sort of a deep dish Eritrean pizza in appearance except you scoop bits of each food with your own piece of injera, and if you're still hungry eat the injera that the food was served on when the food is gone. Some of the dishes are spicy but not too much so - most are just savory and rich.

I have no problem eating the sour, spongy injera when it's warm - in fact I like it - but when it's cold I can't stand it. The sourness really takes over and the consistency sort of - anyway, eat it while it's hot is what I'm going for. Also a warning! Injera expands in your stomach and will do odd things to you if you eat too much. I have no scientific study to back me up, merely personal and anecdotal reference, but please trust me. It will get bigger so as soon as you feel the least bit full stop! You will feel more full later, I promise.

Don't order the wine, it's not very good. Instead opt for one of the Ethiopian beers - they are very good.

One odd thing - the decor. Not particularly attractive. Lots of bamboo (?) beads over glass and goat skins painted in bright colors.

New Eritrea Restaurant
907 Irving St
San Francisco, California, 94122
+ 1 415 681 1288

Alameda Museum/Meyer House Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

A free museum (donations encouraged) that is small but worthy of 20 - 30 minutes of your spare time. The hours are odd so call ahead - 510/521-1233.

Full of Victorian and a few Indian/Mexican artifacts, antiques, and ephemera.

Alameda, in addition to the naval base, was something of a resort/playground for the rich and famous and several photos and bits of marketing material from that time are on display.

At 2021 Alameda Avenue, a few blocks away is the Meyer House Museum, as they've billed it, the one and only house museum in Alameda. Open only on the fourth Saturday of the month, admission is $3. We sort of chanced upon it at the right time - the phone number is 510/521-1247.

A great colonial revival home built by the architect/owner in the late 1800s - it's still furnished with items owned by the family. Great gardens.

A pleasant, if uneventful, way to spend an afternoon.

Alameda Museum
2324 Alameda Avenue
San Francisco, California, 94501
(510) 521-1233

Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

This is the absolute best and loveliest location for a flea market. It takes place on the former Alameda naval base. There is a constant ocean breeze and a gorgeous view. I could have shopped forever.

Parking is easy because of the huge lots, the walk from the car only seemed long on the way back because we were lugging our purchases. Next time, I will definitely bring a cart.

Off topic--you can drive around the base to look at the big ships. In fact, one (I was told) is a museum.

Although this is supposedly the biggest antique market in northern California, it was a very manageable size and easy to cover the entire market without foot damage or sunburn in a few hours.

The market takes place on the first Sunday of the month.

The price to get in was steep if arriving early, so we arrived late. The merchandise was pricey, but after all, you're still basically in San Francisco and everything there is the opposite of cheap. That said, we stayed until closing and as people were willing to deal (rather than pack), I got a great price on a 1930s crystal boudoir-ey sort of lamp and bought several vintage textiles--napkins, tablecloth, and bedspread. Some of the best finds included baby hats made of vintage emroidered handkercheifs for my neices. And! there was no hawking of faux Rolexes or dubious Kate Spade bags. Everything was the real thing. According to the website, everything for sale must be at least 20 years old, and it appeared they stuck to that rule. If my bank account had allowed, I would have bought far more than I did, for there was great stuff everywhere I looked.

I found out about the market on the Internet, so I will give the URL as it provides detailed directions--there isn't really an address.

I will conclude by saying, YES! if you are staying in the San Francisco area, it is absolutely worth your time to drive out to this market.

Oh, and one more thing. On the far left side of the market (I think it was south or west) there are food stalls--the charge for a beverage was steep, so bring your own and save yourself $3. Also, there was a Swedish baker there who makes the best cakes and pastries in the most authentic German/Swiss tradition. My friends and I bought one of his little cakes to snack on while walking the market, fell in LOVE, then went back and bought half of his stall. You can't miss him because his table is full of cookies and tarts and cakes. His prices are extraordinarily reasonable and the best things were the mini chocolate cake with cheese and the apple cake with fresh apples and cinnamon. I'm glad he doesn't do mail order or I'd be in trouble.

Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Fair
2700 Saratoga St
San Francisco, California, 94501
(510) 522-7500

West Alameda Farmers Market

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

Every Tuesday starting at 9:30 in the morning there's a fantastic farmers market in Alameda.

If you're from the east coast - and you find yourself at this market in the middle of winter - you may find yourself buying things you don't even want to eat just because everything's fresh off the farm, and impossible to imagine it could all be so new and fabulous looking when it's 12 degrees below zero back home.

Alameda Certified Farmers Market
Corner of Taylor and Webster
San Francisco, California
(800) 949-3276

Ten Ren Tea

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

On the Wok Wiz tour we visited the Ten Ren Tea store, and when the tour was over my friends and I headed back to buy lots and lots of tea.

Best buy : Hibiscus Spice Tea in bags. Really really good stuff - needs a little honey or sugar but only a very tiny bit.

Worst buy : I love pumpkin seeds. I have always loved pumpkin seeds. I love green tea. When I saw a bag that said 'green tea flavored pumpkin seeds' I immediately added it to my pile on the counter. Tell me, what was I thinking? They're salty cloying sweet - they're horrible, they're shocking - they're gag-ifying. The worst $8 spent on a vacation in a very long time.

Strangest buy : an ounce of $80/lb white tea. I've heard it tastes great and is pure and full of lots of antioxidants. It's pure allright. It smells wonderful, both as leaves and after steeping, but it tastes like water, like nothing. I checked the Ren Ten website after making my first tasteless cup and made another, strictly following the steeping time indicated - and still - nothing. Then I read the description of the tea "White tea has the sweet aroma of fresh tea leaves and is unique in quality", and it's true the tea DOES have a sweet aroma, but notice they don't mention the taste. That's because there isn't any.

All in all I had a great time buying the tea and pumpkins seeds - I'm just not having a great time drinking/eating my tea and pumpkin seeds.

Will I go back? Of course. Next time I'll probably buy the rose flavored pumpkin seeds and really get upset with myself.

Check out the website here.

Ten Ren Tea
949 Grant Ave
San Francisco, California, 94108
(415) 362-0656

Alameda Memorial State Beach

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

One of the most beautiful and consistently sunny and wind-free beaches in the bay area, as I recently discovered.

San Francisco beaches are usually chilly and windy - the water is choppy and not safe for the average swimmer. This beach was pleasant and gentle - there's a jog/bike path along the entire length. From this beach are the MOST gorgeous views toward San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.

I got there early every morning of my vacation for a walk and it was a fantastic way to start the day.

On the weekends there were crowds, but not such that it wasn't still quite lovely. There were lots of kite flyers, families, kayakers.

Maybe not worth a drive from San Francisco if it's a nice day already there, but definitely worth it if you're in Oakland or San Francisco is cloudy and you need some sun in your life.

There is a large park to the north of the beach with parking and a nature reserve somewhere along the east or south (couldn't place it exactly). You can also park on any of the residential streets near the beach.

Alameda Memorial State Beach
Shore Line Drive
San Francisco, California

Baker Beach

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

I loved the beach in Alameda--then I had my first taste of Baker Beach. The drive there through the Presidio is gorgeous and full of curves, probably great fun on a motorcycle. I pulled over dozens of times to take pictures on our way to the beach.

Baker Beach is another of the wind-free beaches in the bay area (I'm used to the beaches near Richmond/Outer Sunset where the sun rarely shines and the wind chills your skin). There are sand dunes, native grasses, a superb (remarkable, fantastic, your favorite superlative here . . .) view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin headlands. There's not much surf, but I was told it's a bad place to swim--not at all safe.

The day I was there, the sun was shining, babies were playing in the sand, families were splashing in the surf, and there were picnickers in the grass above the parking lot as well as in the sand. No one was having a bad time. The beach is just over a mile long--perfect for a short stroll.

It's apparently also a very popular place to take photographs--a friend sho is a wedding photographer ranks it as one of her top-ten requested spots in town.

Two things to be aware of: one, the far north side of the beach is for nudists (supposed to be very nice and quite popular), and two, the parking lot is an all day/all night make-out spot. I saw a thing or three I wasn't expecting to see in the middle of the day in a crowded parking lot.

Baker Beach
Bowley Street off Lincoln Boulevard
San Francisco, California

Black Oak Books and Chelsea Books

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

Black Oak Books is at 630 Irving, Chelsea Bookshop is at 637 across the street.

I never miss a chance to shop at these stores whenever I'm in town. The selections at both stores are marvelously eclectic, I always discover new authors or find books I've never heard of by authors I love - things I want but didn't know I wanted.

On this trip I picked up a leather-bound set of Thackeray from the early 1900s. It was a splurge but I couldn't talk myself out of it (and neither could anyone else).

Black Oak carries new, used, and rare books - on this trip I found a slipcased copy of Macbeth illustrated by Salvador Dali that I didn't know existed. I didn't buy it (a bit pricey), but I enjoyed looking at it. They always have some books that I want and almost always I can afford them.

Chelsea Bookshop on the other hand only carries used/rare and though they too always have something I want, they rarely have something that I can afford.

The staff in both stores is always knowledgeable and helpful.

Next door to Chelsea Bookshop is an unattractive coffee shop with great food. In fact both sides of Irving surrounding the bookstores are full of great restaurants and shops. I think I've eaten at every one of the restuarants over the past few years - and never ever a bad meal.

The URL for Black Oak Books is here. Chelsea Bookshop doesn't have one.

Black Oak Books
630 Irving St
San Francisco, California, 94122
+1 415 564 0877

Fleuvog Shoes

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

I never miss buying myself a new pair of Fluevogs when I'm in town, and this trip was no exception.

Fleuvogs are exceptionally funky, cool shoes with lovely, unusual details. They're the kind of shoes that guarantee your friends (and strangers) will come up to you and ask you where you got them.

Their flat shoes/low heels are extremely comfortable, not to mention stylish. Their high heels are generally hell on your toes, but they're even more stylish so I buy them anyway.

The funkiest pair of shoes I've seen in the store was a pair of aluminum 8-inch platforms with thong sandals perched at the top. The platform was sort of an x with pierced cutouts and rubber rockers at the bottom. According to their store advertisement, Madonna once bought a pair.

I have nowhere to go in shoes like that, though I did get a pair of eggplant/dark purple and lime green boots.

Once you've finished spending your dimes at Fleuvog, go up the street (towards the park) and stop in at Amoeba records--you'll need some new music to match your shoes.

They sell the shoes on the net at, but go to the store instead, it's much more fun.

John Fluevog Shoes
1697 Haight St
San Francisco, California, 94117
+1 415 436 9784

Wok Wiz Tour

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

A morning through afternoon guided tour of Chinatown ending with dim sum lunch at a really good restaurant.

I first heard of this tour on Huell Howser's California Gold show - a long time ago - and for this trip planned way ahead and made reservations. The tour company's owner, chef Shirley Fong-Torres, only leads the weekend groups but I was not at all disappointed in our guide.

Whether or not you've been to Chinatown before (unless you grew up there), this tour will definitely show you something new. The architecture, the family associations, the good luck charms, superstitions, feng shui, food, customs, and traditions that are particular to SF Chinatown - all are explained. The tour goes way off the main streets to wind through alleys and back lanes - places that I've always been reluctant to venture not knowing what, if anything, I would find there. I mean, I've been to Chinatown like fifty times and never noticed a tenth of what was pointed out and explained to me on the tour, plus I never know where to eat and have been totally hit or miss on the restaurants - but not anymore!

I learned so much and saw so much I can barely remember what we did - but I can tell you I had a really great time.

I think I especially enjoyed the visit to the Buddhist temple as the guide was so careful to explain what was going on and what people were doing. I least enjoyed the visit to the art gallery as I felt people were sort of coerced into admiring art that I didn't like - my friends liked it though and bought a couple of watercolors done by an elderly gentleman who paints with his fingernails as if they were brushes or ink pens. Interesting but unlovely.

I also really enjoyed learning about the architecture and history. Our guide was a second generation Chinatown resident fluent in Mandarin, a former dancer who had lived all over the world. She was very knowledgeable and patient with all our questions.

I would definitely go again and have been telling everyone that they have to do this - but next time I want to take the "I can't believe I ate my way through Chinatown" tour.

Wok Wiz Chinatown Tours and Cooking Company
At the corner of Sacramento and Grant streets
San Francisco, California, 94103
+ 1 415 981 8989

Jack London Square

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

I'd read in a few reviews here that Jack London square had a lot going on and was a great place to spend some time.

Okay, maybe it was just the day I was there (a Thursday night in February), but there was nothing going on and there were hardly any humans that weren't at work behind counters or waiting tables. The place was full of huge restaurants and tons of stores, all open for business, but barely a soul eating and truly no one shopping. How the stores are staying open if that is what an average week night looks like - I have no idea.

We spent a lot of time at the Barnes and Noble, which also would have been empty if not for a book signing, and ate moderately decent Mexican food at El Torito (happy hour prices were soooo inexpensive) where our table made up four of the sixteen people in the restaurant.

The best thing about Jack London Square would have to be the little cabin that Jack built - or that he lived in I suppose. It's just across from the saloon that he frequented and from whose owner he borrowed the money to attend college. His cabin was moved to the square and for some reason people have pitched coins into it - like it's a wishing well. Odd. Also the cabin is so very small, in our personal space needing times it's difficult to imagine living in a space the size of the average walk-in closet.

If you're still interested in seeing this place here's the website - do yourself a favor and go when there's an event, the place is way too creepy when it's empty.

Shopping the Outer Sunset / Irving Street

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 7, 2003

San Francisco has two Chinatowns now - the one on Grant and the other one way out on Irving. It's not called Chinatown but it should be - it's sort of a junior sized version.

Our base of operations (i.e. parking spot) was at 23rd and Irving - the site of yet another Ren Ten Tea store. After my experience buying white tasteless tea and heinous horrible tasting pumpkin seeds at the Chinatown Ren Ten Tea store why - you may ask - was I back in the store? I was back because I was told they had the absolute best bubble/pearl/tapioca tea drinks and I wanted one.

I had the coconut pudding drink with black pearl tapioca - there was no pudding involved but quite tasty. My friend had the mango something or other, also with black pearl tapioca - hers was even better.

The shop is much smaller than the Chinatown version with chairs to enjoy your drink.

What else is in outer Sunset? Some of the same stuff that you'll find in Chinatown, but for far less money.

Chinese silks? Yes, there's a huge two-storied fabric store.

Woks and steamers - yes absolutely for at least 10-25% less than you'd pay in Chinatown.

Dishes? There are seas of dishes and plastic knick knacks and joss paper and incense and incense burners and grocery stores and Hello Kitty.

Both sides of the street for several blocks both east and west of the Ren Ten Tea shop are full of places to get the Chinatown shopping experience without the Chinatown prices.

The best part of shopping the outer Sunset? Going to the beach - just a short drive down Irving - to view the sun setting. Sunset Beach is an odd neighborhood full of foggy, cold, windy days and glorious, light filled, almost but not quite warm sunsets. Park your car, bundle up in a sweater or jacket (yes, especially in the summer), grab your camera, and wait for the show to begin. It's a miraculous show almost every night.

Amtrak from L.A. to Oakland

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by tmhhmt on March 8, 2003

I've spent most of my life in the Midwest and on the East Coast--where taking the train was, for me, a fairly normal occurence. From Ann Arbor to Chicago, from D.C. to New York or Boston, the train was the best, least expensive, and easiest way to get around. However, though born and newly returned to living on the West Coast, I'd never ever been in (or near) a train here--it never seemed practical. The flight to San Francisco is barely an hour and the price rarely is too much above $100.

But . . .

Getting in and out of the airlines at both ends is more difficult than ever, the traffic at LAX sometimes suspends belief, and the flight itself is not very comfortable, with delays more usual than unusual--travel by air has, for me, become something of an unpleasant if necessary chore.

So, since Amtrak was running a 25% off special, I decided to try the train.

There are two trains to Northern California from Southern California. One travels a direct route from Union Station in downtown L.A. to Oakland or San Francisco and takes a bit over 11 hours. The second train involves a bus--that's right, a bus. You take an Amtrak bus from Union Station to Bakersfield and then the train to Oakland; the whole thing takes a little over 8 hours.

I opted to save 3 hours and try the bus + train route. My round-trip ticket was all of $62.50.

Arriving at Union Station at 7:30am was so easy. The traffic downtown was negligible, since I took a little-used street that leads directly to the station. There were no lines out front, and there was no problem whatsoever getting out of the car, stretching my legs, and rolling my bag into the station. I arrived too late to check my suitcase, but there was no problem--I simply gave it directly to the bus driver, who loaded it onto the bus herself.


The bus was new, large, empty. I traveled on a Thursday and was told the route is packed Friday through Sunday. There were only 15 people on the bus and it was GREAT.

The ride to Bakersfield was dull, boring, perfect for an early-morning nap. The driver chatted softly with a passenger sitting close by. There were several seemingly retired couples and a few moms with new-ish babies. Every one of us slept through much of the ride. We arrived in Bakersfield early--I was able to check my suitcase directly to Oakland and got on the train to take another long comfortable nap.

The train was not quite as empty as the bus, but there was plenty of room for everyone to have his or her own double seat. I did make one mistake--I didn't bring any food. There were signs attached to the windows that said the food in the dining car was "less expensive and better tasting than ever"; if this is true, I can be very grateful that I wasn't trapped hungry on a train where the food was worse.

I won't go into details, but suffice it to say: bring your own.

The views from the train aren't particularly interesting until after Martinez. Mostly you see the back ends of farms and the backyards of apartments and homes that have seen better times. I did see a jackrabbit--but that was all for wildlife. After Martinez, the train skims around the bay and the views are quite lovely.

We arrived in Jack London Square on time. There were no crowds, there was no trouble getting my suitcase, and from the first step off the train to the first step into the car, it took all of 4 minutes. I couldn't have been more pleased with the entire experience.

The return trip, on a Tuesday, was not quite so uneventful.

I was able to check my bag this time, and the Jack London Station was a pleasantly attractive place to sit and finish off a cup of tea.

This time the train was much more crowded because the conductor/ticket guys couldn't get one of the cars open until we were halfway to Bakersfield. I don't quite understand if they lost the key, if the lock was jammed--I don't know what that was about. In addition, there were quite a few military types on the train who were on leave and took leave to get drunk. How do I know they were drunk? Because they were talking to each other at the top of their voices and complaining about how expensive the beer was on the train and that next time they'd bring their own. That will probably be a very bad thing. I also know now that Fresno has good strip clubs--that was another very big topic of conversation.

On the bright side, I brought myself a sandwich from the Trader Joe's in Alameda (and some of the baked Caesar-salad-flavored pea-pod things--they're soooo good) and two big bottles of water, so there was no need to trudge up to the unpleasantness waiting for me in the food car.

We arrived in Bakersfield, again, on time--got quickly onto the bus--only this time it contained a few of the less than sober military types. The bus was quite packed and while I'm not complaining, I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a disappointment. I'm sure Amtrak was thrilled to see several full busses pull away from its terminal, and only a whiny pain in the butt could possibily find fault with the ride back to L.A. But, there it is, I'm a whiny pain in the butt. The bus was way too close and stuffy--just like on a plane, which feeling I was trying to avoid by taking the train.

We got to L.A.--early! Got my bags in all of 2 minutes and was back in the car ready for home in the time it would have taken me to unbuckle my seat belt on the plane.

All in all, it was an almost freakishly stress-free travel experience that I will definitely repeat--only next time I'll take the train-only route. The unpleasantness (for me the whiny person only, I'm sure) of the second bus ride didn't make up for the time savings, and there is nothing wrong with an extra few hours with nothing to do. I actually read a couple of magazines cover to cover--something I never do at home--and I wrote a couple of letters and got halfway through a book I've been meaning to read for months. It was great.

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