San Francisco's Best Neighbourhoods

San Francisco is actually quite a dense, little city, locked in on 3 sides by water and only 47 square miles with 815,000 people (almost three times the population of the entire country of Iceland – fun fact). There are lots of great little neighbourhoods that are only separated by a few meters; its amazing how seamlessly Chinatown turns into trendy North Beach.

the view of San Francisco from the Berkeley Hills

Nob Hill (which is barely different to Russian Hill only a few blocks north of it, the other half of the twin peak hill) and the Mission are probably the best neighbourhoods to live in as a young professional or (not broke) student. They’re mostly residential areas, but still within walking distance to anything you’d need.

Market Street east to Pier 1 is a great little area, where the main shopping drag of the city cuts right through the finance/business district, street vendors sell lots of pretty things, Bart stations are all around, and the waterfront facing Treasure Island offers great views of the Bay Bridge and the East Bay. Once you hit the first ferry terminal, you walk north all the way to Pier 39, where another great neighbourhood awaits.

Walking out from Pier 5 with a view of the Central Business District

Fishermans Wharf is a super touristy area, starting at Pier 39 where a huge outdoor mall basically sits out on the water, and a great view of Alcatraz can be seen once you reach the end of the wharf. Stinky sea lions bathe out near the boats parked in the marina, and all the shops on Embarcadero sell more or less the same things. The crab stands offer amazing seafood eats for cheap – be sure to try clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. And if its a hot day or you want to work off those creamy calories, go for a swim at the beach at the end of Embarcadero.

the little beach at the end of Embarcadero, with Coit Tower in the background

the little beach at the end of Embarcadero, with Coit Tower in the background

Chinatown is one of the funnest neighbourhoods to get lost in, mostly because you can actually get lost – street signs and shop fronts are all in Chinese and the only thing you can really read are prices of things. Its amazing how many people don’t even speak english, so you can’t ask what the sign says or directions to where you’re trying to go. But if you let your senses guide you, you’re sure to get some delicious, cheap (maybe unidentifiable) food, buy anything you could imagine at a fresh seafood store (in some cases, still alive), and the dollar-store-like shops sell everything from swords to kimonos and violins to teacup sets, all for really reasonable prices.

How to Enjoy Seattle in a Day

Seattle is a big, beautiful, port city with a great arts scene, lots of live sports, and of course, excellent coffee. I’ve often driven through Seattle, on my way to Seatac or just driving down the I5, but rarely stop to enjoy the city sights. I had one sunny day in town after my cruise from Alaska disembarked one early Saturday morning and these are my recommendations for seeing the best of Seattle in a day.

pulling out from Pier 66 on an Alaskan bound cruiseship

1. Walk around town by foot. Its not a big city center, and there are tons of shops and cafes along the way to stop and enjoy. Just get a map from any tourist information center or hotel, and wander around the downtown area and Fremont neighbourhood, or if you dont want to think about it, book a walking tour with who offers their signature coffee crawl tour.

2. Stop by Pike Place Market near the waterfront and watch big cruise ships come into Pier 66 if its summer, or to get out of the streets that are probably getting rained on if its winter. The market is full of delicious treasures, a lot of fresh seafood, and claims to be the oldest, continually running farmers market in the USA.

3. Go up the Seattle Space Needle for an amazing view of the city, or to enjoy a glass of wine with a dramatic sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Its almost $20 to go up but its cheaper if you include an entrance to the Pacific Science Center located below. Use your judgement when checking out the shows/ exhibits going on at the Science Center to decide if its worth it. Bodies was a great one.

the Space Needle

I know thats not much, but I’m just suggesting a days worth of activities that would probably satisfy for the Seattle Experience. If you have more time, by all means take a day just to each of the above!


Cruising to Alaska

Me and my sister Kristjana travel together once a year, for some quality sister time, and to see a cool new place. This year we decided on a cruise to Alaska, since both Vancouver and Seattle serve as main port departures for the hundreds of cruises and ships that do the trip every summer season. We sailed roundtrip from Seattle with the Norwegian Star and stopped in 3 Alaskan port towns, as well as Prince Rupert BC.

a floatplane taking off in Ketchikan with our Norwegian Star in the background

Norwegian Cruise Line markets “free-style cruising” as their trademark, since dining times and locations are not set and you can literally eat unlimited amounts of food 24 hrs a day. One night they even had a chocolate buffet – we had serious conflicts with our indulgent desires and sugar-overload tummy grumbles. Others found their guilty pleasures at the casino on board, at one of the many Bingo games, at an Art Auction or at the jewellery/alcohol/tobacco duty free shop. Apparently buying serious, collectable art and very precious stones and gems is the thing to do when cruising to Alaska – I had no idea.

decadent chocolate overload

The ship was 14 decks tall, with 13 restaurants, 9 bars, 6 hot tubs, 3 pools, 2200 passengers, and 1100 crew – thats a staff member to every two passengers! We had the most phenomenal weather imaginable for Alaska or late September; there were sunny, clear skies every day with highs around 20 degrees. We got serious tans from hottubing and walking around ports in just t-shirts and joked people would think we accidentally cruised to Mexico.

We were a slight minority on the ship, since the majority of the passengers were American (followed by British?), over retirement age, and traveling with a spouse (and sometimes their whole family). I was impressed by the amount of people with accessibility needs or excess weight that didnt let anything stop them – everyone still got around the massive ship no problem and got off to enjoy every day in port. A policy I found strange was that people over 250 pounds paid a premium (sometimes 80%) on many of the shore excursions since the floatplanes and helicpoters taking tourists around were weight restricted.

Our first port in Alaska was Ketchikan, followed by the capital Juneau, and Skagway last. We ported both cities right downtown, and the gangway led us straight into the small, city center which acted as a perfect tourist trap. There were shops galore, cafes, restaurants, bars, internet and beautiful parks or docks to walk along and you really didnt think of leaving town to go see the real Alaska. The nicknames ‘the great land’ or ‘true wilderness’ really didnt shine through in our narrow experiences, but neither did Ketchikan’s reputation for being the city with more rainfall than any other American city.

cruising towards a breaking glacier

We sailed up through the Inside passage and saw some beautiful islands, arms and sounds, as well as ice-topped mountains, hanging and melting glaciers. Our last port was Prince Rupert BC, which has only had a cruise port since 2004 and is still developing the cruise tourism industry the Alaskan cities have perfected. It was a small, sleepy town and the crew all joked there was nothing to do there and they had no idea why we went there, but I thought it was a perfect addition to sailing Alaska, since much of the western Canadian coast is Alaskan territory, and for many of the Americans, it was their first time in friendly Canada. Or maybe I’m just slightly partial to Beautiful British Columbia 🙂

Wine Regions in the Lower Mainland

Most of BC’s vineyards and wine production happen in the Okanagan, but recently wine making has become increasingly popular in Langley and the surrounding areas. There are a handful of vineyards in Cloverdale, just a few blocks north of the American border, and even some as far east as Abbotsford (Mt. Lehman Vinery – free tasting Thurs, Fri and Sat 1- 5pm).

Domaine de Chaberton vines

My sister and I went wine tasting to three vineyards one sunny afternoon last week, and although that might not seem too exciting, its pretty amazing we can go wine tasting as a day’s activity from Chilliwack, and even more amazing that my sister Kristjana wanted to come with (anyone who knows Kristjana understands that inside joke).

notice her glass is empty? scandalous…

We started at Neck of the Woods vinery, which last year used to be called Glenugie, and a few years before that, Real Estate Winery, so getting directions on google maps was a bit confusing. The only wine I remember was their Chardonnay that actually smelled like petroleum… the lady was really nice though! Then we went to Domaine de Chaberton which is a long standing winery that used to be run by a French and German couple. They recently sold their winery and now the new owners run a line of their ‘less-europeany’ wines as Canoe Cove. It sits in far-south Langley where they actually experience a sub-climate to the rest of Langley, great for white grapes, so they had an excellent chardonnay and my favourite was their gewurztraminer. They age their chardonnay in french-imported oak barrels that sit in this cellar the lady described as a reverse-sauna. It smelled like one.

Township 7 Winery

We ended our day at Township 7, which is a beautiful winery nestled among horse farms and Cloverdale equestrian park, but all their vines are just show vines and I think all their grapes are grown in the Okanagan. We ended our day there with the only tasting session that wasn’t free (a mild $3) but thankfully Kristjana was a responsible enough driver to have only tasted less than a milliliter of maybe half the varieties.

Horse life in the Fraser Valley

After riding horses every day for a month in Iceland, I was really starting to miss the smell or horses and the feeling of not having to use my own two legs so I had to get my fix of riding while’s back home. My family doesn’t own horses anymore, but a young nurse boards her 3 horses on my mom’s farm in Chilliwack. She has 2 enormous Percheron-cross yearlings and an untrained, hot-blooded rescue horse named Ellie she bought for $20. She (the Thoroughbred, not the nurse) is only 4 years old, but broke enough to ride, so I managed to get on her for a little spin and she’s definitely worth more than $20. We took her trail riding through corn fields and she managed to keep me on her back even though the yearling Suzy was walking alongside was way calmer than Ellie.

we could barely see over the cornstalks

Me and my older sister went to visit our younger sister Ruth in Langley, since she lives at the Trinity Western campus where she goes to school. We made the trip an entire day event by spending the morning watching horses warm up at Thunderbird Show Park for the summer finale competition going on that weekend. I still can’t get over how huge the horses were, all these big American and German warmblood show horses, western, jumpers and dressage style, and even the ones that were only 15hh looked like giants compared to Icelandic horses. But of course there were horses 17 and 18hh, and I could not stop gawking at them or the tiny people riding them, who, in retrospect, probably werent so tiny, they just looked so on top of the giant horses.

look at that rump! that’s a whole lot of horse muscle

I also visited an old time friend in Abbotsford, who I went to elementary school with in Surrey and now runs an equestrian center. Lisa graciously let me ride all her giant horses in their fancy indoor riding ring, padded with ground up nike runners. When we weren’t riding, we were in her apartment, which is actually in the barn beside the hay loft, and usually killing flies with one of their many flyswatters placed strategically around the house for killing ease. She has two dogs, a bunch of cats, two donkeys, a couple of her own horses, and then all the other horses that she takes care of. They’re a new equstrian center, but they teach and train horses there under the name Hobbit Hollows, but the barn is called Farpoint Farms – if you know anyone looking to board or take riding lessons.

Lisa with Lex, a $45,000 riding package once saddled up

Home Sweet Home

Home is a strange concept, because where I identify as home sort of differs as time goes on. My cousin always says home is wherever I’m with you, which I guess means home is where family and friends are, but I’ve got family and friends in a couple of places.

Although Iceland’s the birthland and my permament address these days, some would argue BC is home since I grew up half my life with my mom in Chilliwack. And boy is it good to be home when I go visit Mom’s place. Its the coziest house on an 11-acre farm with horses, cats and dogs running around. The cat is a fat, flirty calico named Kitty, we have an old Lassie thats so fat and hairy and not so pretty at the moment since we have to shave her in the summer, and a beautiful, all-white Italian sheep dog that won’t trust anyone to pet her unless you play with her every day. There’s no way she remembers me, so it always takes days before I can actually cuddle her, and the surrender only happens when she gets too jealous with my petting Sheebah or Kitty.

One morning the dogs were barking at something unimportant like a passing car, but then an unfamiliar, high-pitched yelp kept creeping between. It was a cold, rainy day, and by evening when we finally looked outside for the culprit, a very groomed, harilesss purse dog sat shivering behind the hottub. She’s probably worth a lot of money, since she looks like one of those pocket, accessory dogs, but damn is she mangy. Its strange how dogs can be cute and ugly simultaneously, but this one managed to get in our house and is now Mom’s best friend til we find her original owner.

surprisingly ugly, right? Update: 3 days later we found her owner

The best part about being home is always Mom’s cooking. She’s owned restaurants and bakeries for so long that our home kitchen is stocked ready to feed an army even though she lives alone. Sometimes my grandma visits and they both get so much pleasure in cooking that they can’t even keep up with eating to eat all the delicious concoctions that they make. I’ve been eating like a queen since I got home, but it’s always a bit of a risk eating some of the complicated curries my moms make – you can never quite identify the meat, and after growing up being told duck was chicken and regularly finding chicken feet in the pot, I wasn’t surprised that I almost ate fish head curry tonight when searching for crab curry in the depths of the fridge.

Beautiful British Columbia

Every time I’m away from BC for a long time and come back, I’m so amazed by the natural beauty here. There are so many massive, dense forests, with tree tops that are invisible from the ground because they tower so high into the sky, and the hundreds of giant mountain tops surrounding Vancouver and the lower mainland that fade off into a blue mirage off in the distance. Everything is so lush and green in the summer, which is kind of special since most of the year everything is rainy and dull grey… but then there are always the evergreen trees, and of course the moutains too but they start to  turn white as they become snow peaked.

you’d think the 1/2 way mark is inspiring, but it’s actually quite devastating because you think you’ve been walking forever already

A friend I met in Antarctia was in town, a self-proclaimed pengiunologist, and we decided the touristy thing to do was hike the Grouse Grind, a famous 3km, 3000m elevation gain trail – also known as mother nature’s stairmaster. The record time is something like 28 minutes, but most do it in 1.5 hrs, and Tom had a bet to do it in under 50 mins. The stake was just a beer at the top and he didn’t quite make it with a 57 min. finish, but we hiked it with Tom’s friend’s little nephew, an 11 year old who finished in 41 minutes, so Tom lost more than just one beer, perhaps also a little ego bust. I was happy with 1hr 19 minutes, and the view from the top was totally glorious and worth all the sweating and temporary regret.

the Grouse Grind Sky ride that took us back down the mountain, with a view of Capilano behind

I spent the weekend nights in Vancouver and went out to Library Square, a popular night club frequented mostly by university students, and saw so many old friends from UBC, as well as  randomly ran into a group of people I went to highschool with in Chilliwack.  Saturday night was even more spectacular, as I got last minute tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show ‘Kooza’ which always delivers as an intense, impressive, sensory overload of acrobatics and clowning. I went with a business friend of mine who sent me an email a few months back asking “Bentley or Aston Martin?” and sure enough, he picked me up in his DB9 that he ended up buying on my recommendation.

i got to drive :)

i got to drive 🙂

Whenever I’m back in Vancouver, I commit to only eating Sushi or Tim Horton’s since I can never get anything quite like Vancouver sushi or timmy’ ho’s  when abroad, and after the show we appropriately decided to get some sushi. However, we had to play the role of James Bond and went to the fancy schmancy Fairmont Hotel for our sushi instead, and paid four times more per roll than we should, although it made us feel VIP enough to compensate for the crappy (but cheap) seats we got last-minute to Kazoo.

Chilliwack: The Great Outside

one of the welcoming billboards – this one has the mayor’s phone number too

Chilliwack is about 100km east of Vancouver, a city of 65,000, and very farm-life oriented. Lots of cows, crops, and dutch people. Chilliwack is said to be one of the corn capitals of Canada. Lots of delicious corn, in different varieties, and super cheap when you buy it from these temporary road-side stands during corn season. It’s considered a city, once named the fastest-growing city by some important magazine (I forget which), and has a high density of first-nations living on scattered reserve land. For being a relatively small, unheard of place, it does have these random claims to fame, and I once couchsurfed in Denmark with a danish guy who had come on exchange from his highschool there to Chilliwack Senior Secondary School – one of only 2 public highschools in town.

a corn drive thru, with some towering mountains in the background

I’m not 100% sure why Chilliwack is the great outside, but it must have something to do with the country-side lifestyle nestled in a valley surrouned almost 360` by the most beautiful mountains. Some of them even stay snow-covered all year round, and I completely forget how big they really are until I’ve been away long enough in Iceland for a comparison. They’re proper mountains, and totally vegetated covered in dense, evergreen, towering forests.

Cultus Lake

I think Chilliwack’s best trademark is Cultus Lake, a beautiful lake nestled in the mountains with quiet cabins and camping grounds all around it. There are a few public beaches with docks for swimming and launching areas for boating enthusiasts, causing the lake to be full of water sports, canoes, paddle boats and children every day of the summer. In the winter, everything slows down as people stop coming, but some do live there year round and get to enjoy the peaceful serenity of Cultus as the lonely, winter wonder-lake that it is.