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San Francisco Getaway Guide

San Francisco's multi-cultural artistic flair and waterfront location, combined with world-class vineyards just a quick drive away make for ideal weekend trips. This laid back City by the Bay was home to tie-dye, a hotbed of progressive social change during the 60s revolution, and is the cosmopolitan, creative center of the West Coast today.

A family-friendly town. A hip, metropolis for trendy urbanites. A strong gay and lesbian community. San Francisco truly offers something for everyone.

Top sights, activities, and attractions:

Music scene
San Francisco has a history of producing and drawing bands to entertain all sorts of crowds. From the Dead Heads of the 60s generation to the modern mosh of musical sounds, there are clubs, bands, and famous groups galore.

Art scene
Museums, galleries, theater, dance companies, performances, cabarets, and events. SFMOMA is a world-class modern art museum with paintings (Henri Matisse), photography (Ansel Adams), and more. Plus, don't miss the art galleries in Sausalito and around San Fran.

Shopping scene
From mall-famous iconic shops like the Gap, Anne Taylor, and Tommy Hilfiger to quaint boutiques with hand-crafted scarves, shirts, pottery, jewelry, and more, San Francisco offers a trendy shopping experience for all ages and tastes.

Food fare
In & Out Burgers are nearly as famous as their t-shirts. You simply must find one and indulge. Vegetarians abound in this health-conscious city so you can not only splurge on a milkshake instead of a burger at In & Out Burgers, but you'll have a wide selection of restaurants with fabulous international cuisine. From fresh seafood restaurants to Chinatown's dim sum to Mexican food with guacamole to make you cry like a baby, San Francisco dishes up delectable bites.

And the drinks are a gastronomic wonder, too. Not only does San Francisco neighbor Napa Valley, a world-renowned wine-growing region, but the city has enough clubs, bars, and hip establishments to make metro-philes swoon (without spilling a drop, of course).

Stinson Beach for road trippers, the beach by Golden Gate Park for families who want quick access to the city but also a long stretch of sand for sandcastles, the Presidio's San Francisco Bay beach for photo ops of Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and beyond. Or how about Baker Beach for nudists?

Districts and Day Trips

  1. The Mission District – Think eclectic eateries, happening nightlife, and a Hispanic history with a heart. The Mission could possibly be San Francisco's trendiest hang-out.
  2. Haight Ashbury – Home of the Grateful Dead, tie-dyed shops, and an area made famous by the 60s, this area still has classic townhouses, funky shops, and is near Golden Gate Park. It's a sidewalk collection like a virtual shrine unto the hippie movement. Eat one of it's famous burritos and wander through the past and into the new shops that typify the revitalization of this neighborhood.
  3. Muir Woods National Monument – Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (one of the largest urban national parks in the world), this woodsy wonder is a hiking area just north of San Francisco and named for the famous naturalist John Muir. Pay a visit to this quiet reprieve and look up at old growth redwood trees.
  4. Napa Valley – Nestled in Napa Valley with honey-colored hills akin to Tuscany, California's wine country is famous for its grape nectar. Take a road trip from the city to Napa for wine-tasting, hot air ballooning, bicycling, spa-going, and more.
  5. Sausalito and Tiburon – Two of the Bay Area's most quaint towns are just 20 miles north of the city across the bay. Best way to get there is via ferry on Pier 41 near Fisherman’s Wharf. Art galleries, novelty shops, boutique clothing stores, restaurants are all easily walkable and the views of San Francisco from these waterfront towns are spectacular. Bring your camera and stay for lunch. Sausalito resembles a Mediterranean seaside village and Tiburon is akin to a New England coastal town. Great for families.
  6. North Beach neighborhood – Walk through Little Italy and taste a cappuccino and pastry from the old country. Plenty of shops and attractions to keep you occupied in this former Beatnik hub.
  7. Berkeley – Home to University of California Berkeley, this town across the bay from San Fran is full of shops and is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.
  8. Pebble Beach Golf Course and 17-mile Drive at Pebble Beach – Pebble Beach is world-famous for its golf course, luxury spa, and winding drive with several breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. If you are a golfer, plan ahead and book a round of golf at this famous course well in advance.
  9. Monterey Bay Aquarium – One of the world's largest aquariums, this marine sanctuary is perfect for the kids or the kid in you. Plan to spend the night in this town that was the setting for John Steinbeck’s books Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.
  10. Carmel – With quaint tree-lined streets of boutique shops, cafes, and art galleries, this town is near Pebble Beach and Monterey and great for road trips from San Fran.
  11. Sonoma, St. Helena, Calistoga - Art galleries, wineries, spas. In that order. Sonoma has art galleries, quaint shops, good eats, and a community theater not to mention the plethora of wineries in Sonoma County. St. Helena is located between Calistoga and Napa and a quaint town with award-winnning restaurants  and wineries nearby. Calistoga is a spa haven for those who crave a good massage.

Best of the Web for San Francisco

Travel Companions from Hell

I've been on a handful of trips where travel companions suddenly turn into the companion from hell. Sometimes they are foreigners on a group tour, other times it is a family member or friend who I adore but drives me nuts on a particular day.

Traveling with others is a litmus test of patience, flexibility, and ability to compromise. We all have our limits. And when someone tests those limits, the results can get ugly.

I'd like to hear from you all. Any readers with quick stories that are funny, a little scary, or at very minimum just plain "story worthy?" Let's hear 'em. I'll start it off and hope to see comments with other stories. Think of it as blog therapy.

My travel companion from hell: While traveling overseas for the very first time (to Colombia, no less) for a wedding, two us went on an day trip. The excurion was a small cruise off the coast of Cartegena. The Caribbean waters and tiny droplets of islands were intoxicating. Scenery I'd only seen on romantic travel brochures floated past me. I was trippin' on the good vibes. However, on the cruise, my friend and I met two other American tourists - the only other Americans on the entire boat (probably in the entire country at that time). We gringos sat near each other to chat since we all barely spoke Spanish. The American woman of the couple was a stereotypical, unworldly, rich American. Demanding. Loud. Snotty. English only. And she pronounced "hola" with the "h." I was embarrassed to share a flag with this woman. At one point the woman grabbed my arm and said, "Will you order me a soda?" I took her money to get the drink. When I returned I handed her bottled water as that was the only non-alcoholic drink they had and she yelled at me and - here's the kicker - pinched my arm hard with fury.

I've since had many pleasant experience meeting other Americans abroad while traveling. But this woman put new meaning with the term "bad trip." I felt sorry for her husband who looked like he couldn't say boo for fear she might strike him.

Any other travel companions from hell out there? Please avoid using real names.

Virginia is Still for Lovers… of Food, Wine, and Relaxation

By guest blogger Andrea Deagle

Are you fond of television shows where people go to an old building and have a paranormal experience? Consider yourself a history buff? Do you like cooking demos that let you taste the food? Does 45 minutes sipping wine while watching a sunset sound appealing? Virginia – the Old Dominion – is still a terrific place to sightsee and now offers ways to investigate the unknown and indulge in the here and now.

More than a family vacation spot, Williamsburg has become a town rich in visual arts, fine food, and ecotourism. Located in the Mid-Atlantic, this charming town has the good fortune of entertaining visitors year-round. It's a place where you can feel at home, get a taste of the South, brush up on American history, and feel safe.

Whether touring with a bus group (a great way to get discount attraction tickets) or with family, there is so much in the surrounding 50 miles. To get started, here is the baker's dozen of essential ingredients for your Williamsburg "to do" list (day trips included).

  1. Jamestown Island (National Park Service) – This is the real beginning of America – 1607. Stories of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and the amazing New World colony lay here on the banks of the beautiful James River.
  2. Jamestown Settlement – Three reconstructed ships are open to public; rebuilt James Fort (houses, church, blacksmith) and the Indian village are also open; plus a state-of-the-art museum with London to America and Africa to America journeys.
  3. Colonial Williamsburg – An architectural wonder, this is a fully restored 18th century city with a great combination of living history, relaxing walk-about opportunities and decorator’s dreams. Take the Tavern Ghost Tour hosted by tavern employees.
  4. Art Galleries – Merchant's Square, near the College of William & Mary, is home to 15 galleries and shops and a short walk from the historic area of Williamsburg.
  5. Williamsburg Cuisine – Seven bistros, three colonial taverns, a theater kitchen, two nationally-acclaimed dining rooms, and great barbeque are a sampling of how this town offers something for everyone.
  6. Ecotourism – Grab your binoculars to spot some of the many bald eagles that nest here. Bicycling, kayaking, and hiking on trails are all available as low environmental impact activities. Also, check out the nearby Great Dismal Swamp for wildlife and recreation.
  7. Busch Gardens – Voted "most beautiful theme park" for 16 consecutive years by the National Amusement Park Historical Association, this park offers a different twist with a European theme and top-rated roller coasters, the famous Clydesdale horses, and renowned live shows.
  8. President's Park – Think you can name all U.S. presidents? You might after a visit here. Walk the trail through busts of all presidents, a collection of first ladies' gowns, and the oval office set from Saturday Night Live.
  9. Williamsburg Winery – There are superb wines being produced here, plus a restaurant, tastings, gift shop, and museum.
  10. Yorktown – Take a short drive to Yorktown, historic site for the last battle (and surrender) of the Revolutionary War. York River waterfront area has shops, restaurants, and river tours.
  11. Virginia Tidewater Plantations – See ruins, farms, majestic mansions – all captivating and part of the American fabric.
  12. Richmond – Home to revolutions of many kinds from Patrick Henry's "Liberty or Death" speech, the capital of the Southern Confederacy, and the African-American strive for civil rights. Also, take time to visit Virginia's capitol building.
  13. Relax – Golf (plenty of courses), shopping (from eclectic to mainstream), spas, water (Water Country, Virginia Beach, your hotel's pool), gardens, and playgrounds.

Like many destinations, there are different reasons to go at different times of the year. Virginia summers can be hot and humid, but this is a great time to plan some "get wet" activities. Winter is mild and peaceful, with the occasional snowfall to make it magical. Spring is azaleas, tulips, daffodils, and school kids. Fall may be one of the perfect times to visit. Foliage peaks at the end of October and the weather averages the high 60’s.

For additional information, the Virginia Tourism Corporation has extensive Web-based guides, and Williamsburg has two sites, and  Group tour information can be found on all Web sites.

Andrea Deagle is a native Virginian and resident of Williamsburg. She is currently Director of Group Sales for the Hampton Inn & Suites Historic and has been involved in the travel industry for over 20 years.

5 Tips for Planning a Winter (Ski) Resort Wedding

By guest blogger Blair deLaubenfels

Whistler_winter_wedding2Does the idea of a winter wedding complete with sleigh rides, making tracks through fresh powder, hot toddies, and friends around a roaring fire make you feel warm and cozy inside, but the idea of planning for one leaves you cold? Then try these 5 tips for simplifying winter wedding planning.

1. Choose a resort that offers something for everyone.
North America is full of fabulous places to ski and snowboard, but not all of your guests will be enthusiastic about heading to the slopes. Pick a location that offers a wide range of activities and choices for everybody. Resorts like Whistler, Breckenridge and Vail offer first class nightlife, dining and shopping, as well as plenty of other relaxing and entertaining options for guests of all ages.

2. Hire a local consultant
Even if you're quite familiar with the area you've chosen, finding a highly recommended wedding planner who has lots of experience planning weddings at that destination is a must. Ask for references and check them. Once you've found someone you're comfortable working with, set a budget you can live with and supply the consultant with as much information about the preferences of the guests on your list as you can. Stay in close contact as changes arise.

3. Book early.
Peak times at coveted ski resorts are often booked a year or more in advance, so be sure that you get your reservations all set 12 to 18 months before your wedding. Send out invitations as soon as you've made your arrangements so friends and family have plenty of time to schedule time off and travel.

4. Help your guests plan
Have your consultant provide a detailed itinerary to each person attending. Be sure that it includes a map of the area, transportation arrangements to and from accommodations and events, an hourly time-line for your wedding day and the days leading up to it, as well as contact information for your consultant and local emergency numbers. In addition, guests who aren’t familiar with ski resort living will appreciate a packing list with all the items necessary for them to keep warm and safe.

5. Consider taking your photographer with you.
Seattle wedding consultant Dianne Greene, of Distinctive Weddings and Events, recommends that you hire a photographer who lives near you so that you can meet and see their work before your wedding. When your photos and album are ready you'll be able to pick them up in person, insuring that you get what you paid for.

Blair deLaubenfels is Senior Editor for Junebug Weddings.

Photo supplied by Whistler photographer David Buzzard

Spiritual Spas

I received the 2007 travel agent edition of SpaFinder's Spa Guide magazine a few weeks ago and immediately made a pact (with myself) to plan a spa trip in 2007. This guide has 300 plus pages of day spas, destination spas, spas by region, medical spas, and plenty of reviews and information to help anyone plan a great spa trip.

My favorite feature was the "spa sorter" index. I can now find spas by Single-Friendly, Pet-Friendly, Organic, Romantic, Urban Hotels, and so forth. Perfect. No more hunting for themes. They are neatly laid out in this index.

I also liked that there were several spas in the category of Spirituality, classified by their common "programs and classes featuring a strong emphasis on meditation, yoga, or spiritual awareness." This goes nicely along with recent data that shows spa-going is a growing trend for vacationers.

Here are spiritual spas listed in the 2007 Spa Guide from SpaFinder:

  1. Cal-a-Vie, California
  2. Chiva-Som, Thailand
  3. Chopra Center & Spa at Dream, New York
  4. Chopra Center for Wellbeing, California
  5. COMO Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri, Indonesia
  6. Golden Door, California
  7. Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat and Spa, Australia
  8. Maroma Resort and Spa, Mexico
  9. Mayflower Inn & Spa, Connecticut
  10. Mii Amo at the Enchantment, Arizona
  11. Miraval, Life in Balance, Arizona
  12. New Age Health Spa, New York
  13. Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, California
  14. Rancho La Puerta, Mexico
  15. SAMAS at the Park Hotel Kenmare, Ireland
  16. Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa, Vermont

Great idea for a birthday gift for a good friend, anniversary present, girls getaway, guys getaway, or honeymoon.

Luxury Golf Courses

No two golf courses are alike. And there's nothing like driving a ball down the creme de la creme of fairways and putting on luxury greens. Plan a trip to courses that are a feast for the golf enthusiast's senses.

  1. St. Andrews Bay Golf Resort & Spa, Scotland
  2. Druids Glen Golf Resort, Ireland
  3. Evian Resort, France
  4. Fancourt Resort, South Africa
  5. Kiawah Island Golf Resort, (South Carolina) United States
  6. Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resort, Jamaica
  7. Hyatt Regency Coolum Resort, Australia
  8. Banyan Tree Resort, Thailand

Source: Travel Mole

Outdoor Survival Courses

Imagine you're on a day hike and dusk sets in a little too early. You're low on water. No food left. And no map. As dark settles on the ground, your feet quicken pace to match your racing heart. Will you make it back in time? Are you on the right trail? Can you even see the trail? Or what if an small avalanche rolls across your path in the snow on a winter hike or snowshoe adventure? How would you survive if a day hike goes wrong?

A New York Times article covered courses designed to train people how to survive with just the clothes on their backs and a sharp knife. How Survivor or Lost TV episodal! Seriously, if you're ever in the deep woods, it might not be a bad idea to know what to do. The New York Times article details a group survival trip taken by the author. Gathering nuts and wild onions for a soup over a fire made from twigs and no matches, these troopers brave the cold and learn a greater appreciation for Mother Nature and human's inventions to stay warm and fed.

This type of adventure might be a creative bonding experience for groups of friends. Not that there aren't a significant amount of women who'd do this, but I can particularly imagine this as a guys experience: "putting hair on chest" and proving to themselves they can hunt, gather, make fire, and survive under adverse conditions. A worthy right of passage. If someone can survive in the wild on minimal accoutraments, they've earned my respect.

These courses offer survival training from one-day sessions to nine-week courses:

  1. Arizona: Ancient Pathways
  2. New Hampshire: Jack Mountain Bushcraft and Guide Service

Know of other courses or guides who offer survival training?

Source: New York Times

Health Precautions When Traveling

By guest blogger Brianne Wheeler
Part two of two-part series on travel insurance and precautions to take

Preparations and precautions can and should be taken when traveling in groups, especially to foreign countries. Here are the Consumer Reports on Health risks and precautions to be taken to prepare better for a trip. They go hand in hand with travel insurance to provide traveler peace of mind.

Traveler's Diarrhea
Most common illness, strikes up to 60% of visitors to developing countries

  • Self-help step: Avoid non-pasteurized dairy products and tap water
  • Self-help step: Choose foods served steaming hot
  • Medical supplies to pack: Non prescription loperamide (Imodium A-D)
  • Medical supplies to pack: Prescription antibiotics for more severe cases

Motion Sickness
Nausea as a result of the inner ear, eyes, and body sending conflicting signals to the brain while flying, boating and driving

  • Self-help step: Keep head still, close eyes or look at stationary objects
  • Self-help step: Avoid reading
  • Self-help step: Open vents or windows to increase air flow
  • Self-help step: Move to the center of the boat
  • Medical supplies to pack: Prescription scopolamine skin patch (Transaderm-Scop) or tablet version (Scopace)
  • Medical supplies to pack: OTC drugs dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizene (Bonine) are not as effective

Jet Lag
Insomnia, irritability, and foggy-headedness caused by a sudden time-zone shift

  • Self-help step: Before traveling, shift activities to correspond to time zone of destination
  • Self-help step: After arrival, spend time in the sun
  • Medical supplies to pack: Melatonin (2-3mg) may ease symptoms when started on first night of travel (has not worked in some studies)

Insect-Borne Diseases
Across much of Latin America, Africa and Asia, mosquito-borne malaria and dengue fever are serious concerns

  • Self-help step: Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, closed-toe shoes
  • Self-help step: Use repellents containing 30-35% deet on exposed skin
  • Self-help step: Sleep under mosquito net treated with permethrin repellent (Duranon, Permanone)
  • Medical supplies to pack: No vaccine is available for Malaria; ask your doctor for the best drug for your destination
  • Medical supplies to pack: No vaccine or preventative drug is currently available for Dengue Fever

High Altitude Sickness
Headache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting resulting from a rapid increase in elevation

  • Self-help step: Before going to a high altitude, spend a few days at an intermediate elevation
  • Self-help step: Until you are acclimated, avoid rigorous activity
  • Self-help step: Drink a lot of fluid to avoid dehydration
  • Medical supplies to pack: Prescription acetazolamide (Diamox) starting 1-2 days before altitude change

Blood Clots in Airplanes
Prolonged sitting increases the risk of leg clots, potentially causing a life-threatening lung embolism

  • Self-help step: While seated, flex ankles and knees often
  • Self-help step: Walk in the aisles about once an hour
  • Self-help step: Drink plenty of non-alcoholic beverage before, during and after flight to avoid dehydration
  • Medical supplies to pack: If you take a drug that increases the chance of clots or have other risk factors, consider compression stockings, and/or ask your doctor about preventative aspirin or heparin

Car Accidents and Other Injuries
Accounts for about 1 in 4 travel-associated deaths

  • Self-help step: Don't drive at night in rural areas
  • Self-help step: Don't drink while swimming or boating
  • Self-help step: If possible, choose lodging with smoke detectors and sprinklers
  • Medical supplies to pack: Bring bandages, sunblock, tweezers, moleskin for blisters, water purification tablets, pain reliever, topical antibiotic
  • Medical supplies to pack: Carry list of medical conditions and contact numbers

Avian Influenza A (H5N1)
Transmission to humans is rare, but the influenza is widespread in birds

  • Self-help step: Avoid contact with chickens, ducks, geese, live-food markets, places contaminated with poultry excrement
  • Self-help step: Make sure food is thoroughly cooked
  • Medical supplies to pack: No vaccine for Avian Flu is currently available
  • Medical supplies to pack: Risk is too small to warrant carrying anti-flu prescription drugs

Source: Courtesy Consumer Reports on Health

Brianne Wheeler is the Assistant Marketing Manager for Travel Assist Network, a global medical services company that provides medial evacuation, travel protection, and critical information services to travelers worldwide. It also provides custom protection for corporations, travel groups, and non-profit organizations tailored to meet each group's coverage needs.

Travel Insurance Insider's Tips

By guest blogger Brianne Wheeler
Part one of two-part series on travel insurance and precautions to take

Since the September 11 attacks, many travelers and group travel organizers have become increasingly concerned with their health and safety while away from home. As a result, many companies have launched travel protection products to give travelers peace of mind.

Here are common travel insurance options for individuals and groups, plus tips for finding what's right for you:

Medical Evacuation: Provides emergency transportation for a traveler who has a medical emergency, which is especially important when traveling to remote areas.  Medical evacuation membership programs offer an array of additional benefits, such as lost luggage compensation and guaranteed hospital admission.

The fine print:

  • Nearest Appropriate Facility: With this coverage, you are likely not going to be transported to your home hospital, but rather to the nearest clinic or hospital that the insurance company deems adequate. You can also look for coverage that provides transportation to the home or specialty hospital of your choice. Independent medical evacuation services, as opposed to comprehensive travel protection policies, often provide this option.
  • Coverage Limits: If a group of travelers purchases a plan covering $20,000 of medical evacuation per person and one of the travelers has a medical emergency with a cost to evacuate of $75,000, the patient is responsible for covering the remaining $55,000.  Be sure to purchase coverage that is unlimited or has a very high dollar limit.

Travel Health Insurance: These policies typically cover expenses that a traveler may incur from being in the hospital or seeing a physician while traveling. Coverage may also include benefits such as trip interruption, trip cancellation, travel delay, extreme sports and identity theft assistance. Note: Coverage may also include medical evacuation coverage, but several companies offer medical evacuation as an independent service.

The fine print:

  • Trip Cancellation Coverage: Before purchasing trip cancellation, make sure you know what the limitations are. For example, if a group of surfers plan a trip to Florida and a hurricane hits three days before their departure, most companies require that they cancel prior to the storm being officially named. Outside of bad weather, some policies will allow you to cancel for any reason; however, many only let you cancel for personal or family medical reasons.
  • Terrorism Coverage: With the recent political unrest around the globe, some companies have listened to travelers' concerns and expanded coverage to include benefits for travelers who are injured victims of a terrorist act. You'll want to ensure your coverage includes this benefit.

Although, thankfully, the majority of people travel to and from their destination with no medical emergencies or other issues, it's nice to have peace of mind and protection from unforeseen events. A tip for groups: purchase coverage together because groups usually receive discounted rates. Finally, here's a list of travel preparations and risks in various regions of the globe. Bon voyage!

Brianne Wheeler is the Assistant Marketing Manager for Travel Assist Network, a global medical services company that provides medial evacuation, travel protection, and critical information services to travelers worldwide. It also provides custom protection for corporations, travel groups, and non-profit organizations tailored to meet each group's coverage needs.

Group Tours: What to Ask Before You Sign Up

The Seattle Times republished an article on what to ask before signing up for a group tour. It goes well with our previous coverage of group tour preparation such as 10 Tips: How to Choose the Right Group Tour and Lucky 7 Tips from a Volunteer Vacation Leader.

In planning a multi-day group tour, volunteer vacation, or multi-week trip abroad, all of these questions are useful for determining which group tour is right for you.

  1. What is the max. number of people on the tour?
  2. What kind of bus is used?
  3. Does the tour company sublet its tours or use its own employees?
  4. Is the tour guide a native English speaker?
  5. Is the tour offered in English?
  6. Will you get the same tour leader in each location or local leaders per town?
  7. Are all entrance fees included?
  8. Are tips included also?
  9. Are hotel transfers part of the package?
  10. Can the tour guide change the itinerary when weather changes?