When a friend decides to get married in Yosemite, a gay New Yorker books a dual vacation: A visit to the heavenly park in the Northern California mountains bookended by stays in divinely different San Francisco, a mere four hours away. If one doesn't get lost, that is
Awhile back, my best friend from high school--the first classmate I came out to--announced she would be getting married one summer weekend at Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is a four-hour drive from San Francisco, so I decided to make it a weeklong solo-style vacation. I'd fly to San Francisco, spend the weekend in Yosemite, head back to the Bay Area, and then return home to New York.
I tried to make a reservation at the famed Ahwahnee Hotel inside the park, but even with six months' notice it was already booked. In fact, all of the "inside-the-park hotels" were full. Fortunately, my friend had a block of rooms reserved not far outside the western gate. That hotel had a three-night minimum that weekend, which was frustrating but not all that surprising.
Feeling budget-conscious, I used my US Airways Dividend Miles to book a cross-continent ticket and used Priceline.com to make hotel reservations in San Francisco. Priceline worked out fine--until I realized that I'd entered the wrong dates for the trip. I panicked--the Web site says over and over again that refunds are out of the question--but fortunately, the company does have a "one-time courtesy" policy for entering new dates, if you pay a small penalty. When I finally had my rooms confirmed--two nights before Yosemite at the Harbor Court and two nights after at the Kensington Park--I booked a car rental reservation with Budget. The reservation agent said that I would have to put down a deposit of $75 because I wanted a convertible.
As a single traveler, I don't go anywhere without my laptop. I can either pretend to work on the Great American Gay Novel or watch movies on DVD, so either way it's worth the extra schlep. The day before my flight I checked out the entire first season of Queer as Folk from the public library (and a few books on CD for the car ride to Yosemite: Car rentals never have tape decks anymore).
The US Airways flight was fine (especially since I managed to get an emergency-exit-row seat), except that my computer battery drained two hours after we were off the ground. It turns out that airplanes now have outlets for laptops--but you have to purchase a converter before you get onboard. Converters start at $100.
At the airport I proceeded to the car rental center and then to the Budget desk, where I was informed that Budget did not have my reservation and that there were no cars available. I tried protesting (then I tried whining) and finally I gave up. I picked up a pay phone, called a few other agencies, and managed to secure a car through Alamo.
The Embarcadero at night
At the Harbor Court Hotel, located The Embarcadero of San Francisco, near the waterfront, my room ($60 through Priceline, plus $30 per night for parking) was tiny but comfortable. Its best part is the adjoining, newly renovated YMCA (free passes for guests). Not only is the pool clean and well-maintained, the treadmills provide a perfect view of the bay. The Y, which mostly serves downtown office workers, has a substantially gay clientele. (Be forewarned: Signs throughout the locker room expressly warn against sexual contact in the steam room and/or sauna.)
For breakfast I headed to Union Street, which boasts one of the most airy and spacious Starbucks in the nation. It's great for people-watching (especially with laptop as camouflage), but don't expect to get too many phone numbers. This is straight (but not narrow) territory.
I've been to San Francisco on numerous occasions, so I needed to find activities besides hitting Castro Street. I decided to make a pilgrimage to Alcatraz. To get to Alcatraz you have to catch a boat from Fisherman's Wharf, an area of the city that I would think even a grandmother from Des Moines would find tacky. The boat ride from the wharf takes about 10 minutes and costs about $13, including audio tour (it's a good idea to reserve tickets in advance, preferably days or weeks in advance, and the audio tour is a must). Most tour companies will allow you to stay on the island as long as you'd like and grab a return boat at your convenience.
Spending an hour and a half in America's most famous prison gave me a new appreciation for freedom, and afterward I was ready for the Castro. I had a quick lunch at the Welcome Home Cafe and then strolled up and down Castro Street looking for the man of my dreams. I didn't find him, but I did pick up several good novels at one of America's best gay bookstores, A Different Light. Then I decided to go for a drive.
I don't care what anyone says about San Francisco being a great town for walking--if you want to see San Francisco, you need a car. From the Castro I drove north, past the University of San Francisco, through the Presidio (a giant park along the bay) and into Sea Cliff, one of the city's most luxurious neighborhoods. Here, glorious yellow-and-cream townhouses overlook the brilliant blue water and the Golden Gate Bridge. From Sea Cliff I drove down to Baker Beach, which is gay-friendly (and has a nude section to the north). San Francisco weather isn't always beach-oriented, but when it is, everyone comes out for some sun.
The Presidio forest
After a light dinner in the Castro and still no sign of Mr. Would-Be-Worth-Moving-Cross-Country-For, I treated myself to a sumptuous dessert at Boulevard, probably the city's best restaurant and only half a block from the Harbor Court Hotel. The banana crepe with caramel, butter pecan ice cream, and chocolate sauce was a little too sweet for my taste, but I managed to finish it just the same. Jet-lagged and eager to get on the road early the next morning in order to beat the traffic, I skipped the club scene and went to bed.
The drive to Yosemite would have taken four hours had I not gotten lost. But my detour took me to Bass Lake, a gorgeous swimming hole just south of Yosemite. The lake is family-oriented, so despite finding my own private cove I didn't doff my suit.
From Bass Lake I drove up into Yosemite and paid the hefty $20 per vehicle admission fee (which is good for seven days). Then I checked out the giant sequoias near the south entrance. The trees rival some New York skyscrapers.
It was another hour and a half drive to the hotel, so I was exhausted when I got there--and very glad to discover an outdoor hot tub. I was a little bothered by the background noise as I approached the hot tub--it sounded like an overextended air-conditioning system. But when I got closer I realized it was the rush of white water passing right next to the hotel. It was an awesome sight. And sitting in the hot tub, gazing at the river, I felt like an old-fashioned nature boy.
The next day my friend, her fiance, and a few members of the wedding party (myself included) took a mellow hike through the park. I say "mellow" because it didn't require anything other than sneakers, some mosquito repellent, and a bottle of water. For those who are so inclined, Yosemite offers plenty of serious hiking and mountain climbing that can be as physically exhausting (or downright life-threatening) as one might like.
It was hard to tell just how many gay travelers were visiting Yosemite that weekend, but I definitely saw one male couple enjoying breakfast together at the Yosemite View Lodge dining room.
Yosemite Valley is as beautiful as one might expect. A waterfall graces almost every mountaintop. The whole thing is so picturesque, it seems heady confirmation that God must be gay.
The wedding itself took place at the Ahwahnee, which is right smack in the middle of the valley. It's Native American rustic and four-star luxurious at the same time.
Then it was back to San Francisco for a final day of freedom.
Silver Dude in Union Square
This time I stayed at the Hotel Kensington Park, a stone's throw from Union Square. San Francisco has dozens of "boutique" hotels: smaller properties that don't offer all the conveniences of a major chain or luxury establishment but are less expensive and more "intimate." Like many hotels in the city, the Kensington provides complimentary tea and sherry from 4 to 6 p.m. It's a nice touch, especially when you've spent the day searching in vain for the perfect six-foot, 30-inch-waist souvenir.
I spent my last day in San Fran visiting the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a neoclassical temple of a museum situated on a cliff above the bay. It's famous for being the spot in Tales of the City where Mary Ann reveals that she knows about Norman's ugly secret and where he falls to his very timely death. The museum itself is fine (and free on Tuesdays, thanks to a grant from the Ford Motor Co.) with art from antiquity to the present, but the view of the bay is even better.
The Palace of the Legion of Honor
It was time to start preparing for the trip home. Since I'd booked a 7 a.m. flight, I decided to return the rental car the evening prior at Alamo's Union Square location. That meant a $10 drop-off fee and a $12 shuttle to the airport in the morning, but it meant not having to get up at 4 a.m. to be on time for the flight. (But take heed: Breakfast prices at the San Francisco airport are through the roof. A banana cost $1.25--the street vendor price in New York is 25 cents.)
Now I'm back at my job, daydreaming about San Francisco Bay, and all too tempted to plan my next trip to "the coast."