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May 6, 2011 > Planes, Trains and Three Generations

Planes, Trains and Three Generations

By Denny Stein
Photos By Sam Alexander

Tri-City Voice readers live in a magical location - within driving distance of a great city, magnificent natural resources, world class monuments, and historical sites. In fact, it can be hard to choose what to do if your visitors are only here for few days. In our case, #1 son's unit was in town complete with our three-year-old grandson. The challenge: entertaining a three-year-old and a 63-year-old, and thirty-somethings in between for three days.

Often the first day means getting over jet lag, but you only need look in our own backyard, literally, for an easy and fun activity. The Niles Canyon Railway runs restored 1904-1950 locomotives and cars between Niles and Sunol, through the Niles Canyon. Buy your tickets at the depot kiosks or pay on board. Be sure to check the web site for days and hours of operation, (

Board the train at either the Niles Depot on Mission Boulevard or in Sunol. Find a seat in the open-air car or the old enclosed Pullman cars. There is a dining car that sells snacks, and offers free wine tasting for some rides. The excitement of the train, combined with chugging through the Canyon's green foliage, seeing the creek run by below, feeling the crisp air and the sun on your face, is blissful. In Sunol, or Niles, you can disembark for shopping, a pit stop, or photos with the big engines. The experience makes all those Thomas the Tank Engine stories come to life.

The next day we went further afield, all the way to San Francisco. Our outings were geared to the three-year-old meltdown meter but, of course, my grandson Jacksen is exceptional, so his attention span and curiosity are keen. We took BART, because it's another train ride. Disembarking at the Powell Street station brings you exactly to the Cable Car Turntable. The line to board the tram is usually long but it circles the turntable and watching the old trolley cars pulled in, turned and pushed out again is fascinating in and of itself. There's something refreshing about old-fashioned hands on manual labor as opposed to a clicking joystick.

Once seated on the outside benches, the wait was worth it. Our gripman was a true San Francisco character, playing tunes on his bell, hollering "What about those Giants?" and even giving Jacksen a chance to pull the bell rope. The cable car, like the Little Engine That Could, labors up the city's hills, then flies down the other side like Buzz Lightyear on a mission. The gripman stops at famous sights such as Lombard Street's twisting passage, and points out Coit Tower in the distance. We arrived at our destination, Fisherman's Wharf, ready for the fabled crab sandwich on sourdough bread.

Our plan was to eat at a waterside sandwich shop but we ended up, at the gripman's suggestion, at Scoma's Restaurant. The white tablecloths and dark wood spoke of fine dining, as did the prices and black-tied waiters. Our waiter, Sal, had been working at Scoma's for 15 years, and said he was still the "baby" on the staff, most of whom had been there over 35 years. He knew his job though, and immediately brought the children's menu and then Jacksen's "fish stick," a large and delicious piece of fried cod with French fries. From the crab and salmon cake to the crab sandwich, my organic butternut squash and crab soup, and fresh sourdough bread, all the food was satisfyingly good. The calm and quiet of the restaurant led us to really relax; Jacksen ate his fish and chips and drew with restaurant-provided crayons; his parents enjoyed a glass of wine.

Refreshed, we set off down Jefferson Street to find the sea lions. Along the way we saw a group of statue mimes eating lunch, and a man who hid behind a leafy branch and pretended to scare people. Then we saw, or smelled, the sea lions, basking on their piers, wrestling each other for space and generally showing off - natural clowns.

Our last stop was the Ferry Building, further down the Embarcadero. A cab ride seemed appropriate by that time, and inexpensive. The Ferry Building offered wide hallways, gelato, enticing food aromas, and a grand view. By 4 p.m. we were fed, exercised, shopped out, and ready to go home. The short walk to the Embarcadero BART put us on the platform for the Fremont train in two minutes, and home within the hour, without one meltdown.

Jacksen had been promised really BIG trees and a golden bridge, so our next local adventure was to Muir Woods National Monument and the Golden Gate. Again, all do-able in one day and with a three-year-old. We left Fremont at 9:30 a.m. and routed ourselves north and then west across the San Rafael Bridge. Plenty of signage led us easily to the Monument grounds. The lovely thing about Muir Woods and children is that you can just let them run ahead of you and enjoy themselves, even a three-year-old. We saw giant redwoods with giant hidey holes in the trunks and twisted faces in their bark. The forest was green and enveloping, a consuming experience from ground level to high overhead. After an hour, we stopped at the gift shop and headed back to the car for the last leg of our journey, the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you go first to Fort Baker, and drive through the old military base (now turned lodge and spa) you may wonder why you are there, until suddenly the Golden Gate Bridge looms high above you. After some awe-struck photos and a brief explore, we squirreled our way out through a mountain tunnel, up and over Hawk Hill and right into the parking area by Fort Barry. It's quite a view of the fabled bridge from high up there on the headlands. There is the added fascination of the historic batteries, with the old anti-aircraft gun pads, and military living quarters. At last, headed home over the Bay Bridge we finally had a meltdown:

"Jacksen, we're on a double decker bridge!"
"No we're not. No it isn't."
"Yes it is. Remember when I pointed it out yesterday?"
"No you didn't. No it's NOT a double-decker!"

The wisdom of age allowed us to drop the subject and the rest of the ride was peaceful and uneventful. Planes, trains, and automobiles, cable cars, buses, bridges and hikes are all to be had within driving distance of home. My son has twice said, "Mom, we had a blast!" But you don't even have to wait for visitors, do it for yourself. Play at home - enjoy where you live.

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