Saturday, 28 April 2007

Air Force One

Earlier this year, through a mutual friend, I became friends with a rather cute guy called Mike in the US Air Force. It was decided that he and his friends would show me a good time in San Fran and that I'd be more than welcome to stay on the base. Talk about an adventure! I was met at the airport by two of his friends, welcomed to the base and settled in my apartment-like room before I knew it. There was Mexican food for dinner, a nanna nap and then drinking in the dorms till about 4.30am!

Mike arrived the next day and in true gentlemanly tour guide form showed me the sights and scenery around San Fran. I was in awe of the massive Golden Gate Bridge and when I first saw it I'm sure I squealed like a girl. We took a boat cruise that went under the bridge, which also gave us a bird's eye view of Alcatraz, the renowned prison island. Home to Scarface and also Al Capone during its working years, we were sadly unable to do the tour as they sell out quickly. However, our boat was so close that we could see people walking around, see the old mouldy buildings and read the sign that warns against procuring the escape of any inmate. A pesky group of seagulls were following the boat the entire way and had all of us on the back deck in fear of getting pooed on. They swooped overhead and squawked and made a great racket. We pulled back into the dock, passing a group of merry barking seals, all basking in the sunshine and frolicking in the frigid water.

Pier 39 is certainly the tourist spot! Majorly amped up for tourist value, it had all sorts of shops and restaurants and attractions. There was a shop dedicated entirely to fridge magnets, much to my delight. We're all aware of my love of magnets, but the only one I liked I didn't buy. Shaped like a breast cancer ribbon, it was pink and said 'support shopping'. It seemed a bit flaky but now I wish I'd bought it. We did a cable car tour and headed up and down some of the steepest streets in San Fran, home to scenes from many a movie. I tell you what, I wish I'd had a few days staying in the actual San Fran area, as the shopping is AMAZING. Chinatown had so many little shops crammed with paper lanterns, cute little slippers and all sorts of goodies. The real shopping district boasted many famous labels, had its own Tiffany & Co. (always a winner!) and was brimming with people looking for the perfect purchase.

San Fran is a beautiful city. Flooded with light, reflecting from the white buildings, it seems like the perfect summery place to be. It was absolutely freezing cold with the bay breeze, but in the summertime it'd be teeming with people and the atmosphere would be outrageously fun! We couldn't resist a drive down the world's most crooked street, Lombard Street. It has 8 turns in it, all within a very short distance! The hill Lombard St was built on was too steep for driving straight down, so was designed this way to reduce speed. The result? A massive $3 million for a home on the street, heaps of traffic all wanting to drive down it and a need to have your foot stomped on the brakes the entire time to prevent scratching the paint off your bumpers!

Heading home that afternoon, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and as usual, when in the presence of a major landmark, I was in awe. The bridge is MASSIVE, and while not as large as the multi-level Bay Bridge across the bay, it is a construction to behold. Each year, 5000 litres of 'county orange' paint are used and similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it's constantly being painted. At the end of the bridge, there's a viewing park and we got out and took some great shots . We were up high, had a bird's eye view of the bay, the bridge and Alcatraz.

An afternoon trip the next day to Napa Valley was gorgeous, and just as picturesque as I'd imagined. The afternoon light made the leaves glow, the mountains had a romantic feel about them and the whole area seemed like the perfect little sleepy country town to set up house in. We went to Rubicon Estate, formerly known as Coppola's. Owned by Francis Ford Coppola, it has a great display of his Academy Awards, and also costumes from some of his movies. Sadly, these items aren't available for viewing anymore, as Mr Coppola wants his patrons to visit the winery for the wine, not his accomplishments. Have a look at the website to read up on the history and see how gorgeous it is.

The winery is beautiful. Set down a long driveway with row upon row of trees stretching away on either side, the building is grand and covered in vines and climbing leaves. We were greeted at the foot of the red carpet, handed passports, and directed down the carpet and inside. The fountains out the front give it a regal air and the wines for tasting were superb. After the tasting, we sat outside with a glass of delicious Zinfandel and enjoyed the slight afternoon breeze and rustling of the leaves. I didn't realise how large Napa Valley actually is, and was amazed that there were so many little vineyards dotted all over the place. With a few bottles of the delicious grape juice in my possession, we headed back to the base.

Having no idea what a real air force base is like, I was surprised by the sheer size of it. Set out like a town, it has everything anyone could need: massive grocery store, bottle shop, dorms, housing, gym, church, aircraft simulators, museum, cinema and even a bowling alley. We bowled a few games and then some more drinking took place. I was surprised at how normal it felt to be on the base, like being in a suburb at home - minus the massive jets taking off overhead every few minutes, people wandering around in uniform and the sleep interrupting renditions of the Star Spangled Banner at something like 4.30am each morning! There were large stretches of the greenest grass I've ever seen, flowering rose bushes, stray cats and bbq's outside the dorms.

One of my favourite parts of my trip was being allowed into the simulator and getting to refuel some jets. The simulator I was in is the one that is used to train real air force crew and is just like a video game! There are seats for the instructor and trainee and there are buttons, handles, something like a joystick and also a huge viewing window where the jets needing fuel appear. I got to have a go at the following: F-15 F-16 B-52 C-130 F-22 and KC-10. It all seemed fairly easy, but that's in the sim, not at night or in the wind or with turbulence and my complete lack of knowledge of what all the buttons, handles and other gadgets actually do!

While it all seems like fun and games, and when I fly it's all about the destination and gobbling lobster and pavlova up the front, there's a far more serious side to the job of these men and women and an incredible amount of skill is involved. For some great pictures and videos, take a look at Mike's website

My room boasted a view of the running track and the back of the gym and while there weren't groups of chanting men running in formation in white shirts and sweats and gleaming dog tags (like in my hopeful imagination), I feel motivated to visit our gym more regularly. California is home to the JELLY BELLY - those delicious little jelly beans of many yummy flavours and I was amused to find little packets of them on my pillow when I checked in, instead of the obligatory hotel chocolate. We had a funny jelly belly experience, but will leave it at that.

On my last day, I visited the museum on the base and was able to get up close and personal with some very ancient looking aircraft. There were B52's and many others that I can't remember, including what has to have been the ugliest aircraft EVER - it had an oddly rounded shaped tail and almost looked like it had a nose on its pilot end!

All in all, it was a fantastic trip - perhaps my best leave trip yet. California has lots to offer - fantastic wine, spectacular vineyards, beaches (didn't see any), clam chowder (didn't try any!), sunny days and sexy men in uniform.

What could beat that?

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