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Tracking Bigfoot and Entertaining Two Little Monsters in San Francisco
More from Travel
I've recently written a book about chasing some of the world's most famous monsters – such as the legendary Yeti of the Himalayas and the Ogopogo, Canada's giant sea serpent.
It was great fun for me, but my family grumbled that I was away all the time.
'But I'm a monster-hunter,' I'd say to my kids, hoping they would think I'm cool. This cut little ice with them, so I realised that if I wanted to go away again, I needed to sugar-coat the pill.
As luck would have it, my next trip happened to be going after Bigfoot, the mythical, ape-like creature which, legend has it, lives in the forests of northern California.
To get there I needed to fly to San Francisco. So I decided to take my wife, our daughter Parker, 12, and eight-year-old son Jackson with me, have ten days pootling around the city's Bay Area and then put them on a plane home before I went monster-hunting.
I love San Francisco. I think it's my favourite American city – mainly because, unlike most others, it is designed to walk around rather than drive. But I'm not a great fan of its biggest tourist attraction – Fisherman's Wharf. It's just too crowded, although it does have couple of gems to see.
We got up early to see the sea lions that lounge around on floating platforms in the bay. After 9am the place gets too packed to get a good view, but any earlier and it's just you and joggers.
We spent half an hour watching these extraordinary creatures jostle for positions on their bobbing sofas. We then headed for our favourite breakfast spot – the wonderful Eagle Cafe. Its delicious portions are insanely huge and they make the best vanilla milkshakes.
To work off this breakfast, we rented bicycles and rode to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. You can cross over and come back on a ferry, but we enjoyed pedalling along the coast trying to spot whales in the bay.
Later, back at Fisherman's Wharf, we discovered the Musee Mecanique, a brilliant museum full of slot machines made in the 19th Century. The kids went crazy playing them but it didn't break the bank because they took only 10¢ coins.
We ended a great day in my favourite bar in San Francisco – the Buena Vista Cafe. This is a great place to people-watch while downing its world-famous Irish coffees.
San Francisco is so much more than Fisherman's Wharf. You can visit Chinatown, Little Italy, the gay area (Castro), the hip area (Mission), the hippy area (Haight-Ashbury)... it goes on and on.
I'd rented a lovely red Mustang Convertible and the weather was gorgeous. This is rare in San Francisco – it's a lot colder there than you might think, especially in our summer months, due to its cool microclimate. The next day we set off for Golden Gate Park. Confusingly, this is not the one that surrounds the Golden Gate Bridge, which is called The Presidio.
The Golden Gate Park is a huge rectangular area that stretches up from the Pacific coast deep into the heart of the city. It has everything – a Japanese garden, sports fields, art galleries – and it's quite normal to see buffalos wandering around. Inside the park, we took a tour of the California Academy of Sciences, one of the world's biggest natural history museums. It has an aquarium, planetarium and even an earthquake exhibit.
My favourite San Franciscan is a man who sits outside the Ferry Terminal Building on the Embarcadero, San Francisco's eastern waterfront. This building has loads of funky places to eat, including my favourite restaurant in America, a Vietnamese place called The Slanted Door.
This man spends his whole day hiding behind a clump of vegetation that he holds in his hand. When a passer-by approaches, he sticks his head out of the foliage and makes them jump. He doesn't ask for money for this trick, but I gave him $20 all the same as he was the best roadside attraction I'd ever seen.
San Francisco is surrounded by some of the most stunning countryside in America. We hopped into the Mustang and roared over the Golden Gate Bridge. At the other side, we drove up one of the world's great roads – Highway 1.
Most people drive it south from San Francisco to Los Angeles, but I prefer the drive north. Film director Alfred Hitchcock loved the dramatic nature of this coastal road and shot some of his most famous scenes along there.
We stopped for lunch in Bodega Bay, where a lot of The Birds was filmed. Sitting on a terrace overlooking the sea, we ate lunch fast as huge seagulls perched above us, staring intently at our food. You could see where Hitch's inspiration came from.
At Mendocino we turned inland and headed for Napa Valley – California's wine country. We wandered into the local tourist office and asked what there was to do around there for kids. 'There is nothing for kids to do in Napa,' a woman replied with brutal honesty.
But then, just as we were trudging out, she added: 'There is always the Jelly Belly factory.' This candy production centre in Fairfield, about half an hour away from Napa, does free tours. The kids were under the impression that we were about to visit Willy Wonka's factory and were already on a giant pre-sugar rush. We had to don embarrassing 'hygiene' hats for the tour of the factory.
Sadly, there were no Oompa Loompas in sight and at every stop the guide offered us just one jellybean to taste. Since we were watching thousands of the things rush past us every second on conveyor belts, this seemed curiously stingy. But the kids loved it.
We eventually managed to drag them away and drove towards our final destination – Yosemite National Park. A ranger met us at the entrance and gave us directions to the Ahwahnee Hotel, one of America's great hotels where we were to stay for two nights.
The scenery was spectacular – cascading waterfalls, huge trees... I have never felt more in awe of nature. We stopped so many times to gawp at the scenery that it was dark by the time we arrived at the hotel.
The Ahwahnee is a wonderful old wooden and stone lodge that has hosted some distinguished guests, including the Queen, Charlie Chaplin and Ronald Reagan. But it is a little pleased with itself.
There are signs everywhere telling you to behave in an appropriate manner. It was a bit annoying.
We rented bikes again the next day and went cycling around a nearby valley – definitely the best way to see the place. We shivered with excitement at the signs warning us about bears and what to do if we came across one – stand still, make yourself big, ring a bell... er, we didn't have a bell!
Sadly, we had to head back to San Francisco. I waved my family goodbye at the airport before heading back north in my Mustang.
Family time was over and I had an appointment with a Mr Bigfoot.
Dom Joly's book Scary Monsters And Super Creeps: In Search Of The World's Most Hideous Beasts, published by Simon & Schuster, is out now, priced £12.99.
Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, www.virginholidays.co.uk) offers a ten-night holiday to San Francisco from £1,485. This includes return flights from Heathrow, five nights at the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf, two nights at the Furnace Creek River Terrace Inn Napa and a further three nights at the Fairmont San Francisco with car hire.