If you have read any of my books or short stories on travel, you know that Rita and I normally eschew the guided tours, preferring instead to discover and explore on our own and at our own pace. In fact, one of my recent posts was about the joy of finding someplace unexpected.

It is not that we scoff at those who prefer guided tours. We just don't like to feel rushed or on someone else's schedule. If something catches our eye, we may linger a while, or shoot off on a different tangent as the mood takes us. Even when guides are required, like on our Inca Trail hike, we opted to spend a bit more for private hike, rather than a large group.

Yet somehow, we forgot that important rule on a day trip while we were in San Francisco. Perhaps it was because COVID-19 has thrown us off our regular travel plans, or that it just seemed so simple an arrangement that we didn’t feel anything could go wrong.

You see, a dear friend gave a list of things we should see and do while we were in the bay area. Two of those were to visit the Muir Woods to see the redwood forest, and to take a harbor cruise to enjoy the skyline, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Muir Woods is less than an hour’s drive from downtown but renting a car in San Francisco is not a good idea; parking is expensive, gas is almost $5/gallon, and navigating the hills can be a scary experience.

In a moment of foolish optimism, I asked the concierge at the hotel is she could find us one of the tours I had read about online. These tours involved a shuttle to Muir Woods, and after some time in the morning to explore the woods, a drive to Sausalito on the bay for a brief tour of that charming city. Then you have the option to either ride the shuttle back to the city, or stay in Sausalito for lunch and private exploration before taking a harbor ferry back.

She found us a tour for $69 each that would do exactly that. Better yet, they would pick us up at the hotel at 8:30am – no need to go to the tour office first. Sounds perfect, right? We should be at Muir Woods no later than 10am, and have a couple of hours to explore before hopping back on for the short ride to Sausalito.

We should have known better.

First, our pickup was at 8:45, fifteen minutes late. Not a big deal, right? Next, the “spacious shuttle” turned out to be a basic extended van with an extra row of seats crammed in instead of luggage room. They had made several stops at hotels already, so we ended up in the very last row, a bench seat with so little leg room it made me yearn for the comfort of Spirit Airlines.

Oh well, at least we had the bench to ourselves. I could stretch my legs down the aisle. After all, we would only be in the van for 45 minutes or so, right?

Wrong on both counts. Turns out we still had two more stops to make, and four more people to pick up. By the time the last couple climbed in and got settled, it was 9:30am and we were still in town. I found myself jammed into the corner diagonally, my backpack on my lap, and my knees pressed hard against the seat back. I could not look out the left side of the van at all, and was mostly staring at the backs of heads. I couldn’t move enough to get my phone out of my pocket for pictures, even if I had been able to see anything.

As for just 45 minutes and we’ll be there, that was not to be either. Before we could leave the last hotel, our driver had to stand up in front and tell us all about himself. But first, he took off his mask, announced that the dilapidated van had “microfilters” installed, so masks were “optional”. He then blathered on about how he was from Germany, lived in Marin County, how he came to San Francisco, what he thought of the region, explained fog to us, let’s go around the van and introduce ourselves and say where we are from, and on and on. I was surprised he didn’t ask us to say what kind of animal we would like to be.

He also mentioned no less than three times that the standard tip was 20% of the cost of the tour. Just in case we missed the large sign stating this important fact at the front of the bus.

Finally, as I began to lose feeling in my legs, he climbed into the driver’s seat and we took off, ostensibly for the woods.

He continued his unmasked monologue (I noticed not one else in the van bought the “microfilters” line and kept their masks on), pausing occasionally to cough. He took an indirect route to the bridge so he could show us points of interest that we could see and enjoy if we were to stop, which we didn’t. He told us his feelings about the weather, about common myths of San Francisco, the tourism business in general, how clever he was to live in Marin County, and of course returning occasionally to the importance of tipping your driver 20%.

Finally, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Or least, so I was told. I could only see some iron girders and a guard rail. I was wedged in facing the wrong direction to see the ocean. But never fear, he detoured off the road on the other side to go through an overlook. And I do mean “through”. He did not stop, just circled the lot so that the passenger side of the van caught a passing glimpse of what might have been a great view.

As we neared Muir Woods at last, the road started winding in tighter and tighter turns. Now he chose to show off his aggressive driving skills, whipping around 120 degree turns at 10-20 miles over the speed limit, all the while talking and coughing and pointing.

Just as we thought we could at last arrive and I was wondering if I would be able to move with a now numb ass and legs, he decided to pull over off the road and tell us all about redwood trees and the history of the park. You know, the stuff we could see at the park if he would just shut up and take us there.

When at last we entered the parking area it was 11:00am, and he delivered the kicker – we would have to be back at the pickup spot by 12:05, 12:15 at the latest. Oh yes – also the fee we paid for the tour did not include the $15 park entrance fee we would pay at the entrance (or the 20% tip, which don’t forget is the customary minimum), a good 10-minute walk from where we stood.

So to break it down, instead of the advertised “spend the morning exploring the majestic redwoods” we had at most 75 minutes in the park – 55 minutes if you allow for the 20 minute round trip from the parking lot to the entrance (which he could have dropped us off at), 50 minutes if you would like to be so self-indulgent as to use the bathroom. And we would be paying an additional $30 a couple, of course.

Fortunately, Rita has one of those Lifetime Senior Park Passes for national parks, so we were able to get in without paying a fee. And the woods were indeed majestic. We thoroughly enjoyed of brief stay, despite only having enough time to walk about a mile and a half along a trail before turning back to re-enter the Van of Death.

Redwoods of Muir Woods

“Gee, usually people look happier returning from the woods”, our driver quipped as we climbed back aboard. I bit back the reply “usually people get more than 50 minutes for their $138”, and just mumbled as I wedged myself back in.

One more death-defying drive around the twisty roads, another lecture or two, another reminder of how the best guides usually get more than the 20% tip, which is so customary it should almost be considered the bare minimum, a lot more coughing, and we were being toured through scenic parking lots in Sausalito.

We finally parked, but of course, we could not get out yet. First, he had to turn to face us and extoll the many wonderful things we could see in Sausalito, and the wonderful restaurants to be enjoyed. He asked if anyone was going to remain and take the ferry, and our hands shot up. He said he would speak to us outside before we left, and informed our other riders that they now had almost a full 60 minutes to have lunch and enjoy all that Sausalito has to offer.


Once off the bus, another couple decided they were through as well and would not like to rush through lunch and see nothing of the town. He had us pay via a handheld device, and I grudgingly included a 10% tip. Not that I thought he deserved it, just that I hate to be “that guy” that doesn’t tip at all.

He now wanted to take up more of our time by describing to us in great detail about how we should catch the ferry, where it goes, what times, etc. but we cut him off and said we would be fine. After all, we have found our way around public transport in Italy, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and so on. I think we can handle a ferry ride in California. Besides, we could see the dock and the large “San Francisco Ferry” sign from where we stood.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we were free at last.

The first thing we did was find a nice place to eat, which was not difficult. A little Taquileria called Copita caught our eye, with its red canopy shading a flowered outdoor eating area.

We knew we were in the right spot when the first thing the waitress did was to place a full tequila bottle and two glasses on our table!

Now we're talking!

Unfortunately, it was full of water. Nevertheless, we did order their house margaritas, and set back to eat chips and salsa while we waited for our meals. Rita ordered the fish tacos, while I went for the quesa birrias. The quesa birrias are popular in the San Fran area, kind of a cross between a quesadilla and a taco. These particular birrias were made with slow roasted lamb, and were spectacular.

We were enjoying our second round of margaritas when we saw the tour van pull out for what I could only assume was a slow, lecture-filled ride back to San Francisco. I resisted the urge to smugly raise a glass or moon them as they passed by.

After lingering over our relaxing lunch we got our ferry tickets, and still had over an hour and a half to explore before departure. Sausalito was a pretty interesting place, and we enjoyed our time there. Like most of what we saw on this trip, it would be a great place to live – if you could afford it. Even the 900 square foot houseboats were on Zillow at $1.4 million and up.

Sausalito, as seen from the water

The ferry ride back to town was wonderful! The ship is so large there is very little rocking motion, and we were able to sit outside on the upper deck. On the crossing we got our first really good views of the Golden Gate, and passed close to Alcatraz.

Golden Gate Bridge

Approaching San Francisco

We arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf, and from there it was only a few blocks to the trolley line through Chinatown and back to our hotel. Once we were home in our little nest, we swore once again to always try to avoid tour groups.

I must admit however, I have only myself to blame. I tried to take the easy way out, when just a minimum of research on the Internet would have shown us a better way. While on our walk through Sausalito, for example, we saw signs advertising shuttle buses to Muir Woods for just $3 each way. We already had our 7-day pass to use the trolleys and buses, so there was a very easy do-it-yourself way we could have planned.

I now know we could have left our hotel, walked two blocks to the trolley to the docks, and bought round trip tickets for the ferry. In Sausalito, we could have jumped a shuttle to Muir Woods, spent as much time there as we wanted, and shuttled back to Sausalito to enjoy our Tequileria before the ferry and trolley home.

The costs for making the trip on our own? Let’s ignore that we had the reduced rate transit pass, and just use the basic rates for two:

Trolley to and from the docks: $24
Round trip Ferry: $42
Round trip Muri Woods Shuttle: $12
No Coughing, Talkative Guide: Priceless

Grand total for two would have been $78 instead $138, and we would have seen and enjoyed more of Muir Woods and Sausalito. And it really is not about the money – it’s the quality of the time spent visiting someplace new.

And shame on us because we already knew that! In my incredibly poorly timed book “The Galápagos Islands: On Your Own and On a Budget” (the Galápagos shut down for COVID the same week I published, and have yet to allow tourist without a tour guide), I described the event that was an epiphany for me and Rita.

We were on a trip to Italy and had just spent the day wandering around the Doge’s Palace in Venice. On our way out, we saw signs that all travelers keep an eye out for – public bathrooms! While we waited in line, we overheard a conversation between a woman in a tour blazer and a tourist a few people ahead of us. The tour operator was explaining that they had to leave right now to get on the bus back to the cruise ship. “But I need to use the bathroom,” was the plaintive cry. “I’m sorry, we don’t have time!” the guide said as she pulled the befuddled (and soon to be be-puddled) lady out of the line.

Rita and I looked at each other and silently agreed we would never put ourselves in a travel situation where we were not at least in charge of our toilet breaks.

Ah well – they say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Hopefully this little reminder of what we learned in the past will stick with us into our future travels.

Sausalito on the Bay