Though l didnt wear any flowers in my hair!
11.09.2004 20 °C
I love California, to be precise, San Francisco. We are just back from a fantastic week there from the 11th to 18th September. There was amazing weather even though l was warned by everyone that SF is notorious for being cold and foggy. To be honest l saw fog once - on our first morning there l woke up to find the most amazing dense fog l have ever saw in my life – but this disappeared by lunch into a glorious day.
So San Francisco, in Northern California, set on a bay – a more laid back yet cosmopolitan city you could not find. It is a very tolerant city – renowned for its gay quarter in Castro and back in the 60’s was a haven for hippies and beatniks. What l did notice and found quite disconcerting was the numbers of homeless on the streets. When l was in New York l didn’t see any street people, having been told the city had made a concerted effort to get people off the streets and indeed “clean up” the city so to speak. So when l hit the streets of SF l think l was expecting more of the same yet on every corner in every district there was someone sleeping rough or begging for cash. Apparently because of the mild weather it is a lot more conducive for sleeping rough than the streets of New York.
We got to San Francisco via a flight from Belfast to London and London direct to San Francisco. The flight took a little over 9 hours and we actually arrived half an hour earlier that anticipated. We flew direct with United Airways although others such as Virgin Atlantic and BA both fly direct to the city also. Now the queues to go through immigration were phenomenal – but l would expect that any US airport to have the same queues – a necessary evil we will simply have to endure lm afraid.
We had booked the super shuttle bus before we left the UK for our transfer from the airport to the hotel (www.supershuttle.com) which cost $28 for 2, and picked us up directly from the international terminal straight to our hotel. It should be noted too that super shuttle will cover lots of other US cities too.
We stated in the Union Square area – that of O’Farrell Street. It was the Hilton San Francisco. This opinion is not about our hotel, just a simple by line to say that this is a decent 4 star hotel, large – in fact the largest in the city and international. Our rooms were of decent size – we were on the 34th floor so had excellent views of the city – there was everything you would expect of a hotel of such caliber – hairdryer, TV, towels, business traveller facilities and over priced minibar. I would say that the Union Square area was a great central place to base our stay in SF at, central to shopping, restaurants, cable car turn arounds and bus stops.
So on to the city itself – what does it have to offer?
ALCATRAZ ISLAND & STATE PENITENTUARY
This is the most popular visitor attraction within the city. Once the world renowned and notorious prison known to all as the Rock. Thought to be inescapable – in fact although attempts have been made it is unknown if those actually made it to the free world or drown in the bay. Alcatraz is Spanish for Pelican – and is still today a sanctuary for bird and wild life. The site is now run by the National Park Service and visitors can not only learn about the prison life, but also about the wild life living on the island and indeed the Indian occupation of the island.
To get to Alcatraz l had to pre book tickets – it really is that popular an attraction. To do so go to www.blueandgoldfleet.com – this is the only tour company running scheduled ferries from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Island. Our tour cost $16 each and this included an audio tour of the cell house. I would recommend this great tour. You follow the lines of your feet and listen to former prisoners and wardens talk about “The Rock”.
The cell house is really rundown and worn, but this really adds to the atmosphere of the place, the spooky eeriness of what must have been hell on earth. Step inside a minuscule cell and image the confinement or pop into solitary and shut the door, try and stop yourself panicicking – they really shut men up in these black boxes for weeks on end. This is really one trip in San Francisco that you cannot miss.
FISHERMAN’S WHARF/PIER 39 & SEALIONS
If there is one area know for its tourists, then it’s the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city. This is where you get the tacky tourists shops, street artists, ferries and boats touring the bay. It is also where you meet your blue and gold line ferry to Alcatraz. The area during the day is a hive of activity – whether it be tour buses dropping off or picking up passengers, street artists singing, thrashing drums, miming or even those darned pan pipes who seem to get everywhere to wandering tourists walking around wondering what to do next! Here you can gain entry to the Aquarium of the Bay (this costs $12 for adults) – which takes around half an hour to walk around - has a few touch tanks with stingrays, sea cumbers and star fish – but really aint that worth it (which we found out!) There is also the Wax Works and Ripley’s Believe it or believe it not – neither of which we visited – there’s plenty more to enjoy and spend your money on!
Also at the wharf area you will find the really star attraction – which is free and great entertainment – that of the sea lions! These sea lions located themselves just off the main Pier 39 and became instant attractions after they were affected by the earthquake of 1989. Tourists flock to see the sea lions – both young and old alike. The antics are quite amusing and you really can while away some time watching the young sea lions annoy the older ones and watch them laze the afternoon away.
Finally there is Pier 39 – this as l have said previously this is the main Pier for tourists. Here there is shopping galore – any tacky souvenirs you may wish to purchase (although expect to pay through the nose for them here), college shops – get your sweater with Berkley or USC, Dept 59 – a shop where you can by seasonal displays – Halloween was all the rage when we were there! There is also every style of restaurant under the sun – Seafood – clam chowder in a sourdough bowl – fills you up for the day, Italian – a feast of a slice of pizza – your choice, American burger bars, or Mexican – whatever your appetite it will be catered for. At night you will find live music giving the place more of an atmosphere. Also there is the old fashioned carousel which the kids will adore.
Another 2 areas down by the Wharf worth a mention were Ghirardelli Square and the Cannery. Ghirardelli Square used to be a chocolate factory of the same name – this is now a boutique shopping area and restaurant area – try out Gaylord Indian or Louis Diner. Also you got to go get some Ghirardelli chocolate (there was a 2 day choccie festival on when we were visiting – chocolate strawberries and chocolate beer!!) call into the shop and you will be given a free square! There’s also an ice cream parlour. The Cannery used to be an old Del Monte fruit cannery – now converted into and pubs and eateries area – live music at nights.
The Wharf is well worth a visit and you can catch the historic street and cable cars down to the beginning and take a walk along. I was quite surprised at night – although it does cool down quite a bit l did think it would be a lot busier and lit up at night.
Catch a Powell and Hyde cable car and jump off at the top of Lombard Street – take the steps down the hill and turn around and watch cars slowly navigate the bendiest and windiest street in the world. It is very pretty with grassy areas and flower boxes. It is actually a residential street. At the bottom lots of silly tourists stand in the middle of the road and play dodge with traffic to try and get a picture of the cars coming down the street. A free attraction which takes half an hour out of your day.
This as l have said before is the area where we stayed. This is the main shopping area in the city. There are plenty to the shoppers amongst us busy. The biggest being the renown US store Macys – this is a huge store a block in size, and has everything under one roof one could need. It’s great for clothing, cosmetics or even household goods. Top tip being – those visitors from out of town – take your passport to the visitors centre on the 6th floor and you can get a discount card – watch out though – it’s not available to use on cosmetics or fragrances. On the top floor of Macy’s is the Cheesecake Factory and restaurant. The cheese cake is nice – not great nice. Paul got a chocolate and peanut butter slice – way to rich, my original was much better. The problem being with the Cheesecake Factory – portion size – they could feed a small family on one portion! The cheesecake is also available for take away – but be warned be prepared to cue!
There are Tiffany’s Jewelers. Banana Republic, Nike World – all the usual suspects. Borders book store stays open to 11pm each night and has a coffee shop. There are Starbucks on every corner of every block!
The Nordstrom centre – is a big shopping mall – with the likes of Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, or American Eagle as residents. I must admit l carried out serious card damage in Abercrombie!
The cable cars are world renown in San Fran – a real symbol of the city. There are 3 lines Powell & Hyde, Powell & Market - both leading to the Wharf and California line. We mostly rod the Powell and Hyde line – the other Powell line was closed. It’s an experience which costs $3 and you have to be prepared to wait. Head down to the Powell St turnaround and watch the Cable Car guy physically turn the car around. Ride the car all the way to the Wharf – the operators are real characters – they will give you a rundown of the city and help with directions. There is also a cable car museum where you can learn all about the cable cars and how they operate and their history.
The street car is slightly different its not manual but still quite historic – the F line takes you from Union Square area to the Wharf is cheaper than the Cable Car at $1.75 a ride and quicker as well.
A top tip if you are in the city for more than a few days is purchase a MUNI pass – 1 day for $10, 3 days for $15 and 7 days for $20 – you will get free rides on buses, street and cable cars.
San Francisco has a plethora of other attractions to view and visits including a huge Chinatown – visit and check out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and pick up a bag for around $3, Coit Tower at Telegraph Hill, Alamo Square – Victorian Houses or the Transamerica Building which is the triangular shaped building.
There are also trips out of town – we took a wine country tour – with Tower Towers (www.towertours.com) out to Napa Valley and Sonoma Valleys. We visited 3 wineries – Madonna, Viansam and Cline – none which l had heard off – but l drank and tasted the wines. Lunch was in the town of Sonoma – this is somewhere l would like to visit for longer than an hour – its very picturesque – craft and antique shops, wine shops selling the local produce and lovely restaurants.
In the city itself there are an abundance of places to eat – you are spoilt for choice – there is great seafood, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and of course American – amongst all the other choices for you. There are numerous sports bars and Irish bars – where you will find a welcome. I would recommend trying out the Anchor Beer – mmmmm!