USA Road Trip: Chapter I – San Francisco
We arrived at San Francisco International Airport following an 11 hour flight, which was made so much easier by flying in Premium Economy. The flight was delayed by an hour, which meant we cleared customs and baggage collection by 5pm local time. As is now becoming tradition, we opted for public transport to get to our hotel. The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train cost us 9 bucks each and was so easy to figure out and use.
We left Powell Street Station for what Google Maps said was an easy 0.7 mile walk, along a single street, to our hotel. What the app forgot to tell us was that, after a steady start, each additional block became steeper and more strenuous, especially when dragging 40kg of luggage! Google, you need to add elevation as well as distance and time when calculating walking routes.
The Stanford Court Hotel was a good choice, reasonably located near Union Square, making it a good base and to a high quality standard. The plan for our first night was to dump the bags and head in the general direction of Fisherman’s Wharf for some food, beer and a bit of people watching.
Pier 39 is a huge waterfront complex with 14 restaurants, 90+ shops and popular attractions, plus a 5 acre park and a 300 berth marina. Pier 39 is also known for its spectacular views of San Francisco Bay including the Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge and Alcatraz, as well as the world famous California sea lions sunbathing on the K-dock pontoons. We took lots of photos and wandered down the pier to see the sea lions. Wow, they were very cute, but what a stink, it was worse than Buster, our dog, breathing in your face!
We settled on fish for tea, heading into the Pier Market Seafood Restaurant which is well-known for its award-winning clam chowder, mesquite grill dishes and sustainable seafood. We shared a fish platter, sourdough bread, Golden Gate IPA and Moscow Mule, before heading to bed via our first San Francisco cable car ride.
Today got underway with a cable car ride up to North Point. The queues around our hotel were sizeable, so we headed downhill towards the turnaround (the start of the line), thinking that would ensure we got a ride…big mistake. The turnaround queue was immense, probably 6-8 full cars worth of people and one thing we’d learn quickly is that Californians don’t rush to do anything. After over 30 minutes, only one car had left, but the second was on the turntable. WTF! This car set off half full! We assumed because, as there are two routes, nobody at the front of the queue wanted the Powell-Mason car. Amanda grabbed my arm and shot off up the hill chasing the car. Now these things aren’t that fast and it had stopped at the first intersection, so we didn’t need to be Usain Bolt to catch it. We sneakily hopped on the back of the car without either guy spotting us and nonchalantly worked our way forward as if we’d just decided to change seats and nobody batted an eyelid…well, possibly with the exception of the 200+ people we left queuing I guess.
We ate breakfast at a cafe called Eight AM, picked up two rental bikes from next door, Bay City Bike Rentals, and headed off towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
Now this was a Saturday, so we expected it to be busy, but in addition to sharing the route with other cyclists and joggers, we were joined by hundreds of dog owners walking their four-legged friends to protest the proposed limits on dog-walking in San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The protesters walked their dogs, many wearing red bandanas, along Crissy Field while holding signs that read “Unleash Our Land!” and “Put Feds On A Leash!”…it’s amazing we didn’t kill one of them.
On Saturday’s, walkers must traverse the Golden Gate Bridge on the East walkway and cyclists on the West walkway. However, this was still a nightmare, with a mixture of rank novices riding slow and wobbly plus experienced riders weaving confidently around the rest of us. The walkway isn’t that wide, with most sections suitable for a single line of riders in each direction, but other sections are even narrower. Shortly after we set across, Amanda felt dizzy, probably due to a combination of the cars speeding past the railings, the noise, the height and the volume of bikers. There was no other option other than to push our bikes across the 1.7 mile bridge. As you can imagine, this not only took us a long time, but we were in constant danger of getting clipped by passing handlebars and received dog’s abuse from some riders. One obnoxious Lance Armstrong shouted “what do you think you are doing?” to which Amanda quickly responded “I’m walking!”. We were both glad to get off the bridge and down into Sausalito to dump the bikes and grab a beer!
The haven we found was called The Bar With No Name, a great place to unwind and mix with the locals. A couple of old guys chatted to us happily, telling us about Sausalito and it’s history. One story that stood out was about Sally Stanford (no link to our hotel…I checked) who was a madam, restaurateur and the mayor of Sausalito, running six times for City Council before winning election in 1972 and being elected mayor at age 72. Wikipedia quotes a columnist from the San Francisco Chronicle (Herb Caen), writing about the UN, who said “the United Nations was founded at Sally Stanford’s whorehouse,” because of the number of delegates to the organization’s 1945 San Francisco founding conference who were Stanford customers; many actual, if informal, negotiating sessions reportedly taking place in the brothel’s living room.
We took the Sausalito ferry back to Pier 41 after a long ass wait (another example of the Californians laid back attitude to public transport) and headed across to Hard Rock Cafe. We ordered a cocktail and added the 19th Hurricane glass to the collection, then decided to eat at the Boudin Bakery & Cafe, which was excellent.
We finished the day with a ride on the Powell-Hyde cable car, after another long wait at the Hyde turnaround, but at least we had fun chatting to three girls from LA and listening to the tunes and downbeat humor of a street entertainer. We had to hang onto the outside of the cable car, but this had to be better than waiting on the next one. It was quite exciting to be honest, if a little scarey, and I got to high-five a guy passing in the opposite direction. We popped into Tonga, opposite our hotel, but it was reserved for a private party…maybe tomorrow…night night.
Today was all about our trip to Alcatraz. It was a short cable car ride down California, but as we’d just missed it, we decided to walk instead. At least we were improving our FitBit stats if nothing else. Arriving at Pier 33 in plenty of time for our 11am ferry, we popped into a cafe for breakfast. Clam chowder isn’t the usual UK breakfast, but it was very tasty.
The ferry crossing was smooth and the views of the island grew more impressive the closer we got to the dock. After the orientation presentation we grabbed a coffee and watched part of the Discovery Channel documentary, before heading up to the cellhouse audio tour. This was the best part of the trip, wandering around the cellhouse listening to the narrator explaining the history and details behind the locations within the building. Well-known criminals, such as Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis (the first “Public Enemy #1”) and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud all did time on “The Rock”. The whole visit was awesome and we both had the same goosebump feelings we’d had when visiting the Dublin Kilmainham Gaol. Although my desire to visit Alcatraz was driven by a series of prison movies I’d watched over the years, it was also interesting to hear about the Indian occupation of the island in 1969 and the bird ecology of the US National Park Service facility.
Once we landed back in San Francisco, we walked up to Coit Tower, a 210 foot tower in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. It was the tower referenced in the 2015 movie San Andreas. It was a tough walk, but the 360° view over the city was impressive.
After the strenuous start to the day, we headed back to Pier 39 for food, eating at the Wipeout Bar & Grill, which provided an awesome pizza and a great burger. We then headed down Jefferson Street to Jack’s Cannery Bar, which offered 68 craft beers, before queuing for the Powell-Hyde cable car back to the hotel area. We tried Tonga for the second night running, but it was again set aside for a private party, so we headed across the street to the Top of the Mark, the iconic high-end cocktail bar on top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, with a 360° view of the city and expensive cocktails!
Well that’s Chapter I done. San Francisco is a beautiful city with a great deal of variety and although we’d done everything we’d planned on doing it was sad to think we were leaving such a lovely place that suited our lifestyle so perfectly…we will hopefully be back to explore some more one day.