It’s been almost 50 years since Scott McKenzie sung ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’ and instantly labelled the city as a laid-back cool place to be. It doesn’t seem to have changed though and the song still appears to be San Francisco’s theme tune.
Before we get carried away with flowers and hair and cool stuff though I need to rewind and tell you about our last few days in sunny San Diego. Our ten days there had unfortunately been affected by us both being sick but we were through the worst I think on the final weekend. Just a quiet day shopping and wandering around our new favourite supermarket Walmart, they sell absolutely everything, and even managing to pick up some new shorts in our fave store Target. What an exciting day eh? Well, just when we thought it would be a quiet evening we got an invitation.
Back to Back Movies
Our delightful Airbnb host Jean kindly asked if we would like to join her on an evening out at the movies (not the cinema or the pictures, it’s the movies) with her and a few of her friends. We always say Yes to everything now don’t we, so jumped at the chance and Jean drove us all down to Fashion Valley Mall. We met her friends Peter, he gave us a lift from the airport remember, and Marsha and all watched ‘Criminal’ which starred Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman. Brilliant film and as we followed our new San Diegan friends out we prepared to say goodbye. But No! That wasn’t it. Jean mentioned that they always watch two films so before we knew it we were sitting watching ‘A Hologram for the King’ starring Tom Hanks. Not sure about the ticket situation, we didn’t ask, but it was another good movie. And then to finish it all off we all went to eat at the Californian Pizza. Great night out.
The next couple of days were just quiet enjoying Jean’s lovely garden and then packing ready for our epic Monday travel experience. Jean had offered us a lift into the city bright and early so that was a nice easy start.
Followed by the 992 bus to the airport, four hours wait, United Airlines flight to San Francisco, local train out to Oakland, 15 minute walk to the Imperial Inn Motel, then collapse! All in all roughly 11 hours door to door. Why on earth do we do this? It was another adventure though. Oh did I forget popping out to Carls Jr Burger Joint as soon as we arrived?
Why a Motel this time?
When we were booking and researching all of our USA trip we found San Francisco to be the most expensive place to stay in the whole country. Even Airbnb lodgings were extortionate. So we had to go for a motel outside of the city, it was the only budget-friendly way. The Imperial Inn Motel in Oakland is across the bay from SF but easy to get to by the rapid transport train (BART).
The place has real character and every evening around 7pm they pipe reasonably loud music around the brightly lit courtyard which along with the crazily painted ornate water fountain constantly splashing and making our evenings so much better. Incredibly comfy bed though which is now one of the most important things in our lives.
After our quiet relaxed stay in San Diego we decided to go for it bigtime in San Francisco and were up, out and on the BART train super early on our first full day. There were so many things we really wanted to see and do. BART stands for ‘Bay Area Rapid Transport’ and is the city underground system containing five main lines. The strangest thing about it is that all of the passengers stand in neat lines on every platform in line with where the train doors open. No-one pushes in, everyone joins the back of one of the lines, and they just queue quietly. Bizarre. Can you imagine that on the London Underground where it’s every man for himself?
We headed for Embarcadero station which was just by the main ferry terminal and a short walk from the bay. So what do we know about San Francisco? Well we know it was established as a mission by the Spanish in 1776 and named after Saint Francis of Assisi and that it became part of Mexico in 1821. It’s name changed to ‘Yerba Buena’ at this stage and the settlement became part of the United States in 1846 after the Mexican-American War. A year later on January 30th 1847 it was renamed San Francisco.
The California goldrush of 1849 brought ten of thousands of prospectors to the area and caused the rapid expansion of the harbour and docks. One of the strange reasons for this was that as merchant ships docked the crews deserted for the goldfields and soon there were 500 abandoned ships along the quayside. New wharves had to be built alongside the ships and many were deliberately sunk. This partly explains the vast size of todays harbour.
Pier 39 and Fishermans Wharf
These days many of the piers along the waterfront contain bars and restaurants and other tourist attractions. Our walk from Embarcadero station took us right up the bay front to Pier 39, a fabulous are cram packed with places to eat and drink. We found The Hook for some Fish’n Chips and Clam Chowder, the signature dish in San Francisco.
As we wandered through the shops not buying t-shirts and fridge magnets we were starting to lose ourselves to the friendly laid-back feel of the city. Everyone here seemed so relaxed and just out to have a good time, the feeling was contagious. By the time we reached the end of the pier we were almost hippies.
That’s when we noticed the crowd at the end, iPhones galore and lots of pointing and laughing. Not to be left out we skilfully negotiated our way to the front where we saw several hundred sealions sunning themselves on specially built pontoons. There was a fair amount of fighting and shouting and pushing around, and that was just the tourists! Fascinating to watch but the way that they just all wriggle over and under each other with no personal space did make me a little uncomfortable. Very funny though.
On to the world famous Fishermans Wharf where everybody seems to be selling fish of one size or another. One place claimed that ‘If it swims we sell it’. Not sure about that but it is just an incredible place to walk through and experience.
Alongside the wharf is the Maritime Museum which includes classic rigged ships alongside paddle steamers and more modern war ships. From here and as we walked out around Aquatic Park we had a great view of Alcatraz Island in the middle of the bay. Only a mile and a half away but completely isolated. More about that next time as we had pre-booked a couple of tickets to visit The Rock. Jo was hoping to be rescued by Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage so we’ll see how that turns out.
We also had an incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not as close as we expected but dominates the skyline to the west of the city as the bay flows into the Pacific Ocean. Awe-inspiring in fact. Every souvenir shot-glass, t-shirt and hoodie seems to have the Golden Gate Bridge on it somewhere, it really is the symbol of the city.
The San Francisco Cable Cars
Actually the real symbol of the city is probably the San Francisco Cable Car. How could we not have a ride on that? One of the lines, the Powell-Hyde line, started right next to the Maritime Museum so we joined the queue and waited to go. Several hundred tourists were ahead of us and there are only 44 cable cars in the whole city servicing the three main lines so we were in for a bit of a wait. Luckily for us, maybe, an old Grizzly Adams fella with a ukulele was providing ‘entertainment’ for the crowd. His out of tune, wrong speed, wrong word versions of classic hits by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys were indescribable. I started off hating him but by the time our cable car arrived I felt a strange affection for the guy as I desperately tried to guess how badly he would mutilate each new song. Good job Grizzly.
As the cable car seats filled up the attendants stopped anyone else getting on, unless they ‘wanted to hang on the side’. Did we wanna hang? Of course! We pushed past the confused Chinese and leapt on the front as the car pulled away. Smug? Maybe a little.
The trip took 10 to 15 minutes and went up and down really steep hills with amazing views of the bay at every turn. But it wasn’t that which made it so good.
Something about hanging on the front of a San Francisco cable car as it hurtles down the hill is just unbelievably exciting. We rode the whole route with stupid grins on our faces and almost laughing at every turn. Not just us either, looking around the whole car appeared to be full of smiling maniacs grimacing and chortling for the entire time. We felt like kids and it was fantastic. When we got off Jo turned to me and said ‘we’re doing that again’!
Have we left our hearts here?
Not yet, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time and this was just the first day. So much more to come including Deportation to the Rock, Cable car part two, and the classic tourist walk that no other tourists ever do!
22.4 – 26.4.2016