The Bay Area looked a picture as our plane slid smoothly into San Fran on a fine February afternoon.
I’d made the same glide path many times as a stripling LA-based hack in the ‘80s, and things looked pretty much the same, save the drab and ever-expanding urban sprawl – a lamentable fate of the congested Golden State.
Apart from accidentally leaving a bag at the carousel, then struggling to return through imposing Homeland Security doors, and wondering if we would ever see our socks and smalls again (we did), it was an easy arrival in the US.
With a couple of days to check out the City by the Bay before jetting east to the Rockies, we had a whirlwind itinerary.
We took a Super Shuttle into the city and settled into a pleasant Central Richmond basement Airbnb on California Street.
The subterranean bolt hole was cozy and inviting, particularly the cot after the long Perth-Frisco flit, but we decided to tackle the jetlag like weary heroes, and went for a stroll to nearby China Beach in the late afternoon light. (Stay awake until at least 9pm, eat several coconuts, and you will be fine – not).
We passed through the salubrious Sea Cliff neighborhood and found the beach on the headland west of the Golden Gate. Hardly Bora Bora. The dreary grey sands were teeming with clammy white, vitamin-D-starved Northern Californians. It was unseasonably warm for Feb, but some intrepid souls were paddling in the icy Pacific shallows.
That evening, feeling the debilitating zap of the time zones, we staggered about Richmond, then finished up at Gaspares’s Pizza House and Italian Restaurant on Geary Boulevard, for nosh and a beaker or two of Anchor Steam and middling Chianti.
The restaurant is an American-Italian classic with the indispensable Fiasco bottles in straw baskets dangling en masse from a plastic grapevine-tangled ceiling. Food rating: Excellent.
Next morning we set off on foot for Golden Gate Park several blocks away to visit the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences.
The M. H. de Young Memorial Museum is a one of two major fine arts facilities in San Francisco, (the other being the Legion of Honour). It is named for its founder, early San Francisco newspaper man Michael de Young.
The original museum opened in 1895 and has been remodelled over the years. It was severely damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, demolished, and replaced by the current cubist edifice in 2005.
The de Young showcases American art from the 17th through the 21st centuries, international contemporary art, textiles and costumes, and artefacts from the Americas, the Pacific and Africa.
Across the gardens is the Academy of Sciences (a must-see while in Frisco, especially for families), which seemed to be hosting every hyperactive nipper in the nation when we meandered through its big-tech halls.
Some highlights are the coral reef, aquarium and Osher Rainforest. Expect an exotic butterfly to alight on your person while exploring the last of these. There are also the obligatory dino skeletons, interactive displays and a rare albino alligator resident in an indoor pond, a beast clearly looking for a way out and missing his Florida swamp terribly.
We jumped on a cross-town bus on Fulton Street bound for the CBD, then boarded a trolley car in a quest to weave our way over to Pier 39, but were stopped in our tracks (literally) when the intercom crackled to life and red lights flashed throughout the rattler.
“Alert! Emergency! Evacuate! Leave the vehicle immediately!” Nothing appeared to be amiss at all, apart from a scruffy, snoozing vagabond of indeterminate ethnicity slumping on a colossal, increasingly irritated coloured lady in the next seat.
Nonetheless our laconic helmsman informed us a man had suffered some kind of a medical crisis in the tram in front and that we would have to abandon ship.
So we all piled out in the prescribed “orderly fashion,” and surrounded by jaded and indisposed city commuters, were fast enveloped in a rumbling symphony of gripes and foul expletives.
The affected fellow was sitting on the pavement in a daze, with no apparent medical assistance (we suspected his stupor self-induced), and the city traffic was suddenly gridlocked for blocks around. We decided to walk – the only remaining option.
We had a terrible noodle lunch in a pseudo-Asian greasy spoon, then worked our way through the back streets to Chinatown and disappeared up Grant Street.
The Chinese community has left an indelible mark on the San Franciscan community and culture for 150 years and theirs is probably the most famous Chinatown of any US city.
We couldn’t resist an afternoon tea pit stop at the celebrated Golden Gate Bakery for a couple of its legendary Chinese custard tarts (there was a queue waiting for tarts a block long – custard, that is), and munched as we sauntered.
We were lured into an electrical gadgets shop, got cornered by an eager functionary, and bought an overpriced camera filter, before he tried to flog us a ‘new’ fish-eye lens for $1500.
By the time his shrill sales pitch was a tenth that price, we bolted for the door and vanished up the street.
Further down the street, the photo-journalist within sprang forth when we spied a superbly wizened Chinese matron, about the size of a fairy penguin, crossing the road. Perhaps it would be a candid camera study in the grace and dignity of age, I surmised, swinging the Canon in her direction (adorned with the exorbitant new filter) and clicked.
“No picture, you!” she shrieked, charging me like a Guangzhou banshee, her walking stick brandished aloft. “You take no photo of me! No picture! Go away, scum man!”
With this heartfelt send-off we exited the far eastern geniality of Grant Street and set a course, as the Pacific gull flies, to Fisherman’s Wharf. (We have a photo of the nonagenarian hellion seconds prior to attack, but are reluctant to run it here in the event we receive a injunction from Messrs Ping, Pong, Panda & Partners, c/o China Town, San Francisco.)
If any locale in Cal has become a kitsch commercial parody of its storied heritage, it would have to be Fog City’s popular piers and wharves. J.E. Steinbeck, Jr. must be spinning in his crypt like a jet turbine.
Yet disregarding the mediocrity of modernity, millions of tourists and locals flock here each year. There is Pier 39, historic Pier 45, the Aquarium of the Bay, Madam Tussauds, the Musée Mécanique, the Maritime Museum, Ghirardelli Square, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and on it goes. Gosh, you might even spot a fisherman with a flounder poking outta his oilskins.
There are also some first class seafood restaurants and saloons down along the lapping shores, so the call of the briny is still alive and well if you want to eat or drink it.
We did just that. With evening approaching we ordered clam chowder in a giant hollowed out bread bun (damn the gluten intolerance!) and sat on a bench amid a maelstrom of circling gulls, contemplating Alcatraz in the milky light across the Bay.
Next day we were back down at the docks to board a cruise out to the Golden Gate Bridge and the aforementioned prison isle.
We were surprised to see the pontoons at K-Dock absolutely piled high with wobbling and grunting sea lions. Apparently a few California sea lions began “hauling out” at the dock shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in October 1989. One can only assume that being out of the water is a better option than being in it when the earth starts to unzip along the San Andreas fault: no sense in being sucked down the gurgler.
“By January 1990, the boisterous barking pinnipeds started to arrive in droves and completely took over K-Dock, much to the exasperation of Pier 39’s Marina tenants,” says the Pier 39 official account.
“The marina staff turned to The Marine Mammal Centre, an organisation devoted to the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, for advice about their new slippery tenants. After much debate and research, the experts recommended that the sea lions should stay at their newfound home.”
Clearly they barked the good tidings to their colleagues and even more of the blubbery ones took up squatters’ rights on prime waterfront real estate. Now they are a major attraction for the tourists and locals alike, albeit a tad noisy and on the schnozz.
It was superb day out on the Bay as we steamed west away from the hazy city and out towards the headlands. The magnificent bridge hove into view.
An engineering marvel at the time of its opening in 1937, the Golden Gate was both the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world, with a main span of 1,280m and a total height of 227m.
The Frommer’s travel guide describes it as “possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world.”
From a distance the orange-red painted span is breathtaking, and appears almost filigree fragile against the sea and sky. But when you sail under its enormous towers and mighty cables and superstructure, its titanic dimensions are awe inspiring.
While out on the cruise I remember thinking that Mr Trump yabbers on about making America great again; but it’ll be pretty hard for the States to ever again match monumental projects of the glory days like the Golden Gate.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the bridge one of the Wonders of the Modern World – and justifiably so.
We looped back into the Bay and puttered around Alcatraz, the notorious island federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, which sits about 2.4kms off the city.
‘The Rock’ was home to 1576 of America’s “most dangerous” prisoners over the years and boasted charmers like Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes, Herbert “Deafy” Farmer, Basil “The Owl” Banghart, Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpavicz and Robert Stroud, aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”
Stroud, Frank Morris, and Clarence and John Anglin were the only jailbirds to escape the island, surrounded by strong cold currents and the odd large shark. About 50km west of the Golden Gate are the Farallon Islands, home to large seal colonies and their attendant Great Whites, which occasionally make a foray to the Bay to check the menu.
With the gangsters and thugs long gone from Alcatraz, the bland, foreboding prison now teems with tourists.
Back on dry land, we hid our prison stripes under a beached dory, and toddled off through North Beach, or Little Italy. For decades, Italian restaurants, delis, and bakeries have dominated this vibrant ‘hood.
The Soracco family makes focaccia bread the same way they have for more than a hundred years at Liguria Bakery and Caffe Trieste and Caffe Roma remain bulwarks against the ever- encroaching nouveau eateries, boutiques and office space.
We were bound for the celebrated City Lights Bookshop, haunt of beatnik poets, radicals, bohemians, wannabe novelists, thinkers, and book lovers from far and wide. City Lights has an outstanding catalogue of titles. Be that as it may, we were hunting our book club tome, A Life’s Music by Andrei Makine, to read while on the road and they’d never heard of it.
The walls of the shop are festooned with old newspaper front pages, one stating, “Brawl at Poet’s Recital – Three Policemen Bitten.” City Lights is that kind of place, and the likes of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs often loafed about among its shelves.
Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, the shop specialises in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics, among many other things.
Both the store and its associated publishing house became widely known following the obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s influential collection Howl and Other Poems.
In 2001, City Lights, between North Beach and Chinatown on Columbus Avenue, was made an official historic landmark, and we are glad it happened. You can browse for hours.
We then meandered west and jumped on the Hyde Street tram on our way home. While doing so we passed The Buena Vista bar, birthplace of the Irish Coffee in 1952.
In my days as a reporter in California, I’d visit The BV on a Friday evening, post covering the latest scandals in the SF courts, and chat to locals as we warmed our hands on goblets of the hot murky libation. Good stuff on a foggy winter’s night. It’s now become a rite of passage to down an IC at the BV in the old town.
We then hopped a bus over to the bridge and walked about halfway across, to catch the view back toward the city and out into the Pacific. Two perspectives in one day.
That evening we grabbed a tasty burger at the ’50s-style diner, Bill’s Place, on Clement Street in Richmond. The retro joint has counter & garden seating and is known for serving burgers named after local celebrities. I’m not sure but I think I may have eaten the ‘Fatty Arbuckle’! Gulp.
Then we walked over to the Stow Lake Boathouse in Golden Gate Park to listen to Jazz with a room full of hepsters and hipsters. The young quintet played some fine early Dixieland numbers, but was equally fascinating for its curious dynamics.
The bandleader, an earnest clarinetist, appeared to have a feebly concealed crush on the Rubenesque stand-in chanteuse, and a fondness for extended solos, chiefly his own. This stirred the chagrin of the boys in the band, who shot one another sidelong glances and muttered sardonic bon mots vis-à-vis their cupid-darted, egocentric chief.
All the same it was a fun night out, and everyone had a fine time, band and audience. Walking home was mildly treacherous, as we accidently took the wrong path and stumbled through the pitch-black park like Hansel and Gretel in need of breadcrumbs. We half expected to end up carp fodder in the lake, or in shallow graves with our purses purloined, but eventually popped out unharmed into the streetlights surprisingly close to where we had entered.
Early the next morning we flew off to the Rockies for a few weeks (that tale in an upcoming Starfish), but returned to SF for a night on the way home.
This time we crashed downtown at the Orchard Hotel on Bush Street, a fine boutique pub close to all the action. Extending our SF Italian culinary theme we had dinner at Uncle Vito’s Pizza, across the street, and afterwards took a look around the humming cafes and bars.
Up early, we set off hunting for beans and brekkie and discovered the city’s largest ever tulip festival was to be staged in Union Square. Dutch experts were even on hand to show them how it was done.
While they prepared the 100,000 flowers, we checked out local art galleries and boutiques, and shuffled down Maiden Lane (once a notorious haunt for ladies of the night) to luxury men’s attire store Isaia to look at the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral staircase in the building named after him.
Fans of the celebrated US architect find the interior a delight to behold. But it seemed we were not a delight to behold in the eyes of the manager, who peered down hairy-eyeballed and disapproving from an upper level. He seemed to be thinking, “More Frank freaks darkening my door; clearly more interested in stairs than our Zegna flares.”
We also visited Apple’s amazing SF store (on the Square) and were mightily impressed by the latest technology and service. While we were there, classes were being conducted for ancient and confused novice Mac users, which seemed a great idea, considering the eternal conundrum that is the modern computer and Internet.
We had wanted to visit the epicentre of Flower Power and counterculture, Haight-Ashbury (where we hear the vintage hippies now shuffle about with bamboo Zimmer frames), but time was at a premium. Back to real flower power in Union Square.
The popular space exploded with colour that fine Saturday afternoon and thousands visited to pick colourful armfuls of free tulips.
However it was nearing our time to jet back to Perth, so we dumped our enormous bouquets on the staff at the Orchard (receptionist over the moon, manager disgruntled) turning the foyer into a florist.
We jumped aboard another Super Shuttle, this time so over-stuffed with punters and suitcases that the suspension screamed metallic mercy, and eventually exploded out onto the pavement at San Francisco International Airport under the Qantas sign.
We merely scratched the surface with our hurried three days of activities in the City by the Bay, but there is always next time, and next time comes soon enough!
…”I left my heart in San Francisco…Dooby-dooby-doo…”
The Starfish would like to thank CityPass San Francisco for our chance to see the sights.