I believe it was Mark Twain who said “the coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco”. And I am willing to bet he never went on an open bus tour across the Golden Gate Bridge. This city has a bitter wind that will turn the sunniest day into an Arctic experience. But it has a solution to the biting cold. If you start to freeze, you can soon warm up by walking up a hill. There are lots of those. Steep hills. Of course, this does not work when stuck on an open bus. In that case, all you can do is huddle down and wait for Sausalito, where the weather is pleasant and warm!
I had a bad introduction to San Francisco, when my first foray from my hotel in search of an evening meal after my arrival saw me get caught in a scuffle between a Starbucks employee and a homeless guy. I have no idea what it as about, I was too busy bravely getting out of there! I retreated to my hotel and decided to try again the following day. Speaking of the hotel, I stayed at the Hilton in Union Square. I was on the 17th floor, so I had a view – of a multi-storey car park. I was soon to be told that parking is at a premium in the city, so this was a much more desirable view than I might otherwise have believed! It is the biggest hotel in the city, and it is okay, but they charge for wifi in the room. In this day and age, that is like saying that there is an extra charge for electricity. There was free wifi in the lobby, which meant there were always scores of people sitting round checking emails and trying to Skype their families, giving it the air of a university common room, but with fancy chandeliers. So my top tip for travel in the US is this – stay in a cheap hotel. The room will be just as big and clean, if less fancy, but they will throw in the wifi and you will have laundry facilities you can use yourself for the same price you would have to pay the hotel to wash just one item for you.
Back to San Francisco. I set off to explore the city. Stopping to buy an SD card, I had a long chat about photography in the shop, eating in to my exploring time. I then proceeded to take some very uninspiring photos of this lovely city! What is great about San Francisco is that you can walk everywhere, even if a lot of the time you will be walking up very steep hills. Like all US cities, it is laid out in a grid system, so it is impossible to get lost. Unless you are me, in which case you walk around in circles a fair bit! After several false starts, climbing hills that did not need climbing, I realised I simply had to decide which direction I thought I ought to be heading in, then turn 180 degrees to set off in the right direction. Having wandered though Chinatown, where in addition to all kinds of weird and wonderful fruit you can buy any item of cheap tat that you may have ever conceive of, and some that you probably have not. I then saw the city’s most famous traffic jam, otherwise known as the crookedest street. Having obediently snapped a shot, I set off to Fisherman’s Wharf where I decided to join the open topped bus trip across the famous red bridge. Very nice, but be sure to wear a wooly hat – well, wooly everything, if attempting this yourself. After this exercise I was so cold I had to head back to the hotel to warm up.
On day two I set off to wander from Alamo Square through Haight Ashbury to the Golden Gate Park. Haight Ashbury is fun; full of vintage clothing shops and shops called things like the Happy Herb House and the Cannabis Company. The park is full of homeless people who have clearly been availing themselves of the substances sold in such emporia, so in places I did not feel very comfortable walking alone. In sharp contrast are lots of energetic runners busily treading the paths. As it was a long walk and I had an Alcatraz trip booked in the afternoon, I had no time to explore the famous Japanese Garden by the time I got there.
Catching another open topped bus back to the oceanfront, I boarded a ferry to Alcatraz and did the fascinating audio tour to explore the island. Given how cold and windy it is, and how tiny the cells are, it cannot have been a fun place to be locked up. The tour features descriptions of the numerous escape attempts (or, as as the narrator put it, excape attempts). The island has now become a breeding site for birds, but it was so windy I could not steady the camera for any pictures, other than of one gull who swooped over my head a perched just in front of me. Top tips for Alcatraz are book in advance and bring warm layers. Try to go early in the day so you have plenty of time to explore.
Upon my return to the mainland, there was just time to explore Pier 39 and check out its famous sea lions (and what appeared to be one lonely seal). These are very amusing to watch. Noisy and rowdy, some snoozed in the late evening sunshine, whilst others squabbled and knocked each other off the pontoons, to the delight of the onlookers. All the while they kept up a constant barking, and when there was a particularly boisterous row over space, they would all raise their heads to see what the fuss was about before dozing off again. The raucous behaviour is because most of them are male. More tips – do wipe the spray from the Alcatraz trip off your camera lens before photographing the sea lions. Apologies for the fuzzy pictures.
I walked all the way back to my hotel, before undoing all that good work with a meal at a diner featuring an indifferent grilled cheese sandwich and superb sweet potato fries. If I can end my time in San Francisco with another tip, do not forget that it is summer despite the often Baltic feel. It is easy to get sunburnt when you cannot feel the heat of the sun!
Speaking of sunburn, I am now on my way to the island paradise of Maui, armed with my factor 50.