Golden Gate Bay Cruise

A one hour cruise with the Red and White Fleet around San Francisco Bay seemed like a jolly splendid way to while away another afternoon in San Francisco.

At the very least, it made for a nice change from hiking up and down those damn hills.

Pier 39 – and the attached Ferry Building – is just a few minutes walk from my hotel. I took a leisurely stroll over only to discover that my cruise leaves from Pier 43-and-a-half. Oops. A frantic and harrowing taxi journey usually saves the day, of course, and so it was this afternoon.

This particular cruise – one of many run by the company – leaves from pier 43, runs west just out past the Golden Gate Bridge then returns east via the Oakland side of Alcatraz before returning to the pier. It takes an hour and is really a nice way to spend that hour.

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Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow

Still working my way through San Francisco with the help of Frommer’s. I’ve got most of the standard tourist stuff out of my system and now I’d like to simply explore the neighbourhoods.

Over lunch in the Ferry Building, the man sitting next to me strikes up conversation; also here on business, his work involves something called “blue ocean thinking” – which sounds intriguing – and it turns out we both studied computers at college and are both ex-IBMers. Like me, he’s arrived in San Francisco a couple of days early to soak up some the city’s atmosphere. With this common aim in mind, we agree to take the cable car up Pacific Heights and then explore the streets for a few hours.

The California cable car (unusally quiet today) whisks us up California past Union Square and Nob Hill and up through to Van Ness and Washington, on the outskirts of Pacific Heights.

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Out here, the streets are so photogenic – houses are eclectic, colourful and quintessentially San Franciscan with their Victorian fronts and flights of stairs leading up to the entrances. The highlight of this area proves to be Fillmore Street, with several excellent coffee shops such as “The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf”. We sit down here with the locals who are here enjoying a lazy coffee afternoon, in a way that’s increasingly – and with great difficulty, thanks to our weather – becoming popular back in Dublin.

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A couple of parks punctuate the streets along the way and afford some nice views of the city, as well as one very intriguing cat out taking her owner for a walk..

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Now, we head down through a neighbourhood called Cow Hollow toward Union Street (not to be confused with Union Square), another little haven of one-off shops, coffee houses and restaurants. Thus ends a tour of another little corner of San Francisco…you just can’t go wrong in this city.

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Coit Tower

It was built in the 1930s atop a former telegraph tower courtesy of an endowment of a Ms. Coit, who simply wished her fortune to be used to increase the beauty of San Francisco. Whoever carried out her wishes did a wonderful job: Coit Tower can be seen wherever you go in San Francisco, a simple but elegant landmark in white stone.

I walked from my hotel straight up Battery Street to the tower. It was unusually easy going…perhaps I was somehow magically avoiding the inevitable hill? I’ve defied the laws of physics before…

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Some chance. By avoiding the steep but manageable climb, I’ve run up against a sheer cliff face. It’s a fun 350 steps or so all the way up. I’m not the only one out of breath.

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Outside, the tower is fairly ordinary. Inside, however, the walls sport a famous series of murals.

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A quaint old world lift whisks groups of ten to the top where the following views await – Bay Bridge, downtown, Pacific Heights, even Golden Gate if it wasn’t so bloody foggy all the time.

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Mountain View Arts and Wine Festival

Something on in Mountain View!

A little arts and crafts festival, similar to the ones we get back home in Dublin at the Festival of World Cultures and Docklands Festival. But, new arts and new crafts!

I do indeed pick up a few little trinkets and presents (and a San Francisco-branded wine bottle re-corker-upper and a really funky little model of bass player made from old mechanical parts for myself) and admire some of the more wacky arts and/or crafts:

  • carrier bags with old vinyl LP covers on one side…and the vinyl LP itself on the other
  • in a similar vein, purses/wallets with pulp fiction novel covers
  • sand paintings
  • wool sculptures
  • money jewellery (including some old pre-decimalisation Irish coins)

And my favourite…:

  • typewriter key jewellery!

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Hard to see here…it says:

Your wife called and asked you to bring home a…fountain!

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Lombard Street

The crookedest street in the world!

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Actually, according to Frommer’s, it’s not even the crookedest street in San Francisco. But everyone thinks it is and so somehow it is.

Tourists line up in traffic for hours to tentatively edge down this tiny block of Lombard Street which was so steep that the road zig zags slowly down. A very loud and exasperated policewoman yells at drivers to stop messing around just get on with it. Even on Labor Day she has to deal with this damn street.

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Pedestrians have steps with which to experience “the slope.” I’m absolutely knackered but the view makes up for it…

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Cable Cars

Frommer’s recommends taking the Powell-Hyde cable car from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf. An excellent suggestion, as it turns out – Union Square doesn’t take long to see and Fisherman’s Wharf is a notorious tourist trap…joined by a fun cable car ride, however, they all make for an enjoyable day out.

There seem to be conflicting theories as to how the cable car came about:

  • the inventor saw a horse injured when the carriage it was hauling up a typically steep San Franciscan hill broke and fell.
  • the inventor was also the inventor of a very strong type of steel rope, the monetising of which he was completely stumped until he realised that it could be used in a slightly bizarre mechanism to haul passengers up the steep slopes of the city.

Well, maybe it’s both. They are absolutely perfect for the city, though – slightly old fashioned yet unique…and perfect for steep streest. So perfect, in fact, that at their peak, over 100 miles of cable car lines criss-crossed San Francisco. However, as usage slowly declined, so lines began to close. Just before they all disappeared forever, local campaigners managed to make the city see sense and in 1964 the cable cars were designated a national landmark.

Just three downtown lines remain, a fascinating (and surely very rare) example of old-style and one-off train systems remaining in use in a major city.

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Union Square

A wonderful little book I picked up in Mountain View is Frommer’s “San Francisco Day by Day“. Inside is a list of 25 recommended walks of the city, along with 3 or 4 suggested itineraries along with transportation directions between each item.

It’s really different from sight-seeing with the help of a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. These monster guides expend loads of pages on accomodation, arrival, eating out and entertainment. Thing is, accommodation is easy to find, I’m already here and there’s good cheap restaurants on every single block in the city.

The trick to visiting a city is discovering which bits of the town to see and in what order. You never know which parts are really worth seeing and/or how long it takes to get there. Frommer’s does this adn points out a few notable shops and restaurants. No more detail than necessary to wander about enjoyably.

So, I entrust myself to Frommer’s…they recommend starting at Union Square, a few minutes walk from the hotel. Then it’s a cable car up to the waterfront, walk down Lombard Street and explore Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s actually a lot more lined up for today but Mr. Frommer obviously has more energy than I do – his three-day itinerary will take me the rest of my trip to complete.

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Bay Bridge Closes

The Bay Bridge closes for the first time in almost 20 years as they take the holiday weekend to replace a 350 foot stretch of road. Demolished and reinstated in less than three days.

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I can pretend I know all about this local San Francisco stuff now…(where does the Bay Bridge go again?)

Amoeba Records

Dangerous. That’s the only word for Amoeba Records.

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Outside it is the 60s, with bar-goers spilling out into the street, smoking an assortment of substances and generally hanging out, bikers revving their Harleys up and down in the evening sunset and the suddenly-short buildings evoking Los Angeles…but there’s no mistaking the Victorian houses and improbably sloping streets for anywhere but San Francisco.

It’s a tenuous position, really, for a brass band-playing do-gooder software engineer but I make it inside safely.

This warehouse of a shop has everything: new, used, rock, pop, jazz, classical, reggae, punk. Apparently you go down in Amoeba Records lore forever (“arms as big as tree trunks, hair red, like the fires of hell”, etc.) if you ask for a disc by a band they’ve never heard of. Asking for The Idle Race doesn’t even faze them:

It’s in oldies.

Other notable buys are the complete four-disc “Hot Fives and Sevens” Louis Armstrong set and, at last, the Traveling Wilburys.

San Francisco really seems to eschew the chain stores…I’ve seen a Barnes and Noble but overall it’s full of one offs or, like Amoeba, mini-chains. For instance:

  • They have their own “scan and listen” posts which have a decent subset of their selection and look to be cobbled together in Linux with a skinned XMMS providing the playback. A far cry from Borders’ flashy listening posts…and somehow endearingly “just how I would have done it if I’d been asked” in spirit.
  • They publish a big newsletter with picks and random comments by their staff (at least some of whom seem always to have wanted to work in a record shop) across all genres.

It’s great. I can’t buy enough. All in all, I create another packing problem for myself and mercifully avoid the DVD section altogether.