San Francisco, California, USA (4th Apr 2008)
Today, was the day that we had both been looking forward to ever since it was booked, the day that we would fly onto the mainland and meet Kara's Mum (Anne) and Uncle Kevin, not only did this mean we got to see a couple of familiar faces, it mean a life of relative luxury for the next two weeks. Aside from the fact that we would be staying in nice posh hotels and eating better than we have since we left home, it meant that we had someone else to do some of the planning and decision making for us and finally someone who could take some photos of us together for us!
The flight over from Hawaii was much better than the flight in had been and although it still wasn't great it didn't matter as we were too busy being excited about seeing Anne and Kevin again after 6months of being away. We were caught by surprise in the airport terminal because we had expected to collect our bags then make our way out to meet them but as soon as we touched down and were waiting for our bags to come of the plane, Anne came flying across the room to bear hug Kara. It was really nice to see them both again and since we had so much to tell each other we grabbed a cab and headed back to the hotel bar.
On the way into the city we caught a glimpse of the infamous Golden Gate Bridge, all lit up reflecting in the bay below. The taxi driver was a bit of a nut case and unnervingly bobbed and weaved in the traffic as he saw fit, but at least he got us there in one piece and was only half the price of some of the other cabbies were quoting. We knew from what we had seen on the internet that we were staying somewhere posh and we stuck out like sore thumbs when we came through the huge 12 foot doors with our scruffy looking dirty backpacks on. You can tell that we don't stay anywhere particularly classy on a regular basis as we were dead chuffed that we each got a free bottle of mineral water when we checked in and that the fruit in the lobby was free if you wanted some.
Anne and Kevin had booked us one of the Deluxe Junior Suites that was on the third floor and we were really really happy when we got up to the room, a bathroom that we didn't have to share, a TV, an iPod stereo thingy and not a bunk bed in sight, it was heaven, who knows what we did to deserve this but we will be eternally thankful. Almost as soon as we checked in we decided that we needed some food as we hadn't eaten since early morning so off we all went to a small diner across the road from the hotel. As soon as the food arrived we knew we had well and truly touched down on mainland USA as the portions were huge and Kara especially struggled to make a dent. Still full of stories to exchange we went back to the hotel bar where we drank some fancy beer and wine until we couldn't keep our eyes open anymore and reluctantly hit the hay.
Since Anne and Kevin had been here a couple of days already, they kind of had an idea as where to head in the morning for breakfast; right on our doorstep we had numerous options, we could choose one of the several hotels, an old school 1950's American diner that looked straight out of a film or one of the other restaurants that were less than a minute away. We settled on a place called Lefty O'Doul's, a kind of sports bar come diner/restaurant/piano lounge, which was just across the road. "Lefty" O'Doul (unbeknownst to us) was a very famous baseball player in the 1930's (we thought it was just another fake Irish name invented to sell beer) and his popularity lives on in his hometown of San Francisco where he is held in very high regard, he has a bridge named after him in the bay area. The sports bar we had come to for breakfast was founded by him and still seems to be making a good few bucks off of his name. The inside of the place as you might imagine is scatted with TV's and memorabilia from throughout the 30' 40's and 50's but it's not overkill and just sets a good warm atmosphere, if not a bit rowdy. Mark and Kevin stuck to the simple things that you might imagine seeing on a plate at breakfast time, bacon and pancakes and a ham omelette respectively. Kara and Anne however went the total opposite way and ordered what to Mark at least looked like a huge dessert each, they called it a Belgian waffle. This waffle was in fact a waffle but not as you might think of one, it came covered in ice cream, whipped cream, fruit, syrup and all sorts, but hey this is America after all.
San Francisco is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and one that prides itself on being different to the rest of the USA, it's genuinely environmentally conscious for a start (or at least they are trying to look like they are). Set in its beautiful bay area (pop. 7m), it's claims to fame other than the Golden Gate Bridge include a notorious jail, devastating earthquakes and the wonderfully ornate trams that climb the steep streets, their warning bells constantly ringing.
Our hotel was centrally located only a couple of block from Union Square and provided a great base to explore from, within minutes you could be in Chinatown, Little Italy, Japan-town or carefully picking your way down Lombard Street, known as "The Crookedest Street in the World". We thought that this is something that we had to see and ended up being one of the very first things we did in our first day in the city. Despite its claim, Lombard isn't even the crooked-est street in San Francisco, there are other ones nearby that twist and turn even more, however, it has gained its fame as a result of it being wonderfully decorated by plants for its entire switchback length whilst providing stunning elevated views of the city at the same time. It was built in this corkscrew shape as it was the only way the 27% gradient could be negotiated by the cars that were around at the time and to this day it has a speed limit of just 5 Mph. The houses that are now lived in by the well to do of San Francisco offer great views out to the bay and despite its twists and turns is probably one of the most expensive places to live in the city.
The ride down to Lombard Street itself had been quite an exciting one as we got to ride in one of San Francisco cable cars that still operate in the city and goes up and down all the cities steep hills, like a rollercoaster in slow motion. It wasn't until our tram ride that we actually realised San Francisco is hilly; in fact, it's very, very hilly, one minute, you're walking up a street so steep you feel like might topple over backwards, the next you're trying not to run going down the other side.
The cable cars were implemented by Scotsman Andrew Hallidie in 1869 after he saw a horse drawn street car slide backwards on the slippery cobbles. The five horses simply couldn't manage to pull the weight up the gradient and were dragged to their death. Hallidie was moved to take action and the rest, as they say, is history...
After a dizzying walk down to the bottom of Lombard street we headed in the direction of Pier 39 which is in the Fishermans wharf area of town; Pier 39 is a large commercial development that is a melting pot of shops, bars, restaurants and street performers and although it wasn't specifically designer for the tourists, it sure does a good job of entertaining them and emptying their wallets. About 90% of the waterfront area around Pier 39 has been bought up and made into bars etc with the exception of one piece of land/sea that has been claimed by a colony of sea lions and the council have declared it a "no go" zone for the developers. This is actually quite a clever move as these aquatic entertainers provide a remarkable spectacle for the tourists who flock to watch their antics and end up spending money there anyway. We stayed and watch as they fought, pushed each other in the water and swam around for about 20 minutes before things got a bit too cold for standing around. Feeling in need of refreshment we found a bar and all sat down for a beer while we decided what to do with the rest of our day. Seeing as we were already at the waterfront we decided on a boat trip around the bay that would give an up close and personal experience of the Golden Gate Bridge itself and of course Alcatraz. After seeing a few dodgy looking boats offering tours of the Bay we eventually settled on a better known and larger tour company, The Blue and Gold Fleet. As soon as we climbed the stairs to the top, outside deck we knew we were in for a cold hour as the wind was already blisteringly cold and we hadn't even left the harbour yet.Once we were out on the open sea the waves soon began crashing against the side of the ferry and the captain's warning to remain seated as much as possible couldn't have seemed more appropriate as the strong waters started to toss us around in our seats. The boat circled around Alcatraz but as we knew we would be going there another day on an organised tour most of our attention was on the bridge stretching out in front of us and the city's skyline behind us. As we neared the bridge we were promised even stronger currents as we passed under it and as predicted pretty soon the boat crashed up against a huge wave and crashed back down into the water, leaving a few people panic stricken after letting out a scream or two. Every single view we saw of the bridge was spectacular, especially being right there underneath it, being able to see something we had only encountered through television, movies and pictures. One thing we were amazed to see were numerous windsurfers out in the bay making the most of the high speed winds; it was hard to imagine how cold it must be for them as we were all fully clothed, on a boat but were still freezing to the bone.
Back on dry land we felt it was time to head back to the hotel for a bit of a rest before we went out for the evening. Rather than get the Cable Car home, Kevin suggested we go on an old street car (tram) which the city have collected from all over the world. One of particular interest to us was the one from Milan as Kevin and Anne both remembered it from the time they lived in Italy when they were younger, and luckily we got to ride on it too.
Kevin and Anne had already decided where we were going for tea which came as a relief to us as we are still rubbish at decision making, even in the company of others. Their chosen spot was a restaurant called The Daily Grill, only a few blocks down from the hotel and when we got there we knew it must be good as there was a thirty minute wait for a table. We didn't mind this at all though as it meant we could all sit down in the bar and have a drink and a chat. The night passed too quickly as we all enjoyed our food which came in portions sizes none of us could ever have imagined. Mark particularly enjoyed his starter portion (big enough to be a main) of Chicken Quesadillas and Kara and Anne, although already full to the brim, had to make room for a Crème Brule for dessert. Even after the long and tiring day we had just had none of us were quite ready for bed once we had finished eating so we made our way back to the hotel where we enjoyed a couple of drinks in the fancy hotel bar before finally taking our weary selves up to bed.
The following morning we met in the lobby at the usual time (9ish) and headed out in search of somewhere that you might call quintessential America for breakfast; this came in the shape of Lori's Diner. Stepping into the place felt like stepping into a scene from Grease, it was truly retro and we liked it instantly. We were all seated in a booth where we had our very own jukebox which for a quarter we could play a song of our choice. Anne in particular loved this and so we got all our quarters out and started making our requests from the Motown/Northern Soul classics. The food was classic diner food but we were all more interested in our surroundings than what the food actually tasted like, there was even an old car parked up at the back and tens of old radios lined the walls. It was a true American experience!
First up on our agenda for the day was to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, the taxi driver who took us there couldn't believe that is what we wanted to do as a part of our holiday and thought we were crazy. Arriving at the southeast car park we realised that we aren't the only crazy tourists who wanted to do this walk, there were hundreds of people and a plaque in the car park claims that about nine million people from around the world visit the Bridge each year, and it's no real surprise when you think about it, how many other bridges can you think of that stand out in your memory like the Golden Gate does, if only for its bright red colouring? Whilst on the subject of the colour of the bridge here are a few facts we found out:
The Golden Gate Bridge's paint colour is orange vermillion, also called international orange. Architect Irving Morrow selected the colour because it blends with the bridge's setting!
The bridge was fully painted when it was first built and then touched up for the next 27 years. In 1965, the original paint was removed because of corrosion and replaced with an inorganic zinc silicate primer and an acrylic emulsion top coat, a project that took 30 years.
Today, painters touch up the paint continuously and the bridge has 38 painters along with 17 ironworkers who replace corroding steel and rivets.
You can't really appreciate the size and height unless you've walked on it, at least a little way and when you reach the middle you find yourself 220 feet above the water's surface where the passing ships below look like small toys. The 1.7 mile walk from the south to the north took us about 45 minutes and it was unbelievably windy and cold but worth every second, with all four of us really enjoying the experience.
On a bit of grim note, the Golden Gate Bridge is a frequent site for suicide with over 1200 recorded deaths and many more no doubt that have not been witnessed and the San Francisco police department claim that some people have been known to travel to San Francisco specifically to jump off the bridge, and they often find abandoned rental cars in the parking lot. Currents beneath the bridge are very strong (something we found out on our boat trip), and some jumpers have undoubtedly been washed out to sea without ever being seen. After a fall of approximately four seconds jumpers hit the water at 75 miles per hour which is nearly always fatal and if the fall doesn't get you the water will it is said to be as cold as 8 degrees C on average, and if that isn't enough great white sharks are sometimes seen under the bridge. In an attempt to battle all of these suicide attempts the local authorities have installed suicide hotline telephones, which at first we thought was really funny but when you think about it in all seriousness it's really not, the bridge is also now closed to pedestrians at night.
Anyway... By the time we had reached the north side of the bridge we realised that we now had a few options, we could eitherA. walk back, B. get a cab back or C. carry on walking another mile down to the swanky area of Sausalito. We chose C since we had already discussed the idea of going over one day and since we were nearly there as it was it just made sense. Sausalito is a place of summer houses and hillside estates, populated by wealthy San Franciscans where Bentleys seem as common as Ford Fiesta's. On the walk into Sausalito we must have passed several dream houses and every prestige car manufacturer in the world, money really is no object for people around here. Kara, Anne and Kevin thought that the area was reminiscent of the Italian Lakes, Mark thought the south of France, whichever way you look at it, it was an amazing area.
After walking round for half an hour or so and taking in the sights out across the bay we decided that we would go and have a drink and maybe some nibbles if somewhere took our fancy; we ended up in the Spinnaker. The Spinnaker has panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, Sausalito Waterfront, Angel Island, Belvedere, Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge through their floor to ceiling windows, they claim that "The view is unrivalled and is the best in the San Francisco Bay Area" we thought it was alright but a far cry from the best in the Bay area. The menu looked ok but once we were inside all we wanted to do was sit back and relax with a drink and watch the boats sail around in the marina. Unbeknown to us the ferry back to San Francisco only ran every ninety minutes and so it was pure luck that we arrived at the ferry terminal just as one was about to leave. The twenty minute ride back gave us yet more stunning views of the bay as we stood out on the deck making the most of the sunshine. As there was still a decent amount of the afternoon left Anne thought it the perfect opportunity to do a little bit of shopping so while Kevin went back to the hotel, the rest of us hit the shops.
For our evening meal it was decided we should try and get a little bit of culture into our time in San Francisco so we walked the relatively short distance to Chinatown, the oldest and one of the largest Chinatown's in North America, second only to New York. The whole area wasn't exactly thriving as we past restaurant after restaurant that all seemed empty; we were just about ready to give up when we turned a corner and saw a crowd of American's enter a fairly inconspicuous looking restaurant. If it was good enough for them it was good enough for us so we followed them in. On the whole the food was thoroughly enjoyed and made a nice change from the usual American cuisine we had been having; with the exception of Mark though who struggled to make his way through some kind of slimy chicken on the bone! The night ended again in the hotel bar where we all enjoyed a drink before going to bed.
Today was Alcatraz day. We caught one of the street cars down to pier 39 nice and early so there would be no chance of us missing the ferry, because if we had have done it might have been impossible to get a second chance as your advised to book well in advance. This for us was one of our biggys in America and we had been looking forward to it for ages as it is such an iconic place and bears so much history and is one of the world's most well know prisons (if not the most famous of all) because of the people that served there and the stories that go with them. Since we had gotten down to Pier 39 with plenty of time to spare we decided to take another quick walk around the marina and get a drink before heading over to join the masses who are as eager as we were to set sail across to Alcatraz. Although we have arrived much too early, we soon found that this worked in our favour and so did the fact that Kevin had booked our tickets in advance, the queues were huge and it seemed everyone in the city was trying to catch the same boat as us.
After all the queuing and pushing and shoving it was finally time to set sail and we rushed onboard to find the best seats. Up on the third level deck we had the best views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges and the small island on which they built Alcatraz. Originally home to a lighthouse, "The Rock" as its known was subsequently used by the military until finally becoming a high security prison in 1934. Goodness knows what the locals made of having some of the country's most dangerous criminals, such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and the infamous Birdman as their new neighbours. It was said that if you failed society, you went to prison; if you failed prison, you went to Alcatraz.In 1963, the last prisoner was removed from the island and for 5 years it remained uninhabited, until in 1968, at the height of the 1960's era of Peace and Love and Freedom, etc a group of Native Americans captured the island for themselves and waged a non-violent protest against their land being taken from them and gained quite a lot of notoriety. Other tribes joined them. After 19 months of occupying Alcatraz which had no water source, electricity, food, or way for the Native Americans to make an income (in which they were apparently trying to restart their colony there on this newly reacquired land) they were removed by the U.S. Government. There was no real reason for them to be there anymore, as the U.S. had actually given them back some of the land we had taken from them.
The views from the island are amazing, both looking back at the bridge and the city; the boat drops off in the prison gardens where, apparently the guards used to live with their families and it would have no doubt been an amazing place to live except for the fact that 200 homicidal maniacs would be living next door although the staff there joke that it was an excellent place to raise children as there was no crime whatsoever and traffic was non-existent! It did come as a surprise as but having never really thought about the staff before hand, it kind of made sense for them to be there too. They had their own shop, church and it even has its own power plant that they still use today.
The island is only a mile or so from the city shoreline, although unnervingly, it actually looks much, much closer, in fact it is said that when the wind blew in a certain direction, the inmates could hear music and laughter from the mainland and even smell food being served in the restaurants on the seafront which no doubt must have made their sentences even harder to bear. As if that wasn't bad enough most prisoners were allowed out of their cells for just an hour a day to go to the exercise yard and even this was located cruelly to give them the best view of the city to make sure they could see what they are missing out on. It's not hard to imagine that as an inmate with the windows facing towards such a great city, you probably would've been kicking yourself.
Reserved for high profile or high risk prisoners only, Alcatraz (means "Seabirds" and was named after its original inhabitants by the Spaniard who discovered it in 1775) claimed to have never had anyone escape from it, but this is disputed by some. Three inmates did manage to actually break out once but it's believed that the icy waters and vicious tides accounted for them. Shame for them, they did put a lot of work into the escape after all, they made fake heads to put on their pillows (to look like they were asleep in the night), they dug huge tunnels behind their air vents with just spoons that they fashioned into drill bits and managed to climb up the buildings pipe works onto the roof and even somehow built a raft to escape on. Indeed, in an attempt to prevent its "residents" becoming immune to cold water, The Rock was the only prison in the US to have hot showers!
Our tour started with some history and tales of escape attempts in the form of an introduction video which they show in one of the old prison building. After seeing enough of the documentary that seemed to last a lifetime we made the short climb, up the hill, to the prison grounds. Admission includes the award winning audio tour which is narrated by an actual officer and features stories told by real prisoners from the rock, so up in the prisons huge open shower room we each collected a headset to get started. The tour starts off by going into the cell house and having never been to a prison we could only imagine what it might be like, and for the record, it's not like the prison blocks they showed on the program Bad Girls, there are no luxuries, no nothing really, just a toilet (with no seat) and thin mat on a wiry looking bed and a fixed chair if you were lucky. The prison blocks are really quite amazing in an odd way, so uniform and generic, offering no real sense of individuality at all. The whole prison is open to be explored and although we stuck mainly to the audio tour that takes you most places you also get access to most of the rest of the island including some of the staff quarters. The audio player does a great job of bringing the experience to life and recreating the fear and starkness the convicts must have suffered especially when we were told about a siege and a couple of escape attempts with all the appropriate sound effects, alarms and shouting etc.
One area we particularly enjoyed was seeing the cramped quarters that Scarface Al Capone and so many other inmates occupied for years on D block (solitary), this part really did allow you to understand what a stay on the island must have been like and never more scarily than when you're slammed into solitary confinement as part of the fun. All cells were just five feet by nine, but "The Hole" as it was known not only denied prisoners space but light too. Total darkness and silence gave transgressors plenty of time to think about their situation and surely must have driven some mad.
Overall we thought that our short spell on The Rock was just enough and has definitely proved itself to be a major highlight on our trip so far, something that shouldn't be missed by anyone in San Francisco and if it's the only thing that you do, it won't disappoint.
Anne and us youngsters made a quick stop at Tiffany's to have a look at the jewellery as it seems to have become a bit of a favourite shopping spot for the Latham girls when in America. After a quick browse it didn't take long for Anne to pick out some beautiful jewellery for herself, unfortunately our backpacker budget and lifestyle didn't permit any purchases for ourselves. As we had enjoyed breakfast at Lori's so much a few days previously we decided to go back for dinner, this time to a different restaurant that was still part of the same chain. The interior was just as funky, the jukeboxes were still on the table and this time there was a plane hung from the ceiling. Rather than go straight back to the hotel bar for our evening drink we went to Lefty O'Doul's as it was on the way anyway. As soon as we got inside we were surprised by what we found, a rather camp man banging out the hits on a piano...not quite what we expected for a sports bar but still it was really enjoyable to sit and enjoy the music, and laugh and the drunk people getting up to dance!
On probably our earliest morning of the holiday so far we were at the Ferry Terminal Building for nine ready to catch the ferry over to Vallejo to meet Rachel (our friend who we met on the India tour and have kept in touch with since). It was an hour long journey on a catamaran which took us yet another direction through the bay enabling us to see more of what the area had to offer. Time passed pretty quickly and before we knew it we were at the ferry terminal hello to Rachel and introducing her to Anne and Kevin. After a bit of a drive we were in Napa, winemaking country, where we were introduced to a friend of Rachel's and went for lunch at a lovely little French/American restaurant. Now normally a bite to eat at lunch wouldn't call for much to be written about it but this particular lunch turned out to have quite an eventful start. Seen as we were in Napa, the four of us decided we would splash out and have a bottle of Champagne. Just as this had been poured another waiter came round with a tray full of glasses of ice cold water for us all; unbeknown to Mark who just at the right moment kicked back his chair and stood us, sending the glasses of water flying all over Anne in an almighty crash. It probably shouldn't have been funny but we all couldn't help but laugh, even Anne who promised Mark she would pay him back! After lunch Rachel took us to a local winery and arts centre but unfortunately it was closed so we went for ice cream instead. This place was no ordinary ice cream shop though, you picked what flavour ice cream you wanted then what toppings and then the staff mashed it altogether for you so you created your own unique mix, brilliant and very yummy.
For the rest of the afternoon we were going out into the countryside to drink champagne (actually its sparkling white wine) at the Domaine Carneros winery. The chateau is part of the famous Taittinger family from France and is their effort to bring their champagne making skills to California. The building and I quote, "was inspired by the historic and lovely Louis XV style Chateau de la Marquetterie in Champagne, France. The site of the Marquette was originally an abbey press house. In the 17th Century Frere Oudart, the abbey's cellar master made significant contributions to refining the Champagne making process. Today the Chateau de la Marquetterie in France is the country home and estate of the Taittinger family". The building is absolutely amazing and is everything you would imagine of a typical millionaires chateau, impressive in every sense of the word.
When you enter the grand building, you are greeted by a multitude of friendly servers and are shown to a table where they offer a sit down service only, no bar to belly-up to here, just a scattering of tables with servers who pour, serve, and inform; since it was such a nice day our drinks were to be served out on the terrace which has some beautiful views across to the vineyards which stretch out into the distance. Along with their alcoholic offerings, there is a menu with cheese trays and caviar, but for today we had only come for the bubbles.
We all opted for the sparkling tasting with the exception of Kevin who went for the red wines. The sparkling wine is served in appropriately-fluted glasses, but they are charmingly miniature in size, serving a perfect two-ounce pour in what looks like a full glass. There are also laminated cards where they place the glasses so you don't mix up which wine is which. There are also some almonds brought along to join the party, complimentary of course. The wine servers work very hard to make sure that your experience is everything you could ever want, with more wine information that you could ever digest and even a cheeky little refill of your favourite glass.
The wines that we got to taste are as follows, (Explanations from their website):
2001 Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage - 65% Piont Noir, 32% Chardonnay, 3% Pinot Blanc. This wine comprises half of the winery's entire production, about 3,000 cases worth. Bright and unassuming, there are notes of citrus, melon, and a hint of toasted nut on the nose. Aged on the yeast for three years, it has even yeast structure and doesn't overwhelm. $24.00
NV Domaine Carneros Brut Rose - 38% Chardonnay, 62% Pinot Noir, and 5% still Pinot (where the color comes from). Creamy strawberry bouquet with a hint of peach. This is a winery-only wine which is elegant and very affordable. $34.00
1998 La Reve Blanc de Blanc - La Reve means "the dream" which is a reference to the entire establishment and what the Taittinger family had to go through to get the winery here in Napa. This sparkling is 100% Chardonnay is aged six years and is made in very small quantities. A heavy yeast aroma belies its very long, creamy finish $55.00
All three tasted ok but we both agreed that the standard Brut was pretty average and not something that we would buy ourselves, Kara particularly liked the Rose, as did Anne and Rachel, whilst Mark thought that the La Reve was by far the best and was something he could easily get used to drinking if only it was in our price range at the moment!
Before we left, our wine server recommended a whole bunch of places that we could eat at in San Francisco as well as telling us that we could get ourselves a good discount, if we bought 12 bottles or more, just what we needed to fill the backpacks and empty our wallets. Anne and Rachel both bought a couple of nice items from the gift shop and before we knew it we were back on the road heading back to San Francisco. To get back to our hotel, and the city we had to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge but before we did Rachel pulled of the highway and took us to a lookout point that we had seen when we walked over the Golden Gate Bridge; it was an amazing view and we felt like we could just reach out and touch the bridge that was right in front of us, it was well worth making the de tour, even thought there were gale force winds which made it nearly impossible to walk it just added a bit of comedy to the situation.
On a word of a few locals we decided that we would head across town for our evening meal to The Stinking Rose, and from soup to ice cream the supposedly healthful herb is a star ingredient in almost every dish here, "We season our garlic with food" exclaims the menu, they do however, for those who are not garlic-inclined, offer garlic-free "Vampire Fare" too, but it didn't seem right getting a garlic free dish in a garlic restaurant.
The aroma of garlic greets you at the door and seconds after walking into the place it is clear to see that it is aimed more at tourists than locals and the ambience of the restaurant does not share the overly-stylish, minimalist and cool designs of many other hip restaurants in the Bay area; rather, the Stinking Rose indulges in a sort of unabashedly kitschy yet endearing interior design that takes away the pressure of having to act cool, by offering a relaxing(ish) and homely(ish) dining environment.
After a short wait we were seated in the middle of the restaurant with a table just about big enough for us all to sit around. For starters we all shared an order of foccacia bread with oven-roasted spreadable garlic cloves in olive oil, and although it doesn't particularly sound too appealing it was really quite good albeit a bit quirky and strong compared to the standard garlic bread us Brits are used to. For the main course Mark, Anne and Kevin went for the filet mignon while Kara had Veg lasagne and Rachael had the gnocchi all which came covered in garlic.
From a gourmet point of view, The Stinking Rose is unremarkable. Pizzas, pastas, and meats smothered in simple, overpowering sauces and whilst they are quite tasty, and they're memorable only for their singular garlicky intensity. Overall it was an okay restaurant but more of a novelty and a tourist trap than a serious dining experience and the staff seem to understand that you'll never be back again and their service reflects that attitude (the host barely glanced at us as he sat us and no one stayed at the table long enough to find out if we were happy). Reading this back over it seems although we are being a bit harsh about it, we just had built ourselves up for it as we love garlic foods and this just came as a bit of a letdown, but the company made up for it and it did the job of filing a hole.
We had been told by a few people that one thing we must do whilst in America was to eat at least a dessert in The Cheesecake Factory (like McDonalds but for ice cream and cakes) and so when we saw one in the local Macys on our way back to the hotel we decided to take our opportunity and see Rachael off with a big fat cream filled hunk of cake. Being incredibly foolish, we decided that we could handle a dessert each, stupid naive British idiots... Did we not remember we were in the country of excessive portions? Were we so stupid to believe that we could handle one each, why why why? When they waitress brought them over on her forklift truck we couldn't believe our eyes, it was ridiculous, but given the price they charge for a bit of cake we had to finish them (or at least try). Kara managed to eat just over half of her cheesecake and Mark hardly made a dent on his double decker strawberry shortcake. Aside from the sheer size of the portions the puddings are all so rich and make you want to be sick, in a good way...
Before we knew it, it was approaching midnight and although we weren't particularly tired, Rachael still had to drive home yet (2 hours or more) so we headed back to the hotel where we said our goodbyes and thanked Rachael for taking us out and showing us around before nicking some fruit out of the lobby and heading up to bed.
For our final day in the city we decided to head back to Lefty's for breakfast as we knew it was good and made for an easy choice which suited us all. After breakfast Kevin left us to do his own thing for the day, whilst we were headed for a potential riot down on the Embarcadero where the Olympic flame was due to pass by. Initially we had been a bit hesitant to go down and see the torch relay after the trouble in Paris and London only days before but since San Francisco is the only stop for the torch in North America and that coupled with the fact that we are here already made it a no brainer. The torch's circuitous travel around the globe has already has been marked by demonstrations against China's policies toward Tibet and Sudan, and more demonstrations are expected worldwide before it reaches the Summer Games and San Francisco was going to be no different, as thousands of pro-Tibet and pro-China demonstrators turned out in force with flags, megaphones, banners, posters to show their respective support.
Beefed-up security didn't prevent the disruptions during the Paris segment of the relay, which had to be suspended at least five times as demonstrators threatened the torch and after seeing police scuffle with protesters in London who tried to grab the torch and put out the flame with a fire extinguisher we had expected an over the top swat team style police presence with guns and grenades etc but it seemed the opposite and hardly any were there to stop any trouble that might have been brewing between the two rival groups of supporters.
We of course had only come down to see the torch and not to start trouble but it was clear to see how much this meant to some people and the emotions were in full swing by the time we joined the other several thousand people down at the waterfront. The pro-Tibetan supporters seemed to be out in much higher numbers than any other groups and we couldn't help but think that they are really spoiling the day for the city which was chosen to host the relay because of its large Chinese-American population. Another thing that was annoying about the pro-Tibetan supporters is that they were happily handing out signs to people who have no idea about the politics (mainly children under 13) and telling them to help stop the torch when all they really wanted was to jump on the band wagon and wave a sign no matter what message it says to be a part of things. One thing that is hard to deny is the atmosphere, it was electric. The rival protest groups, who had been given side-by-side permits to demonstrate really got into full song and as the minutes ticked by the signs of tension increased as shouting matches started and both groups got in each other's faces with their respective flags and banners.
Originally the Olympic torch was due to be carried through the streets of San Francisco for about 10 kilometres, 4 or so of those being down the Embarcadero where we had gone to but less than an hour before the relay began, officials cut the original route nearly in half and cancelled the planned closing ceremony at the San Francisco Bay waterfront; regardless of the changes we still headed out to join the crowds along the previously announced route and waited to see what would happen. We knew that something was wrong at around 1.30pm as the torch should have made it to us by this time, and it wasn't until Kevin texted us and said that the torch disappeared into a warehouse that we knew the torch probably wasn't coming this way today. A few minutes later, television cameras showed a number of people dressed in official Beijing 2008 track suits boarding a convoy of buses, which then drove out the back entrance of the warehouse complex with a police motorcycle escort. As soon as the news hit the masses, thousands of people started to run across town (toward the TV choppers) in hope of finding where the torch had gone to but for us this was all a bit too much and since we weren't exactly sure where the torch was and if it was even still going at all we decided to give in and make our way back to the city centre with the mindset that if we see it great, if we don't at least we tried.
We all felt a bit disappointed in the end as we had got quite excited about seeing the flameand being a part of the Olympic celebrations but it was a matter out of our control and at least we know that we will be able to try again when the Olympics comes to England in 2012.
Our numbers dwindled again as Mark went back to the hotel so Anne and Kara could go and see the famous 'Painted Ladies' at Alamo Square; a row of Victorian houses painted in numerous colours that embellish and enhance their architectural details.The houses were really pretty and it was clear to see why these ones in particular frequently appeared in the media and mass market photographs of San Francisco. What really catches your attention up at Alamo Square however, are the breathtaking views across to the city and beyond, it seemed to be one of the best and less well known vantage points.
For our last night in San Francisco we decided to do something a bit special and so as we had already experienced how good the desserts were at The Cheesecake Factory we decided to go there for dinner. As expected there was a thirty minute wait which soon passed with the help of a drink from the bar. Our table was outside and as The Cheesecake Factory is above Macy's department store we were greeted with a bird's eye view of Union Square at night. Although there were heaters all around is it was still a little chilly but it was worth it. As soon as our main courses arrives Mark managed to divert everyone's attention away from the cold weather by showering himself and Kara with tomato ketchup as when he shook the bottle he didn't realise the lid wasn't on and it went everywhere! It seemed Mark was making quite a habit of table side mishaps what with this and the ice cold water incident! It wouldn't have felt right to go to bed straight after dinner so of course we made our way back to the hotel where we had one last drink in the hotel bar.
Over breakfast in the morning before getting the shuttle to the airport none of us could believe how slowly our time in San Francisco had gone, in a good way though and this meant we still had the same amount of time again to enjoy the bright lights of Las Vegas!