Stop 13: San Francisco
We first began to suspect that we might not be staying in the choicest part of San Francisco when our mentioning of Tenderloin was met with gasps, pitying looks and use of the term 'sketchy' from fellow travellers at the airport.... We pulled up outside our apartment, slightly relieved to be informed by the taxi driver that we were 'on the outskirts' of the worst of it, but still shocked at just how bad the term 'sketchy' seemed to encompass.
Our apartment was advertised as 'A Touch of Paris in San Francisco' - however a few cheesy French posters on the wall does not a Parisienne boudoir make. Compared to Pov Pads 1 and 2, the smell of dog wee and slight griminess was more than bearable, especially as the apartment boasted both a huge flat screen TV and the complete Sex and the City box set. We were highly amused to find multiple DIY marijuana drug testing kits, condoms, lubricant, and fancy dress outfits for dogs in the host's cupboards - okaaayyyy.......
The horrors awaiting us outside in our neighbourhood were a different tale - endless homeless people sleeping in doorways, a lot of heckling old men (swoon...), drag queens delirious from taking too many hallucinogenics, a man lighting up his crack pipe at 11am, men weeing against walls in broad daylight and toothless gender-confused hookers. The air was pungent with urine and marijuana - a 'unique' blend. It was so sad to see countless emaciated people with their entire lives in shopping trolleys, we've never seen so many homeless people before in any city - both unsettling and humbling to see.
Day 1 - Wednesday
One of the best days of our trip so far! We hired bikes and merrily set off to cycle the Golden Gate Bridge across to beautiful Sausalito - stupidly cocky that it was what we believed to be only an 8 mile bike ride one way, and so shouldn't take longer than an hour or so... and so OF COURSE we would be turning down the offer of a return ferry ride and opting to cycle back too......
We cycled through central San Francisco and up its brutally steep hills towards the Golden Gate Park - the world's largest city park space. Naturally being total idiots, we had opted to wear unforgiving skinny jeans with no give that day - IDEAL for a lengthy and rigorous bike ride up 45 degree hills in the 23C degree sunshine..... En route we spotted the famed Painted Ladies, a row of brightly painted Victorian houses in The Haights area (a world away from our Tenderloin crack den) with stunning views across the city. Onward through the beautiful Golden Gate Park with its lakes and Japanese tea garden, full of chilled out hippies smoking weed and loving life. We cycled down to the beach and enjoyed our first glimpse of the Californian coast along with a lovely encounter with two students holding signs offering free hugs (we both took advantage) before a quick wander round the Dutch Windmill and its pretty tulip garden. We tried to pretend we weren't hungry and could wait until we arrived in Sausalito for our next feed, but couldn't keep up the charade and stopped at a lovely cafe to enjoy salad (pretending to be healthy), sweet potato fries (kind of good for you surely?!) and s'mores (we're now in California and it's a local delicacy so would be rude not to!) in the sunshine. Suitably stuffed and with our skinny jeans now even more ungiving, we hauled ourselves back in the saddle to return through the park to the Presidio - another hilly park en route to the bridge. Like a shy maiden, that damned bridge refused to show herself to us and seemed forever out of sight - no matter how many hills we climbed we didn't get a glimpse right until the final approach - 4.5 hours of cycling later... (So much for our blasé expectations that it would only take an hour....) the views were well worth it - we were lucky that the typical afternoon fog was absent.
We reached the far end and what we had been told was the final approach to Sausalito - 10 mins from the bridge according to the absolute liar of a bike rental man... We were subsequently deranged to see a sign outlining it was in fact still 2.2 miles until our final destination, and given it was now nearing 7pm we were at serious risk of missing our chance to experience Sausalito's fine dining for fear of missing the last ferry at 8.15pm.... With the memories of our recent Miami starvation still fresh in our minds, we pedalled like madwomen (uphill) with Nat resorting to conjuring up mental images of seafood and red wine, and singing 'Red, red wiiiiiine.....' to tempt Helen onward and upward up the never ending hills. We were disgusted to see a crazy male runner further up the hill who was actually managing to put distance between us rather than us gaining on him..... Surely that's not natural?! Being a little competitive it became Nat's sole aim to overtake the runner even if it took her dying breaths to do so.... Finally we reached the downhill stretch to Sausalito and Nat took advantage to finally achieve her goal, whoop whooping loudly and turning back to gloat at the runner, nearly careering wildly into the path of an oncoming car in doing so - karma!
We cycled through Sausalito - a beautiful little harbour town, and opted for a seafood extravaganza and a much deserved bottle of wine (shocker) by the seafront as the sun set. Naturally, being the gluttons that we are, we nearly missed the final ferry home (which would have meant a five hour cycle home) because we chose to have pudding too..... Cue frantic, hilarious and tipsy pedalling for the ferry, which we made as the gates were being shut, the last ones on board as usual! Once back in San Francisco, it was an absolutely JOY to cycle the two miles through the weed haze above Tenderloin back to our apartment, amassing a few drug fuelled heckles along the way naturally. Far from amused when we returned our hired bikes to be told we'd actually cycled 15 miles (mainly uphill) - surely that's burnt off at least 6 weeks' worth of surplus calories?!
Day 2 - Thursday
After the efforts of the previous day we opted for a "recovery day". Still basking in glorious sunshine, we hopped on a tram to Fisherman's Wharf and strolled along the marina, past the 49 various piers and their different offerings - from street musicians to basking seals. We stocked up on takeaway clam chowder complete with sourdough bread bowl, followed by Ben and Jerry's finest selection of fro-yo, and picnicked in the nearby Fort Mason park, enjoying the sunshine with our books and soaking up the atmosphere amongst yet more chilled out hippies.
Day 3 - Good Friday
ANOTHER sunny day - lucky us! We meandered through the city to Union Square, and enjoyed a coffee whilst people watching. We then walked up through Dragon Gate to China Town - the largest China Town outside of Asia. Of course, hunger struck and we grabbed an authentic Chinese feast and enjoyed it outside in the sunshine in Old St Mary's Square - the site of a brothel which burnt down in 1906, now home to some nice greenery. Whilst demolishing our food, we listened to two spaced out teens attempting to strum a guitar and pen political, impressive-sounding lyrics, but with the slight hindrance of being too high to make any sense. We then walked up to Grace Cathedral (feeling all pious and pleased with ourselves for entering a church on Good Friday plus inadvertently not eating meat all day) and enjoyed a rigorous workout in a children's play park on some swings and monkey bars, much to the amusement of an extremely good looking guy called Tom (yes we did make the pleasure of his acquaintance, naturally) who told us he very much enjoyed listening to our pearls of wisdom such as "do you think chihuahuas are really just rats bred with dogs?" whilst we were swinging on the swings like the big kids we are. Apparently we're hilarious in America.
Our INTENTION was to head to the cinema that night, however during a quick stop for a G&T en route at the rooftop bar of the Jones Hotel, we made some new friends (we THINK they were called Tyler, Travis and Travis...) and decided it would be way more fun to ditch the cinema and instead allow the locals to show us where to enjoy a decent cocktail. After a lot of gin, cocktails and sinking shots of 'fireball' (cinnamon whiskey, which Helen was clever enough to avoid!) on an empty stomach, those of you who know Nat 'TC' Ramwell well will guess the effect this all had on her.... Brought back from the brink, we then went on to a club called Vertigo, where we evidently thought we were Beyoncé's backing dancers - we're pretty sure the reality wasn't as gracious or attractive... Finally we gave our expanding male harem the slip and crawled back to our crack den, already nervous for the following day's hangover...
Day 4 - Saturday
We woke up feeling less-than-fresh, and predictably ravenous. Convincing ourselves that we had actually worked off thousands of calories the previous day due to our playground/dance-floor workouts, we decided we were definitely allowed to treat ourselves to a San Fran institution - a hangover breakfast at Brenda's French Soul Food restaurant. Our feeding there was akin to a heroin addict frantically trying to get their next fix into their system as quickly as possible, and we could feel our souls healing within seconds of eating! Satisfied, we should have left then, but the addicts that we are, we spotted and ordered our tasty old New Orleans friends beignets on the menu - however a new and improved version, as these were filled with molten chocolate - heaven.
Bellies full and happy, we hopped on board the famous California Street tram car - the world's last manually operated tram - down to Fisherman's Wharf to explore a lovely little market displaying local arts and crafts. We then wandered round the Ferry Building indoor gourmet market, before grabbing a bus back up to the Golden Gate Park so that Nat could go for a run without fear of being chased by a drug-crazed homeless mob, leaving Helen to make friends with an old man at yet another children's playground (sounds far dodgier than intended...) while she waited in the quickly descending San Fran sea fog.
Day 5 - Sunday
Enjoyed a wander through the Financial District into North Beach - San Francisco's Italian quarter. Sniffed out a little cafe where we attempted to be healthy, filling up on salad instead of cake. Practically crawled up the 45 degree-angle-hills to the Coit Tower and were rewarded with views out to the Golden Gate Bridge, The Marina, and across the city, but sadly weren't able to climb to the top of the tower itself as it was closed for renovations. We then descended via the steep but very pretty Filbert St Steps, which made its way downward through lots of bright and fragrant flowers, before cutting through Levi Plaza with its retro water feature, named after Mr 'Denim' Levi who was originally from San Francisco. We ended our day with a yoga class - our favourite bit being when we got to spend the final five minutes doing head stands against the wall. BIG KIDS!
Day 6 - Monday
Our eagerly awaited trip to Alcatraz! It was really interesting to find out about all the different guises Alcatraz Island had assumed over the years - civil war fort, army base, military prison, state penitentiary and then finally occupied by native Indians in the Sixties as part of their demonstration for recognition of their heritage and rights, and against US occupation of Native lands. It's not quite the grim, forbidding 'Rock' you'd imagine; instead it's now classed as a nature reserve, part of the US National Parks and home to seabirds and wild flowers - we decided with a lick of paint and some TLC, we'd be happy to use Alcatraz as a summer home...
There were bright flowers everywhere, some of the gardens being ones which were previously tended by well behaved prisoners. Inside the prison itself, we got to see inside the cells and learn about the most ill reputed / famous prisoners such as Al Capone and all the escape attempts - we were amazed to learn no prisoners had ever supposedly escaped successfully - although three prisoners did manage to escape the prison itself and make it to the water, but were believed drowned... We don't buy it and reckon they're now enjoying their later years across the Mexican border.
After a ferry ride back to the mainland, we raided an artisan cheese stall in the Ferry Building's Indoor Market where Nat made a fatal error choosing a tasty but scant cheese board (three slices of cheese and a couple of crackers does NOT equal a cheese board) and stared longingly at Helen's more satisfying and hearty blue cheese salad.
It was then time to trundle down to the bus stop with our morbidly obese suitcases, where we were literally scared out of town by a crazed man wielding a HUGE pick axe. The unwelcome crazy seemed to magic the pick axe from thin air and tried to crack up the pavement with it, before nonchalantly swaggering past us at the bus stop a few times before thankfully wandering off.
Next stop Healdsburg in Sanoma Valley - aka Wine Country - where some much needed red wine was needed upon arrival to mend our frayed nerves after Pickaxe-Gate!