Friday 13th November. We arrive in San Francisco just as the sun is going down. I have to confess that by the time we arrive at our hotel, the 5* very posh and very historic Fairmont, I am a little underwhelmed by the city. I was struggling to understand why people speak about this city in such glowing terms. The Fairmont is very posh and the receptionist is convinced that we could only afford to stay at the Fairmont for a special occasion rather than a regular holiday. He thinks we are on honeymoon! A simple "no" has him persevering with "but this is a special occasion isn't it?" Not wanting to disappoint the man, I say "yes" without expanding (well I figure a sabbatical from work is pretty special). The receptionist wants to do something special for us and upgrade our room but he has nothing available at the moment - he's wants to move us on Sunday! Oh well if he really insists!
Our first room is nice but there is no wow factor - we have just come from Vegas afterall! We are pretty tired and decide on an early night after I enjoy a $5 diet coke from the minibar. The trouble with 5* hotels is the 5* prices!
The next morning we decide to take a City Tour to learn a little about the area and see all the points of interest. Our tour guide is extremely knowledgeable and for the first time we both begin to see the unique charm of this city. We drive through the Presidio and stop for our first photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course the bridge is not Golden at all and is in fact "international orange". Apparently, when the idea of a bridge over the Golden Gate Straits was first conceived, it was never intended that the bridge be this colour . The orange happened to be the colour of the original undercoat used on the bridge. The designer of the bridge decided he liked the colour and the rest is history. The bridge is actually named for the straits over which is crosses and not for its unusual colour. We drive through Golden Gate Park which is so much more than simple parkland - the Japanese Tea Garden is located here (where the fortune cookie was first invented) and museums. Other areas covered on the tour include Chinatown, Alamo Square where the "painted ladies" are can be found (these famous 6 houses are actually prefabs ordered out of the Sears catalogue and assembled on site), Twin Peaks, the beautiful Victorians and all the time our guide is filling us with masses of information about the great earthquake in 1906 which caused the gas mains to split open, igniting 50 separate fires across the city. It is really fascinating stuff and you can still see scorch marks in the marble where the fires raged, destroying half the city and the loss of more than 3000 lives.
At the conclusion of the tour, we ask to be dropped off at Pier 39 and wander around the shops on the pier and follow the smell (stench might be more apt) and barking to see the famous sea lions. There are literally hundreds of them, piled on top of each other as they presumably settle down for the night. After spending a little time wandering around Fisherman's wharf, we catch the cable car back to our hotel. The cable cars operate by simply "grabbing" onto a constantly moving cable under the middle of the road. The cable car operator pushes a lever one way to grab the cable and the other way to release the cable to stop the car. Perhaps I should mention at this point that San Francisco is built on 43 hills so you are always either going up a steep hill or down a steep hill. It is absolutely crazy and we are really fortunate that the 3 cable car lines all go by our hotel on Nob Hill (originally named after the nabobs, eventually becoming shortened to Nob). At a cost of $5 a ride, regardless of whether you want to travel one block or the entire line, it was well worth the money to get us back!
The next day we take another tour to Muir Woods and Sausalito. We had yet another fantastic tour guide, Charles Hightower, whose historical knowledge of San Francisco is immense. We drive North over the Golden Gate Bridge and reach the forest by a steep climb along a very narrow and bendy road with a sheer drop off, followed by a steep descent into the valley. Muir Woods is a forest of baby Redwoods (not Giant Redwoods as Tony incorrectly states in his blog) but these babies are nevertheless huge and very impressive.
Afterward it is onto Sausalito, a bohemian little town across the bay, home to artists and writers. We decide to abandon the tour bus at this point and after wandering around the boutiques and galleries, we catch the ferry back across the bay.
After grabbing a bite to eat at Boudin's on the wharf, we wander to the cable car "turnaround" to catch a car back to the hotel only to find that the cable car is broken down. But the great thing is that when the cable car breaks down, the city lays on free buses so we manage to get back without having to walk the 20 blocks uphill to the hotel!
When we return to the hotel, we have been moved into a new room and now have a fabulous view of the bay - we can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Angel Island and Coit Tower.
Another tour is planned for the next day and yet another early morning. This time it's a long one! We are going to Monterey and Carmel along the pacific coast highway - highway 1. The coastline is simply stunning and the drive is occasionally scary as our guide tells us he has to stop talking so he can safely navigate part of the road named "Death Slide" - this extremely steep road is constantly eroding and the state is continually having to move the road as large sections break off and disappear into the ocean. We pass through a number of bays and see sea lions and sea otters. Then it's through field after field of artichokes and Strawberries before we reach the old canning town of Monterey.
Monterey is particularly famous for being the setting of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. We stop for lunch and a wander around before boarding the coach again and heading for the privately owned 17 mile drive (which is not 17 miles but only 9.6 miles - don't know what or if there was any explanation of that). We make several stops along the drive for photos and so on. At one particular stop, I pull out a snack from my bag. A couple of minutes later, I hear a noise at my feet and look down to see this giant and potentially dangerous rodent sitting on its hind legs in a begging pose. I tell Tony to stop being silly and if he wants to share my snack, all he had to do was ask! Couldn't resist that but seriously, it is the biggest squirrel I've ever seen and I realise pretty instantly that I really don't enjoy being that close to the critter, so I quietly and decorously moved away - at speed.
One of the other notable stops is Pebble Beach Golf Club, where to my complete mortification Tony drags me to the 18th hole and begs a golf ball from one of the wealthy players (it costs $600 to play a round of golf here) just finishing their round and makes me take a picture of him.
After leaving 17 mile drive, we head to Carmel by the Sea for our final stop before heading back the way we came. Clint Eastwood was Mayor of Carmel for a couple of years back in the 80's. It is an idyllic town with loads of interesting boutique style shops (including a shop specialising in imported English Chocolates and Sweets) and beautiful sandy beaches on the ocean. Once again it's been fantastic tour.
Our final full day in San Francisco and we are off to Alcatraz Island. It's a short ferry ride over to the Island from Pier 33. There is a huge amount of history associated with the island and it is all really interesting stuff. After watching the short film and viewing the exhibits in the theatre, we head up to the top of the island, equivalent to a 13 storey climb, to the cell block. We take the self guided audio tour which is absolutely brilliant not to mention fairly chilling. It includes comments by former inmates and recounts escape attempts whilst guiding you through the shower blocks, dining room and kitchen, library, cell blocks, treatment and isolation block. It also features comments by the children of the guards who also lived on the island alongside the prisoners who interestingly describe a somewhat idyllic existence. Only 3 inmates in the history of Alcatraz as a state penitentary escaped and were never heard of again. It is believed that they perished is the icy waters of the bay - whilst sharks do live in the waters around the island, contrary to popular belief, they are not of the man-eating variety!
After catching the ferry back to the mainland, we decided on a spot of lunch on Pier 39. Our plan for the afternoon was to walk the 7 blocks up Hyde Street to Lombard so we were definitely going to need the sustainance. Whilst Tony took another toilet break - only his 5th of the day so far - I sat on the almost empty benches in front of the Centre Stage. I overheard a guy chatting to another couple who were also taking a rest on the benches. The guy had clearly just struck up a conversation with the couple and they soon move on. I discreetly look around and notice I am now the only one sitting........ with the exception of this slightly strange guy who has started to move over in my direction and is talking loudly to himself in an attempt to attract my attention. It crosses my mind that he has unwittingly chased everyone away - which is a bit unfortunate because after chatting for a few moments, he reveals that he is the main (and only) attraction of the show, due to start in 15 minutes! Tony finally emerges from the restrooms and at first pretends not to know me, thinking to have a laugh at my expense. However, the guy eventually twigs that we are together and takes a real shine to Tony - karma! He asks us to stick around for the show but "doesn't want us to feel obligated". When the guy's back is turned, Tony urges me to escape but of course I feel "obligated" to stay (and plus I was beginning to get the feeling that Tony might turn out to be integral to this guy's act because he'd taken to calling him England and afterall, it would be downright rude of me to remove the show's patsy). The time for the show to start arrives and the guy starts trying to gather an audience - he is moderately sucessful. This may have something to do with the fact that he is offering kids money to come up on the stage and "assist" him with his act. As you can imagine this was costing him quite a bit of money - step in Tony!!!! As he picked on Tony, sorry I mean England, I soon realised that the more I laughed the longer he prolonged Tony's agony. And it really was agony! I knew Tony was not happy of course but for some reason I found it absolutely hilarious - I just laughed and laughed and Tony sufferred and suffered. The grand finale of the show had Tony up on the stage performing a balancing act with three other guys - don't worry I have photos to preserve this special moment - which required them to sit on chairs in a square formation, each placing their head in the lap of another as the chairs are removed one by one. Ta da! Tony, aka "England" to his fans in Frisco, decided it was time to retire from show business and we continued with our plans for the afternoon.
We now start the steep climb up Hyde to Lombard street, meeting lots of people from all over the world on the way up. Finally we reach the top of Lombard Street, also know as "the crookedest street". The street has a number of severe switchbacks to prevent cars driving too fast down this even steeper portion of the street. After walking down to take photos and back up, we caught the cable car back to the hotel. The cable car broke down and we were told that it might take some time before we get moving again. As tourist who didn't have the faintest idea where we were at this point, we decided to wait. Others decided to get off and walk, which gave Tony the chance to abandon me once again to ride clinging to the outside. It didn't take long before we were moving again and 2 blocks later we were back at the hotel.
We have both gone from being underwhelmed to loving San Francisco. The people are really freindly and are rightly very proud of their city and it's history. We have had a great time but it is time to move on the Hawaii.