San Francisco

Trip Start Sep 05, 2008
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Flag of United States  , California
Sunday, October 5, 2008

October 5
Time for one last breakfast in New York, so I asked the doorman to find me a copy of the New York Times, grabbed an umbrella from the foyer (it was raining), and walked to the Murray Hill Diner on Lexington. For reasons that totally elude me I ordered the Waffle Sundae - a Belgian waffle with two scoops of ice cream covered in whipped cream, walnuts and chocolate sauce, all washed down with a strawberry milkshake. This is the stuff heart attacks are made of. I managed to get through about half of it before giving up and asking for the check - $12.40. Left the change from $15 and walked back to the Affinia to check out. Apart from a day’s internet access ($9.95) the only other item was a phone call for $1.67. Obviously local, but I have no recollection of making any outside calls. But for $1.67 I wasn’t going to quibble, so paid in cash and left.

The doorman got me a cab and carried my bag so I tipped him a couple of bucks. The ride to the airport was uneventful except for a bottle neck on the approach to JFK. Paid the driver the $50 flat fare and tipped him $5 and checked in straight away – practically no line.

There was a Chinese package tour on the flight - all of whom wanted upgrades, all of whom wanted to sit together, and only one of whom spoke English - so the gate lounge was shambolic. They also bought their own huge bags of food and started mixing up bowls of instant noodle soup as soon as the plane took off.

Watched “Get Smart” on the in flight entertainment system - Anne Hathaway was actually quite hot, something I never expected to commit to in writing. Bought a snack box for $6 and munched on chips, salami, pepperoni and cheese dip, and started Turtledove's Blood and Iron, which is actually quite good, though I think I’ve bought the first book in one of the later trilogies, not the first of the series. We arrived in San Francisco 15 minutes early at about 2.15pm. Collected my bag and got a cab straight away – it wasn’t busy at all. Fare to the Chancellor was $36.

The Chancellor is quite nice – not as nice as the Affinia but for $250 a night, about $80 cheaper. Another good location – right on Union Square which I have an oblique view of from my window. I was given a guest pack when I checked in that included a 2 for 1 offer at the hotel bar, Luque’s, along with a map of San Francisco and a discount voucher for Macy’s which is right across the square. I also found a bottle of gift wrapped French champagne and a note wishing me a "Happy Anniversary". To ensure that I was not about to drink some lucky couple’s celebratory booze I called reception to confirm if this was actually meant for me. They assured me it was, but I still think they put it in the wrong room and were too embarrassed to tell me. Also took the opportunity to point out that there was no fridge in my room. A small bar fridge arrived 5 minutes later and I tipped the Hispanic guy who bought it $2 for his trouble. Also confirmed that there is no air conditioning in the rooms here, so I asked the janitor to open the window for me.

Went down to Luque’s to take advantage of my 2 for 1 offer but the barman was off changing into his uniform, so I talked to a couple of nice Canadian couples then went out for an exploratory walk. There is a Border’s right next door so I bought what I think is the first Turtledove book – Guns of the South. Might shelve Blood and Iron and start at the beginning. Also saw my first cable car - the line runs right past the hotel. Walked up the hill and found a bottle shop about 2 blocks away and bought a bottle of Ravenswood Winters Blend Cab Sav for $15 – the guy de-corked it for me which saves me scrounging one from the hotel.

Walked back to the hotel – still no sign of the barman so I came back to the room and had a glass of room wine. First impressions of SF are very good – it’s got a laid back feel and the people seem really friendly – friendlier than New York. The weather is perfect – warm (actually very warm – I was sweating after my walk) – blue skies and a light breeze. And the forecast for my stay is more of the same.

Went to Luque's again – the barman had finally arrived - and had a couple of Californian reds and started reading Guns of the South. Interesting premise – a bunch of modern day South African white supremists travel back in time and supply the Confederate army with AK47s.

Asked the Chinese lady at the tour desk at reception for a Hop on/Hop Off bus tour brochure, which she gave me, and also the name of a good Mexican Restaurant close by. She recommended a place called Colibri at 438 Geary Street.

Colibri has a nice setting and very good service. I sat at the bar and let the waiter order for me. Something with “carne” in the description, which was basically pork pieces served with a spicy sauce and little fajita pancakes with a side of corn and mushrooms. It was OK, but nothing special. A woman sat next to me and started talking. She said she was a local and recommended some places that I should see, including Alcatraz. She also told me you can walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, which I think I will do tomorrow. She went off to see “Rock and Roll” across the road and I settled my tab - $36. I paid on AmEx and left $4 tip in cash – I remember the first time I came to the States I was told you have to tip 10%, even if they spit in your food.

Some young dude bailed me up as I was leaving and asked what the restaurant was like, and I had to tell him it was fairly ordinary. This conversation means that I’ve already more unsolicited interactions in Fan Francisco in 4 hours than I had in New York in 4 days!

Walked around Union Square and back to the hotel. It was so warm I turned on the ceiling fan  and opened the window onto the fire escape. As a result the room is now comfortably cool. Watched Fabulous Four on TV, the only saving grace of which appears to be the inclusion of Jessica Alba in the cast.

October 6
Woke up with a sore throat and blocked nose so went to Walgreens which is virtually next door to the Chancellor and bought some Sudafed.

Had breakfast at a place called Lefty O’Doul’s, which apparently is something of a San Francisco icon. It’s named after Francis “Lefty” O’Doul who played baseball for the New York Giants and was instrumental in establishing baseball as a major sport in Japan. The walls are covered with sepia toned photos of old players along with other memorabilia. I ordered the ham and eggs which arrived of course with home fries (slightly different to New York in that they were just boiled potatoes cut into quarters) and wrote five postcards – my last batch before going home!

Walked back to the Chancellor at 9am and bought a ticket for the hop-on/hop-off bus for $35 - same deal as New York where you pay the deposit at the hotel and the balance when you get on the bus. After several aborted attempts to board (there was some confusion as to where the stop was located) I finally managed to catch a bus at 11am. The tour was quite interesting and took us through Chinatown, North Beach (Little Italy), Pier 33 (where you catch the ferry to Alcatraz), Pier 39, and Fisherman’s Wharf. But the highlight for me was the drive across the Golden Gate Bridge.

We stopped on the northern side for 10 minutes for photos of San Francisco across the bay. It was a beautiful day, but even so there was a lot of fog obscuring the bottom of the bridge. We drove back to Golden Gate Park then passed the beautiful old Victorian houses called the Painted Ladies – not sure if these were in Haight-Ashbury or Pacific Heights. We also drove by Lombard Street - the twistiest street in the world which has eight hairpin bends in the space of just two blocks.

I stayed on the bus for the full circle then got off at Pier 39 which is full of tourist shops, restaurants and a little carousel decorated with paintings of famous San Francisco landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Chinatown, Lombard Street and Alcatraz.

It also hosts the sea lions that are a feature of the pier during the warmer months. Apparently they only started coming here after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. At first there were less than 50 of them, but the colony now numbers around 300 due to the plentiful supply of herrings and the marina’s protected environment.

I had a bowl of chowder at a place called "Chowder" which was served in a hollowed out cob loaf (quite tasty) then took some photos of the Golden Gate, the bottom of which was completely obscured by a fog bank. There’s also a great view of Alcatraz, along with the Oakland Bay Bridge.

Had second lunch at a place called La Salsa on the upper level. It has a deck overlooking the pier’s 300-berth marina and beyond to Alcatraz. Chicken and Beef taco with a “Top Shelf” Margarita – OK but nothing special. So far the food in SF has not been less than great, but I'm sure that this is just because I've selected the wrong places.

Decided to walk back to the hotel – Powell Street starts near Pier 39 so I just had to follow that all the way back to Union Square. Quite a pretty walk with steep streets running off either side.

I passed Saints Peter & Paul Church in North Beach (ironically located at 666 Filbert Street)  which is said to be the most beautiful in San Francisco. The building was consecrated in 1924 and is in the neo-Gothic style. It was also featured in the Clint Eastwood films Dirty Harry and The Dead Pool. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio also had their wedding photos taken on the steps. The interior is very pretty and dimly lit with a mosaic of Jesus behind the altar holding a book with the Latin inscription Ego sum via veritas et vita - “I am the way, the truth and the life”.

Right across the road is Washington Square Park, which confusingly has a statue of Thomas Jefferson at its centre. A little further up Powell is a bar called North Star which has a nice local feel to it. I stopped here for a glass of red, which I had to ask for three times as the barman had never heard “that order in that accent before”.

Read some Guns of the South then continued up the hill, which wasn’t as daunting as it appears from the bottom. There are also some good views of the Oakland Bay Bridge at the end of some of the cross streets on the left hand side.

I walked to the Union Square Sports Bar in O’Farrell Street for another drink. I made the mistake of sitting at the open window in the pool area which opens right onto the sidewalk as there was good light for reading, and was accosted by four beggars in the space of 20 minutes including a quite respectable-looking old lady. She asked me what I was drinking and when I told her asked if she could have a sip. After I said no, she wandered off, but was back a few minutes later to ask me what I was doing later on!

Went back to the bar at the Chancellor, read the New York Times, did the Sudoku in the SF Chronicle and had a couple of glasses of red before heading back to my room.

October 7
I decided that I couldn’t visit San Francisco without going to Alcatraz, so today is the day. Woke up about 7am with the intention of walking to Pier 33 where the ferry leaves for the “Rock”. According to the guide on the bus tour yesterday I have arrived at a very fortuitous time. Generally at this time of year the Alcatraz tour is booked out weeks or months in advance, however due to the sub-prime mortgage crisis business is way down so you can get tickets on the day.

Walked to the gates of Chinatown – which is apparently home to the largest Chinese population outside Asia – and down Grant Street. Stopped at a souvenir shop on the corner of Grant and Washington and bought a California licence plate with “Kim” on it for $2.99 and a little San Francisco picture frame for $7.99, both of which I will probably hate when I get home.

The English barmaid at Peter Dillon’s in New York had suggested a couple of places for me to visit when I was in San Francisco, the first of which was the House of Nanking restaurant. I asked the girl in the souvenir shop where it was and she told me to go down Washington and turn left into Kearney Street, which I did. Found the restaurant which was closed, then continued to walk up to Columbus and turned left, where I found the Vesuvio Cafe – her other recommendation. It’s right next to the City Lights bookstore. I bookmarked both of these for a visit on the way back from the Alcatraz tour.

Continued along Grant Street past St Francis of Assisi church and up an extremely steep hill (almost 45 degree gradient!) to Francisco Street, then turned right and down a flight of wooden stairs. I emerged near the Embarcadero – the boulevard that runs along the water front. The Alcatraz ferry leaves from Pier 33 and although things were supposedly “quiet” there was already a large crowd waiting to board the next boat when I arrived. Ferries leave every half hour and carry 300 – 350 people fully loaded. I arrived about 10.30 and bought a ticket for the 11.30 ferry. While I was waiting I bought a bottle of water and a muffin from a place called Butterfly next door to the pier, then went back and read the Alcatraz brochure that came with the ticket.

The boat trip to Alcatraz takes about 15 minutes. A guy took my picture in front of a billboard sized photo of the island as I was boarding (similar to the Empire State Building). The island was home to a lighthouse, then a military fortification, then a military prison followed by a federal prison until 1963. It became a national recreation area in 1972.

There’s a 17 minute video of the history of Alcatraz in the auditorium which I watched before walking to the cell block and pickingd up an audio tour, which was included in the ticket price of $26. Very interesting excursion. Alcatraz was built in 1850 as a fort to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay and was more recently a focal point for the Indian movement, occupied by activists a couple of times in the 60’s and 70’s. But it’s most famous years were from 1934 to 1963 when it served as a federal penitentiary housing gangsters like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. It was also the long time residence of Robert Stroud, the so called Birdman of Alcatraz, whose life was the basis of the movie of the same name. Ironically he actually raised birds in Leavenworth prison before he was transferred to Alcatraz.

The views back across the bay are sweeping and as the fog had lifted everything was clearly visible from the Golden Gate to the Oakland Bay Bridge. The latter is in fact comprised of two bridges with a combined length of 23,000 feet (4.5 miles) which are linked by a tunnel.

Caught the 2.10 ferry back to Pier 33 and retraced my steps, stopping at an Irish Bar in Grant Street for a glass of red and a read. I sat at the big window opening onto the sidewalk and was of course accosted by a beggar. He was young and seemed quite intelligent so I gave him all my change, which was less than a dollar.

Down Grant Street and left onto Columbus took me to Vesuvio, which is definitely the coolest bar of the holiday. Very quirky and loaded with unusual knick knacks, which I like. The bar is downstairs and there is a mezzanine area upstairs which is accessed via a winding wooden staircase. Small round tables (which appear to be either hand painted or decoupaged) run around the deck next to windows looking over Columbus. There are also a couple of booths at either end looking down over the main bar area.  North Beach was where the Beat generation congregated in San Francisco during the 50's and 60's, and Vesuvio’s was the bar where Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Neal Cassady and other luminaries of the movement hung out. The lane that runs beside the bar is now called Jack Kerouac Alley, and the famous City Lights Bookstore is right across the lane.

Just around the corner from Vesuvio in Kearney Street is the House of Nanking where I stopped for a late lunch. This laminex tabled, no frills restaurant is very good and obviously popular as even at 4pm there were still quite a few people eating there. I ordered steamed chicken dumplings which were very good, and similar to what you would get at a yum cha at home. However, on the same plate came a couple of crisp, deep fried triangles containing prawns and vegetables, which were unusual and delicious. A tasty glutinous peanut sauce complimented both dishes very well.

For main I had deep fried calamari in a piquant vinegar chilli sauce which was also good. The calamari was very fresh and perfectly cooked – melted in the mouth. The bill, including one glass of house red, came to $23.

I cut back onto Grant Street and walked back to Union Square, stumbling on a small blind alley called Tillman Place, at the end of which was a bar called Azul. It was happy hour so I ordered a $6 vodka martini with a couple of fat olives and sat in the lounge upstairs. The walls are covered with pictures – prints or originals I don’t know. There are also tables outside in the alley so I finished my drink out there and read some of my book.

Back at the hotel room about 6.30 pm and opened the complimentary bottle of champagne which was icy cold and very refreshing. There was a Presidential debate between Barak Obama and John McCain on most of the TV channels. I sat out on the fire escape and watched Union Square and the San Francisco skyline over a couple of drinks. I never noticed before (probably because it was obscured by fog the last time I was out there) that I have a glimpse of the Bay between two skyscrapers.
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