Sunday, December 16, 2012

San Francisco

After 20 hours of flying we finally arrived in San Francisco. I had been to Los Angeles, California twice before but never to San Francisco. When people ask me what Los Angeles is like I tell them they can get the same experience for free by sitting in their car for six hours and going nowhere. Darren assured me that San Francisco was nothing like L.A. and if we didn't stop over somewhere, our trip home from Ireland back to Maui would have been a torturous 34 hours. We decided that since we needed to fly over it to get home anyway, that we might as well stop over for a few days to break up the long journey.

At the airport, we asked the information desk how to get to our hotel. They told us we should take the airport shuttle which would have cost $34. Here's a Travel Tip: These "free" information kiosks in airports are actually working for the shuttle companies. There's always a much cheaper and better alternative. We asked which train would take us to the stop closest to our hotel and she was immediately annoyed because it turned out that there was a stop just down the street from our hotel. So for $8 we could take a train from the airport directly to our hotel rather than spending many times that amount to sit in a van that would stop to drop off other passengers at hotels all over the city. As I've said before, riding the local transportation is all part of the traveling experience.

The only flaw we had in this particular situation was that although the hotel was adjacent to the train stop, we were so exhausted and delirious that we walked for about twenty minutes in the wrong direction so that by the time we finally reached our hotel we had been awake for 21 hours and my eyes were so bloodshot that I looked like Darth Maul.

I was pretty cranky and even though it was only 7:45 pm I was ready to go to bed. I went to close the curtains and I was greeted by this wonderful scene:

Less than an hour in San Francisco and I'm already in love.

I don't think I've been in bed that early since I was in grade school so we were up before the sun the following day. We walked all over the city. We had pre-purchased tickets to see Alcatraz so we began our walk in the direction of Pier 33 where we would catch our ferry.

Travel tip: Buy your tickets in advance online. Tours sell out quickly and you will be disappointed if you try to buy tickets at the pier and they are sold out.

The morning was foggy and cold but by the time we reached the pier the sun was starting to burn off the fog. The ferries leave for Alcatraz every half hour and you need to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled departure time.

The nice thing is that you don't have to wait in line and they have some interesting displays about Alcatraz to keep people occupied and give a little background information about the sights you're about to see. The ferry ride takes about 10 minutes and was so enjoyable I only wished it lasted a little bit longer.

Once you reach the island, a park ranger will greet your group and give you information about the island and tell you where to go and what to see. The first thing we did after that was head over to the theater to watch a 19 minute orientation video called, "Alcatraz: Stories from the Rock." I would recommend that all visitors not skip this as it gives a good overview of the history of Alcatraz and sets the tone or what you're about to see and experience. Then we went over to the cellhouse and picked up our headsets for the audio tour.  The narrators of the audio tour were real Alcatraz inmates, correctional officers, and residents. The audio tour is included in the admission price so there's really no reason you should skip this as the narration, sound effects and music will amplify your experience when touring the prison and give you a much better sense of what it might have really been like when it was a functioning prison.

We got to tour the entire prison, including the cells, the solitary confinement, the library, the dining hall, the yard, the morgue, the visiting area, the offices, and the warden's office. The cells were tiny. They were just big enough to fit a small cot, a sink, and a toilet. It was cold, damp and creepy.

Today, Alcatraz island is a national parkland with historic gardens, tidepools, bird colonies, and one of the best views of the city of San Francisco. Alcatraz Island is also part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and part of the Central California Coast International Biosphere Reserve, designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote education and preservation of habitats of international significance. In addition to touring the prison, outdoor interpretive walks through the historic gardens are offered throughout the day by park rangers and volunteers.

We had plenty of time left in the day after our visit to Alcatraz to wander around and see more of the city.

 On our way to Fisherman's Wharf we stopped to see the sea lions at Pier 39.

After a seafood lunch at Fisherman's Wharf we went to Ghirardelli Square to see the Golden Gate bridge but the famous fog had completely blanketed it from our view.

Then we walked all the way to the top of Lombard Street, known as the worlds "crookedest street".

In addition to being crooked it was also quite steep! The zig zags were created in the road to allow for traffic to safely descend the steep incline.

The cable cars were all full so we had to walk back down and find a cable car at a less crowded stop. They are mainly used by tourists but you just have to ride at least once if you're visiting San Francisco. A one-way ticket cost $6 and you can buy the tickets when you get on board. There were no seats available so we had to hang onto the outside which I thought was way more fun anyway.

We were staying just outside the Chinatown gates so the next day we explored Chinatown. I've seen a lot of different Chinatowns in many different cities but I think San Francisco's Chinatown is one of the coolest I've seen.

I loved the brightly colored lanterns and little shops with rows and rows of glass jars filled with mystery spices and herbs. We bought a huge bag of fennel for only $3. We had been hooked on fennel ever since we went to India and now we found a years supply. It's definitely best going on foot, or you would miss all the little alleyways hiding visual delights.

Afterwards we walked down to the Embarcadero and strolled through the outdoor flea market. They are held every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning. It had local artisans, baked goods, fresh flowers, something to please all your senses.

There is also an indoor marketplace within the Ferry Building which is open every day and consists of gourmet shops and restaurants. We tried to see the Golden Gate bridge again but the fog was still being stubborn. Little Kimmie and Little Darren really wanted their picture taken in front of the Golden Gate Bridge but the Bay Bridge would have to suffice.

It was a quick two day stay in San Francisco. There's was so much more we would have loved to see and do. We checked out of our hotel and still had a few hours before we needed to leave for the airport so we locked our bags in the luggage room at the hotel and made a quick trip to see the Cable Car Museum.

Admission to the Cable Car Museum is Free. 

Cable cars were introduced to the city on August 2, 1873 by inventor Andrew Hallidie. Downstairs you can see the Sheaves working underground. They are giant cogs turning the pulleys which feed the miles and miles of cable that move the cable cars through the streets. Upstairs we could see the cables coming in from the street and being fed around the massive pulleys. This area is also where the cables and cars are repaired. I loved that we could see the real inner-workings of San Francisco's cable car system.

The exhibits displayed tools and pieces of machinery, old cable cars, old tokens, ticket punchers, and fantastic old photos of San Francisco from the late 1800's.

There were newspaper articles about how the people of San Francisco fought and voted to keep the cable cars when the city wanted to shut them down. All the rest of the world shut down their cable car systems. San Francisco's beloved cable cars are the only vehicles of their kind still in operation and are designated National Landmarks.

The cable cars were the primary mode of transportation until the 1906 earthquake and fires that destroyed the city. There were videos and photographs of the earthquake as well. I learned from one of the original newspaper articles displayed on the wall that martial law had to be enforced. It declared that anyone caught thieving would be shot. The quake and fires destroyed most of the cable car system and only a few lines were restored as the city rebuilt. In the 1890's there were 600 cars and today there are only about 40 but it was nice to see that the system has remained almost completely unchanged from when it was first introduced in 1873.

The cable car museum was a really nice way to end our short but sweet visit to San Francisco. I definitely want to visit again so I can see all the places we didn't get a chance to see on this trip.

I have a couple more Travel Tips for San Francisco. First, you will absolutely need to bring a comfortable pair of shoes. The hills are a killer and you don't want sore legs and feet to ruin your trip. Second, pack for all seasons. We experienced winter in the early morning, fall mid-day and summer in the afternoon and then back to winter at night again. Be prepared for the fog and the moody weather.

I'm also going to (slightly) rescind a travel tip in a previous post where I advised my readers never to fly Delta. I obviously did not take my own advice because we flew with Delta (for the simple reason that it was the cheapest ticket) and when our layover flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii was delayed they said they were going to start making popcorn and giving out refreshments. I thought they were joking but they literally rolled out a movie theater style popcorn machine and started popping popcorn at the gate and handing out bags of chips and sodas. This was the most amusing layover I've ever had. I pictured top Delta executives sitting in a board room and trying to think of the best way to distract their customers from the fact that their flights are never on-time and the popcorn machine was the winning idea. So even though the flight was delayed (again) it seems like Delta is making more of an effort to show they care about their passengers.

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