Last time we visited San Francisco we found out that you cannot simply show up in the city and expect to visit Alcatraz. This time we booked the tickets earlier, but still not early enough: we found tickets only for the day we were supposed to drive back to Richland. Taking into account the long drive, we signed up for the early bird tour. After going to the wrong pier and a little bit of jogging, we made it on board right before they closed the access to the ship.
The weather was good, but the sun was – again – in the wrong spot, which means no good pictures of the city. After we listened to the ranger giving the orientation speech, we saw a short movie depicting the history of The Rock, then we headed to the actual prison. They offered a free audio tour that guided our steps. We saw cells in different states: some completely empty, some prepared for new inmates, some decorated by their inhabitants or (most likely) by some curator. The tour takes you through the dining hall, the library, visitation area, warden’s office, plus you get to peek into the kitchen and in the control room. You hear stories describing prisoner revolts and escape attempts.
It was almost noon when we decided to leave The Rock even though there were parts of the island we did not see. The drive was long and tiring, especially in the north of Oregon, where the night combined with a dense fog to reduce visibility to just a few meters. It was around midnight when we finally made it home.
Our sightseeing tour tickets (valid for two days) helped us get to the Fishermans Wharf in the morning. We visited the Hyde St Pier without getting on any of the boats-museums, then continued the tour across the Golden Gate Bridge. It wasn’t foggy this time, but the sun chose to shine light at an extremely unfavorable angle. It appears that the best time to cross the Golden Gate Bridge is in the afternoon. Armed with this useless information, we went back to the hotel, picked up the car, and headed to the Golden Gate Park. Besides being huge, the park was very busy: it was close to impossible to find a parking spot. We spent a while on the north shore of the Stow Lake looking at the people who were enjoying their time in rented boats. We walked to the Japanese Tea Garden, then took off to see the campus of University of California at Berkeley.
We didn’t have driving directions nor a list of objectives, so I was ready to give up as soon as it got dark. However – mostly because Lida insisted – we eventually found the west entrance. A barrier stopped us after the first roundabout – probably an attempt to cut the access to people like us. We parked on the side of an alley, walked around for a few minutes, and now we can claim that we’ve been to Berkeley. Later in the evening we had dinner with Guanghong (a colleague from grad school), who lives in Fremont with his wife and his two cute little daughters.
It was rather cold: the good weather did not hit San Francisco (as promised by the forecast). A short walk took us from the hotel to the City Hall, through the United Nations Square, then along a rough part of the Market Street to the Union Square. The (apparently) chaotic motion of the people in the crowds reminded us of something we miss and don’t have many chances to experience lately: the life in a big city. We hopped on a sightseeing tour that took us to Chinatown, North Beach, Fishermans Wharf, then all the way across the Golden Gate Bridge. The bay was foggy to the extent that the city was barely visible.
An Iranian restaurant lured us in with decent prices posted outside and hit us with pricier food after we got seated. We didn’t like their tactics, but enjoyed the food and moved on. By the time we got back to the City Hall, the Gay Men Group was assembling to start a mini-concert in the honor of Harvey B. Milk. Let’s just say that the quality of the show would not keep the by-passers around too long.
That was enough walking for a day, so we stopped at the hotel, got the car and drove to Presidio. It was too late to explore the entire park, but after we got the map from the Visitor Center, we found our way to the Fort Point. This is where I took some of the best pictures of the day, while wondering how those people could surf in such a cold weather in what must have been really cold water. It wasn’t long until Lida drove down the “crookedest street”, then all the way up to the base of the Coit Tower. The good visibility in the bay area encouraged us to drive to the Twin Peaks. According to our previous experience, the route to the top was not easy to find. Even after we found it, a thick and uncompromising fog made the trip completely worthless.
A couple of years ago we spent the Thanksgiving holiday in San Francisco (well, we spent two out of four days on the road and only two in the city). It was mainly the promise of good weather that made us forget about the two brutal days of driving (stopping only to switch seats or fill up the tank): we were ready for a similar adventure.
Luckily, the roads were clear, the visibility good and the scenery amazing. Not quite from the beginning though – we probably got used to US-84 along the Columbia River and it didn’t seem that impressive anymore. But later, the Cascade Mountains paraded on the west side of US-97 for several hours. A short detour to the Crater Lake was extremely tempting, but it was not exactly the right season for it. The imposing Mount Shasta kept us company for several more hours before the night painted California in dark colors.
An unpleasant surprise was waiting for us at what was supposed to be our hotel: they did not receive the booking information from Travelocity. Travelocity sent us to a different hotel, promising to reimburse the difference (they did eventually).
On the way out of San Francisco, we drove through Presidio and we stopped after the Golden Gate Bridge for another photo op. We drove on the route 1 along the coast because we heard about its beauty. Unfortunately, it was too slow of a drive and not as spectacular as we expected. We cut through the Nappa Valley to see some of the most famous wineries in the US. Not very spectacular either – maybe because it rained all the time we were in the wine country.
Like many other tourists in San Francisco, we visited the crookedest part of Lombard street. Some of them go by car to experience the tight turns at reduced speed, others go by foot and enjoy the view of others taking tight turns. It is something worth seeing once… probably it looks even prettier in the spring or summer. We headed toward the Nob Hill walking mostly on Jones Street. I don’t know if we found the best spots, but we thought the city looked very nice when looking down at it from the intersections with Broadway, Washington and Clay. We saw the overcrowded cable cars and we witnessed one turning around. Quite a process… Once on top of the Nob Hill, we visited the Grace Cathedral. They like to pretend that the cathedral is the daughter of the 1849 Grace Church, even though I am not even sure if it was built on the same spot. Nice door though…
The Yerba Buena Garden offered a nice view of the city skyline, but the food at the food court was horrible. South of Market Street (sold to tourists as SOMA) was completely uninteresting, I wish we walked along the Market Street instead.
Van Ness Ave seems to be one of the main streets in San Francisco, but walking from the hotel to the shore was not very exciting. It ended in the Aquatic Park, which is a good place to take pictures of Alcatraz prison and Golden Gate Bridge or with them in the background. I wasn’t very impressed with Ghirardelli Square (a shopping center built in a former factory). While eating clam chowder in a bread bowl at Boudin (very good bread, but that was about it), I kept wondering why Fisherman’s Wharf was so famous. In my opinion, taking a cruise is the only good reason to visit it. At this chapter we were not in a very good shape: due to booking problems on the Alcatraz Cruises website, we couldn’t buy in advance tickets to visit the former prison and they were sold out when we got there. We settled for the next good thing and took a Blue Fleet cruise.
Not only it was cold and windy for a cruise, we couldn’t even hear the voice which was supposed to give us more information about what we were seeing. We started from Pier 41 (where the seals supervised our departure) cruised a little beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, turned around the Alcatraz Island (where we envied those who, for just a couple of more dollars, got to also visit the prison) and returned to Pier. The admission to USS Pampanito (a WWII Submarine), and USS Jeremiah O’Brien (which they advertise as the only unaltered operational WWII Ship) was a clear rip off, so we saw them from the outside and skipped the “opportunity” to go onboard. The Musée Mécanique (free admission), located on the same Pier (45) is a good excuse to make money with old mechanical toys and slots.
The Embarcadero is a nice street, with palm trees and lights in the middle. The old Ferry Buiding had the same fate as Ghirardelli: it became a shopping center. Since shopping is not what I would call a favorite activity of mine, I wasn’t very impressed with with this one either. Very close to the Ferry Building there are other three blocks of shopping opportunities: Embarcadero Center. A couple of blocks away is one of the most interesting buildings in terms of architecture: Transamerica Pyramid. From there we didn’t notice anything special on the way to Coit Tower, except for the increasing slopes of the streets. It was really nice to see San Francisco right before the sunset, then watch the city lights fight the night. To put a checkmark next to one more attraction, we returned to the hotel through Union Square. Amazed by the view of a sea of people, we sat down on some stairs staring at them. The tree lightning was celebrated by Macy’s while its employees were on strike in front of the store. Something tells me that the media may have covered the former and payed less attention if at all to the latter.
The sun was waking up, stretching and yawning when we started our Thanksgiving journey. The wind wanted to change our minds by trying to blow Blacky off the road and gave us a break only after we crossed into Oregon. At east of that point, the border between Washington and Oregon is a straight line which hits Idaho, while Columbia River decided to separate the two states at the west. We drove along the river for quite a while and saw just desert on both sides. By the time the nature exploded in beauty, the rain started pouring and kept going for a couple of hours. We were greeted by Mount Shasta even before crossing into California and felt its impressing presence until the sun went to bed.
We got to the hotel (The Opal) in San Francisco at around 8:30, much earlier than we expected. While we were looking for a a more convenient parking than the one offered by the hotel (we found Sutter Place Garage, $15/day), we concluded that the area was not the safest possible. Sleeping proved to be quite difficult in the room on the first floor next to the busy elevator. The next morning we moved in a spacier room (and with a view) on the third floor.