Who are we

We are a family of 3 who took a break from our routine. Usually we live in Scotland but February to the end of July 2011 we were on the road in North America for 6 months. We are Mark (also known as Dad), Rachel (also known as Mum... and a whole bunch of other names... my usual at-home blog is here) and little h (10/11 years of age during the trip).

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

California part three - San Francisco

On Wednesday 25th May we left Santa Cruz and pointed ourselves towards one of the cities that comes high on many a visit-wish-list – San Francisco. Would it live up to the expectations? Would it be a highlight or a low?

We’d been advised to take the 9 north from Santa Cruz and it was a very pretty green route through the hills (super bendy roads though… and in rain some of the time…). We passed places with Scottish names like Ben Lomond and then, down at the bottom of the hill, by contrast, vineyards aplenty (and the end of the rain). We’d decided to drive into San Francisco via some of Silicon Valley (what with Mark’s techie interests and so on) so we stopped first in Cupertino (home of Apple). It was pretty bland-looking all round so we grabbed a sandwich and moved on towards Mountain View (home of Google). At G-central there was a bit more to see – Google gets its own road sign (see photos) and their ‘campus’ is huge and fairly sprinkled with young thin men on Google multi-coloured bikes moving from building to building. We found what looked like a visitor centre (with giant sculptures of an éclair, a frozen yogurt (froyo), a gingerbread man and a honeycomb… to represent the various versions of the Android operating system… apparently) but there was nothing we could visit indoors any more (we think there used to be)… so we left. Or should that be 'logged out'...

After that we drove straight into San Francisco along the 101 and found our hotel in the SoMa district (South of Market – not the fanciest area but cheaper parking than other central places). The hotel had claims to being ‘green’ but it seemed a pretty standard mid-market hotel to us. They had a contraption in the bathroom for using the water twice in the toilet cistern (to wash your hands first before it’s used to flush) but it didn’t work terribly well, plus it was cold water of course. Apart from that we couldn’t see anything different about the place (though it was beautifully quiet at night – much more so than our place in Hollywood!).

Once we’d checked in it was a warm afternoon so we walked towards the central area to start to get our bearings. Straightaway we saw that much of central San Francisco had more than a hint of Venice Beach (lots of people begging, quite a few people looking damaged in one way or another). It wasn’t something we’d expected here particularly – don’t know why, perhaps we should have – but it was sad to see… especially in such numbers.

When we got to Union Square there were lots of people selling city bus tours and one of the offers was very cheap so we ended up on the top deck of an old London red bus (with the roof mostly cut off…). The bus took us past Chinatown, through North Beach/Little Italy and then we jumped off at Fisherman’s Wharf (along with Union Square that’s one of the main tourist centres). We wanted to check out the boat tours and such like but in the end we didn’t really bother with that (we’ve been on quite a lot of boats this trip and even though others recommended it none of us really fancied Alcatraz). Instead we wandered along the main drag a bit (souvenir shops aplenty) and then found ourselves in the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45. This place is a fantastic collection of coin-operated antique arcade games (mostly still working – some from our childhood, some from way, way before that) and it was so much fun (and all the machines took just quarters so it didn’t cost much either). We played old fortune telling machines, all kinds of musical contraptions, the arm wrestling machine featured in, of all things, ‘The Princess Diaries” (so h says), space invaders, Pong (the old tennis computer game) and much, much more. To be honest we probably could have stayed in that place for all of the 3 days… it was really entertaining.

After this time was getting on so we walked back towards Chinatown (always a bit of walk in San Francisco, what with the hills and so on…), stopping at City Lights bookstore in North Beach on the way (run by a poet, full of poetry and beat-related items and photos). In Chinatown we grabbed a meal and then headed back towards the hotel but as we left the area I heard something I recognised… it was Auld Lang Syne! There was an old guy playing the Burns Scottish favourite on an erhu! It was a bit like this… well, it was this (short clip):

And then we went to bed. Our Day One photos of San Francisco (and the road to it) are here:

San Francisco day 1
On Day Two we used the same recycled London bus tour operation to get from the centre out to Golden Gate Park on the west side of the city (via Japantown and a few other areas). It was a lovely sunny day and the park looked gorgeous – not that we saw all of it, far from it, it’s huge! We went into the Japanese Tea Garden (beautiful – lots of photos below), had lunch in the art museum café (expensive, fancy, not really what we were after, interesting people-watching though…), walked through the National AIDS Memorial Grove (heart-breaking but heavenly in its way) and then played at the children’s park before leaving the green and walking along Haight Street for the whole hippy history business. These days Haight Ashbury is just another shopping area really from what we could see – though quite a good one with huge music store, some nice cafés and so on – and we wandered a little. Before long though we caught another recycled London bus back into the centre (it was a great deal – 3 days of tourist bus all over the city for a very few dollars). The bus took us past the Seven Sisters houses on Alamo Square (not that outstanding – San Francisco, like parts of New Orleans, is just jam-packed with brightly-coloured, irresistible and no doubt very expensive houses). It also took us past the very striking City Hall. Towards the end of this tour the driver went off on one about beggars in the city and how we tourists mustn’t give any of them money because they’re all drug addicts (it wouldn’t take local knowledge to work that out – one guy at Fisherman’s Wharf was holding a sign that said ‘need money for ganja’…). The driver also said he lived in Oakland and that Oakland had a much higher crime rate than San Francisco but no beggars. I’m not quite sure what his point was there…

After this tour we had a quiet coffee break in one of the many fancy French-style cafés in the centre (it is a city of sharp contrasts – the highest end shops/restaurants one minute, cheapskate fare the next). As we’d only seen Chinatown in the evening the day before (when it’s fairly quiet) we decided to head up again in the daytime for the full experience (shops, local groceries/markets etc.). It really was very lively and interesting for h, I think, who’s quite a fan of all things Chinese. It’s really a very big area and though it does have a long row of tourist shops it has much more besides on the parallel streets. Proper bustling it was!

After this we headed to a plain looking restaurant in Little Italy that had been recommended to us the day before by a local (the locals were very friendly in San Francisco on the whole – possibly more than in any other city in the US). The food was really very good and then we went off to hunt down that other San Francisco tourist experience – the cable car ride! We got on the Powell/Mason line at the Bay Street starting point and rode the hills to the other end of the line by Market Street. It was GREAT fun… and a beautiful day so the views were perfect… none of the much-promised San Francisco rain or fog. We walked back to the hotel from Market St (just a few minutes walk) and saw ourselves all quite sunkissed in the mirror (or might that be red-nosed…). Photos from Day Two are here (and there's quite a few of them):

San Francisco day 2

On our last San Fran day (Friday) we took our final trip with cheapo city tours – to the Golden Gate Bridge. We had a little more time in the morning so we tried to visit one of the hidden-away local coffee shops recommended to us by our super-trendy young male receptionist (big fringe!). From what he said it was one of those new-fangled places where every individual cup of coffee is made with love, decaff is outlawed and so on. I say we ‘tried’ to visit it because when we got there there was a queue down the street! We gave up and got some fairly standard coffee in a Vietnamese café round the corner where there was no queue whatsoever. We busy tourists don’t have time to queue!

Cheapo tours only did a couple of trips a day out to the bridge so the bus, when we got it, was pretty rammed with the usual United Nations of tourism (lots of European tourists in San Francisco particularly and, as we’ve seen in many other places, lots and lots of visitors from India). The tour showed us Pacific Heights (vaguely – something about Leonardo Di Caprio’s Mum living there…) but once we got close to the bridge I was surprised how small the famous Golden Gate Bridge actually was. I’d have to say we have seen some much more impressive bridges on our travels (never mind at home) but it was surrounded with some of the atmospheric fog at least so it did look quite... foggy. We got off the bus on the other side (used the restrooms, took pictures) and then got back on the bus and went back over. It was an interesting phenomenon type experience. I suppose. Maybe we should try this with tourists in Montrose...

Back on the city side of the bridge we asked the driver to let us off near the Presidio as h had made a request to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum that was in that part of town. We needed lunch first and we found it in a very nice French ‘bistro’ (run by a lady from Haiti via New York) – it was full of locals and the atmosphere was really friendly and summery. Then we went into the Presidio area (it’s a park that used to all be military land and buildings) to find Walt’s museum. We had explained to h that it wasn’t a kids activity necessarily but she’s a wise old thing sometimes and she knows what she wants because she absolutely loved the museum. It had all the details about Walt’s early career and early movies and the successes and the failures. She learned some new things too of course (about unions and un American activities…) but really she was there (as always) for the magic and she managed to find plenty of that. We were there till it closed (not many photos - pics not allowed inside) and then found a cab back to the centre (no magic broomsticks were available – shame as the cab was driven as if we were in a scene from “Bullitt”).

We quickly visited the ‘crooked street’ – Lombard Street – and then meandered our way the fair distance back to our hotel (stopping for a very tired, last San Fran dinner in a fairly average diner-type thing – we didn’t want anything fancy… we were too worn out). It had ended up being another pretty much sunny day so we were very, very weary – sore feet, sleepy eyes, red noses… high-ho, high-ho...
On Saturday morning we packed up and left San Francisco – stopping a few blocks from the hotel to buy Marmite for h in the local ‘British shop’ (her supply from Niagara was nearly out). The shop was very bizarre (full of Elizabeth II tea towels and shortbread) and suitably enough for the San Fran experience there was a man lying on the pavement/sidewalk just outside – fast asleep, just in his clothes, flat-out in the hot sun with no shelter of any kind. On the other side of the road there was another guy cycling past wearing a crown of some kind and there was some graffiti nearby that just said ‘pray for me’. It’s a funny old town, that much for sure. Our photos from Day 3 (and the morning we left) are here:

San Francisco Day 3

We did enjoy our time in San Francisco (very much – especially the cable car, Musée Mécanique, the park, the friendliness, the beauty on every street… well, almost every street) but it is kind of a sad place too – trading very much on its glory days (whatever they were exactly) and drowning a little in places in all the tourists (and associated others) that this brings in. I’ve had friends live in San Fran and love it and I’m sure it is a city that is very, very lovable (if you can live with the threat of earthquakes!). It reminded me of New Orleans (and so many other places here) - exciting and fascinating but also living with the constant underlying threat of giant natural catastrophe. It’s a lot to live with…

Marmite, in hand (expensive and out-of-bloody-date Marmite I noticed several days later!) we drove over another bridge out of San Francisco (the Bay bridge) and headed east (temporarily). But where were we going..? And why..?

All that next time in the last Californian post. As it is we left Oregon today for our last US state this trip. Is it really 3 months since we entered the Union? It really does seem that it is.


Frances said...

One of my main memories of 'frisco is queueing for three hours to hire a car! (And Sausalito of course)

I didn't know Marmite could go out of date.

Rachel Fox said...

Luckily we still have our Canadian car! And we are still eating the Marmite... gone-by-sell-by or not. It was quite expensive!

The Bug said...

Love the Tea Garden pics and all of those fun hearts. And I LOVE how all the downward views of the streets have a bit of the bay at the end.

I read the Tales of the City series many years ago - loved those too.

But, really, I want to know which one of you was sexy? :)

Rachel Fox said...

I really liked the hearts too. As for the 'sexy' - we must have some secrets!

weaver said...

Don't forget Andy's offer of a history tour of Vancouver's Gastown when you get here (we met you in Taos).

Rachel Fox said...

We haven't forgotten! You confused me for a minute there as I know a blogger from Yorkshire called Weaver (of Grass). Not long till Vancouver now.

Enchanted Oak said...

My cousin's daughter lives in SF very ardently; something about that city speaks to some. I loved LA myself for its strange hugeness encompassing everything from W. Hollywood, Santa Monica, Century City's highend highrises, Beverly Hills, all those marvelous freeways on Saturday mornings...no accounting for taste.

Just so you know, the next massive West Coast earthquake is actually expected in the Pacific Northwest. The tectonic plate up there hasn't shifted sufficiently in the past 100 years to let off steam, I guess, and something bigger than a 7 magnitude is overdue.

Sleep well.... [maniacal laughter...] Seriously, we're praying for your safe passage.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, we were quite up close with Mount St Helens in Washington state... and that was caused by an earthquake so we read...

In Vancouver now. Here for a wee while and then the long drive back east.