Throwback Thursday: San Francisco, May/June 2015

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“If you’re alive, you can’t be bored in San Francisco. If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life.” 

William Saroyan 

Dates: 30th May – 1st June

Flights: Aer Lingus

Accommodation: Grant Hotel, 753 Bush Street, Union Square

“If you’re alive, you can’t be bored in San Francisco. If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life.” There’s no truer way to describe San Francisco – it certainly does make you feel alive and there’s no way you could be bored in this fabulous city. Our two and a half days or so here was probably the highlight of my visit to the US last summer. For such a short visit, Ronan and I certainly backed a lot in.

Our Aer Lingus flight left Dublin Airport at a nice time 12.30pm, meaning we had to be in the airport for about 9.30am. This was a nice timed flight for people who aren’t big fans of early morning starts. Although I expected this 11 hour direct flight to feel like it took a life time, it went by surprisingly quickly. Aer Lingus provide a nice choice of movies and TV series’ on the flight, and I fall asleep on long journeys far too easily, so before I knew it, we landed at the nice local time of 3pm. This gave us plenty of time to get to our hotel and enjoy a stroll around Fisherman’s Warf and get some food, without it being too late.

We booked a shared, return transfer through Viator with Super Shuttle from the airport to our hotel. Pickups run from outside the airport every 15-20 minutes and you share the mini bus with us to 10 other people. However, I wouldn’t recommend booking with this company. On our drive to our hotel when we arrived to San Francisco, the luggage was very poorly packed in the boot, with bags containing things such as laptops able to slide around and fall over. There was also a risk of the stacked luggage falling onto people in the seating area. However, our worst experience was trying to confirm our return shared transfer for our departure from San Francisco. After calling the company’s confirmation hotline and being put on hold for what felt like an eternity, we discovered that apparently they weren’t running any shared transfers at such an early time in the morning, as we were the only 2 people who required one, and that we would have to pay an extortionate extra fee pf $70 each for the “private” transfer – after already paying for a shared transfer on the Viator website. The possibility of this happening was never mentioned at any point when we booked, and so it left a very bad taste in our mouths after such a great trip. We decided to cancel the transfer, losing out on $15 each which we had already paid, and organised a taxi which was much cheaper than the extra fee we would have had to pay for the “private transfer”, working out at about $70 between us. For anyone looking into transfers, I would avoid this company at all costs. Options which you could look at to avoid shuttle buses include a taxi or the BART, which now also serves Oakland airport, as well as San Francisco International Airport.

Thankfully, our hotel gave us less to complain about – except maybe the slightly thin walls, where the nicest thing we heard from the neighbours at night time was snoring. Otherwise, it was a very pleasant stay. We arrived to a very helpful member of staff in the Grant Hotel, who, on our arrival, gave us a map and marked all the sights and tram stops for us, which made our lives a lot easier. The hotel was ideally located, and was only a 6 minute walk to Union Square, about a 25 minute walk to the famous Lombard Street and 20 minutes by tram to Fisherman’s Ward. The rooms were basic, but clean and a breakfast of tea/coffee and pastries was also included.

When it came to the sightseeing, we packed an awful lot into the 2 full days that we had. My absolute highlight was our visit to Muir Woods. People might recognise these woods as those from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As a Sci-Fi fan, I’m always happy to see where some of my favourite movies are filmed, so when we got here, I was like a kid at Christmas, and my tiredness from getting there was forgotten about.

We started off the day by renting some bikes from Blazing Saddles. They offer great rates for hiring a bike for the days of about $32 for a 24 hour hire – and they gave us a discount for getting in touch with them to pre book the bikes before we left Dublin. Once we collected out bikes from Fisherman’s Warf, we cycled along the car-free National Park Bike Path on a mostly flat bike ride through Aquatic Park, Fort Mason, the Marina, and Presidio National Park to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where historic Fort Point is located. Be warned though, there are a small amount of pretty steep hills, so make sure your up to it, and don’t end up nearly fainting and feeling like vomiting, like I did. Some of the hills might be worth pushing your bike up. After recovering from the cycle up some of the hills with a bottle of water in Fort Point, we cycled across the Golden Gate on the sidewalk (which is completely separated from the traffic) where we got stunning views of the city and bay. Once you get to the far side of the bridge, it’s just a 10 minute downhill ride into the charming bay side town of Sausalito. Once we got there, we locked up our bikes to grab a bite to eat in a lovely Mexican restaurant facing the bay and relaxed for a while, before getting the shuttle bus to Muir Woods. Very conveniently, round trip fares for the bus are collected at the Muir Woods Visitor Centre along with your entrance fee into the park and so you do not need to pay a fare when boarding on your trip to Muir Woods. You could easily spend a full day doing the walks around the woods. Unfortunately, we arrived in the afternoon and so didn’t have a huge amount of time to explore, but we still managed to get some great photos. As the last bus back to Sausalito is often full, we aimed to get the second last bus back to collect our bikes and got the ferry back to Fisherman’s Warf with our bikes. Blazing Saddles, the bike rental company, provide you with a ferry ticket to get you from Sausalito back to San Francisco, which you pay for along with your bike when you return. If you return the ticket when you drop back your bike, you don’t get charged for it.

San Francisco is famous for boasting some of the steepest streets in the US. Whether you’re walking or driving, the varying gradient of the road is sure to catch your attention and give your heart rate a healthy boost and get your legs pumping. Walking around San Francisco in flip flops certainly isn’t a good idea and it’s easy to see why the locals look so fit. Of course, Lombard Street is one of the most unique of the San Francisco roads and had to be visited.

As most people would know, Lombard Street is one of America’s most crooked streets. However, it’s not the most crooked street in the US, or even in San Francisco. That honour belongs to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd streets in the Portrero Hill neighbourhood. Though technically slightly curvier than Lombard, and an interesting sight in its own right, this street doesn’t have the fame or the visual beauty that Lombard Street has, which is why people flock to Lombard Street to take photos during their visit. The steep, hilly street was created with sharp curves to zigzag down the one-way hill past beautiful Victorian mansions.   If not for the byzantine curves, easing out this treacherous slope, people could be killed rolling down. Some of the city’s most expensive houses are on Lombard Street, and it’s easy to see why once you visit. In the spring and through the entire summer, Lombard Street is alive with colour, as the many beautiful flowers are in bloom. We were lucky that the famous San Francisco cable car stopped no further than 2 minutes away from our hotel and drops you at the top of Lombard Street. However, we decided to walk and so the first glimpse we got of the twists and turns of the world famous street was from the bottom.

We still got the chance to use the cable cars while visiting Fisherman’s Ward, as the trip wouldn’t have been complete without using them at least once. When using the cable cars, you get the chance to meet some of the best public transport workers in the world. We honestly had one of the funniest and most welcoming ticket inspector/seller on the cable cars during our stay, who was such a great ambassador for the people of San Francisco. During our journey with this absolute gent, we laughed so much thanks to his great sense of humour and natural way with words and people. We thoroughly enjoyed the short trip and nearly missed our stop, just to have one more giggle at what he might have said next.

Of course, no trip to San Francisco would be complete without a visit to Alcatraz, the former military fort and notorious maximum-security federal prison that housed the likes of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, and the site of the Indian “Red River Movement” and Occupation from 1969-1971, offers visitors to get and up and close glimpse of life on Alcatraz Island. In addition to the historical importance of Alcatraz, visitors can view the gardens, bay views, and birds nesting.

Alcatraz Island is a 25-acre island located 1 ¼ mile from San Francisco. The island was designated in 1933 by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to be a maximum security prison.  The infamous prison housed notorious and dangerous criminals such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Franklin Stroud, better known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” However, Alcatraz housed mostly unknown criminals who would not conform to rules and were considered violent and dangerous. Alcatraz was the prison that you got sent if you refused to follow rules. Alcatraz would make you follow those rules.

Prisoners had four rights at Alcatraz, food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Everything else prisoners had to earn. The prisoners could earn privileges by working at the prison. Privileges included visits from family, and/or access to library, music, and art. Once a prisoner exhibited behaviour that was acceptable, he would be transferred out of Alcatraz.

Tickets are available to visit Alcatraz online, and can be purchased up to 90 days in advance. Booking your tickets as far in advance as possible is advanced, as some dates can fully sell out, and this is a trip you don’t want to miss. Included in your ticket price is a round trip ferry to Alcatraz island, access into the prison, an orientation video, a 45 minute audio tour of the Cell House (which is available in several languages) and ranger and docent tours. While you are queuing to get onto the ferry, your photograph is taken in front of a green screen, and the island and ocean is then put in behind you with photo shop. You have the option of purchasing these once you return to the pier after the tour. The photos make for a great souvenir, as it would be nearly impossible to get such a clear photo of you with the island in the background otherwise.

After a very interesting tour of Alcatraz, we had time to explore Fisherman’s Warf a little bit more. As animal lovers, we weren’t going to miss visiting the sea lionss on Pier 39. A few California sea lions began “hauling out” on PIER 39’s K-Dock shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in October 1989. By January 1990, the boisterous barking sea lions started to arrive in droves and completely took over K-Dock, much to the exasperation of PIER 39’s Marina tenants. The Marina Staff turned to The Marine Mammal Centre, an organization devoted to the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, for advice about their new slippery tenants. After much debate and research, the experts from The Marine Mammal Centre recommended that the sea lions stay in their newfound home. The noise from hundreds of sea lions was absolutely incredible and was such an amazing sight. Other attractions around Pier 39 include street performers, Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze, and Musical Stairs.

Further along the piers at Fisherman’s Warf, you have the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45. This interesting museum of sorts is located in a warehouse and takes you on a journey from turn of the century hand cranked music boxes to modern video arcade games and is a trip down memory lane for people who remember some of these older arcade games. Musée Mécanique is open all year round and the admission is free. Amazingly, all of the coin-operated games are available to play. Prices range from 1¢ (it’s true!) to $1. Most games cost 25¢ to 50¢. There’s no need to bring your own quarters, as they have change machines throughout the building. Most amazingly for me, they had a “Gypsy Queen Fortune Teller” machine, similar to the one in the movie “Big” which I was delighted to have the opportunity of using.

Beside the Musée Mécanique, you have the USS PAMPANITO, a World War 2 submarine, and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two remaining fully functional Liberty ships of the 2,710 built and launched during World War II. Both of these WWII sea crafts have audio tours, and there’s no need to pre-purchase tickets. We visited these sites in the late afternoon, with no queuing and we had both the ship and the submarine virtually to ourselves. The tour of both of these living pieces of history is incredibly interesting, and is a great memorial to the people who served on them during the Second World War. Ronan, who has a very big interest in both sea vessels and history, really found this very humbling and educational. Even if you don’t have as big an interest as a sea lover like Ronan does, it still makes for a very interesting and educational hour or two.

 

San Francisco is one of the most amazing cities I have visited. The people were unbelievably friendly and laid back and there was so much to see and do that our 2 and a half days was  no where near enough time to properly explore this fun city. I can’t wait to go back someday for a longer stay, and visit some of the sites we missed out on, like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and to explore the actual city itself. I’d really recommend this as a great family holiday, as there’s something for everyone – and little kids will be well looked after on the long flight by the amazing Aer Lingus cabin crew.

 

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Please click on the links throughout the blog to find out more information about the accommodation and activities.

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