Cross Country Tripping – San Francisco, CA, Part II

I spent the first half of this week in San Francisco, California with coworkers attending an annual conference.  Having just been there with my man, I thought often about the two of us walking along the same streets, seeing the same sights , etc. I had a lot of fun thinking about my time there with him and on that note, here is the rest of the recount of our time there in July.

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San Francisco, CA Part II – July 14, 2011

We meant to get up early this morning, but we overslept and missed  the breakfast served at our hostel. Fine by me! I fought Brian on this the whole way, but I love reading menus and finding places to eat, especially in new places. We found a deli with pickles, meats and various bread products in the windows and had a delicious breakfast of eggs and endless coffee.

We took the 8x bus to Fisherman’s Wharf, marveling at the misty coolness of the city and thinking of the 100 degree whether back home, taking in the streets and shops and architecture, the cable lines and the people.

Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the city’s main tourist attractions; it is home to an aquarium, several restaurants and souvenir shops, entertainers, information centers, and stands selling everything from waffles to gold jewelry. Our first stop was the Aquarium of the Bay. (I’m not at all ashamed to admit I LOVE going to aquariums and this one was within our budget, unlike Monterey Bay an hour or so south of the city. Sigh. Next time!)

We saw jellyfish, crabs, tropical fish, and big fish and sharks and rays in two tunnels in which we walked “through” two large tanks – a “near shore” tank and a “far shore” tank. It’d be really cool (slash terrifying) if you actually were in an entirely glass tunnel , with water on all sides. This aquarium featured one of those moving tunnels in which you can see the fish swimming above you. Still cool. They usually have a Pacific octopus that has been rescued or otherwise removed from the bay, but their resident had recently died.

We also saw chinchillas (I thought that was odd but not unenjoyable) and several exhibits about the San Francisco Bay and its state of health which I am sorry to say is not optimal. There is a large gyre (whirlpool-like water formation) in the Bay which, among other things, causes trash and debris to get caught and stuck there.

We left the aquarium and found a small information center (I know, such tourists… I swear we weren’t wearing fanny packs or anything). Brian wanted to walked to Pier 41 or 45 (can’t remember) and see some old ships and the Maritime Museum. On the way, we walked through the bustle of Pier 39 and stopped in a left-handed goods shop called, I think, Lefty’s (clever, right?) I still wonder if we saw as many left-handed people as other Ned Flanders fans.

We also paused and watched a Captain Jack Sparrow-lookalike do some pretty boring tricks while mostly just talking about how he wanted the crowd to give him lots of money. BUT THEN we found the most amazing street performers!

The  acrobats told the crowd they were two brothers and a sister from a larger family in the U.K., but Brian suspects that may not have been the case. Who cares? They were so entertained, talented and above all fun to watch, and what else do you want from a street performer? We got there early while they were building a crowd and so got to hear the whole back and forth warm-up routine between the two young men.  One of the men  could hop up the steps of a standing, unsupported ladder and then stand at the top while juggling bowling pins! The other young man and his sister were extremely strong and flexible and could twist themselves into all sorts of painful-looking shapes. She could also stand on his shoulders while they, both of them, stand on a large rubber ball.

At one point, they called another guy out of the crowd to do a few “tricks” and it was amazing; the guy was in such good shape he could actually do some of the acrobatic bending he was asked to do. He even looked like he was going to attempt a standing back flip but stopped just in time. We gave them money at the end… they were wonderful.

We then walked along the water and came upon a super cool (and free admission!) museum.

It was an old-time game museum in which each machine was operated by quarters. There was pinball and fuseball, and I played Ms. Pacman and got to the pretzel level for the first time using a joystick! There were also palm readers and strength testers, “movies” you could look through a viewfinder and watch once you’d inserted a quarter, and animatronic scenes, also activated by quarters. We had a lot of fun playing around in there, though Brian did beat me at fuseball.

We then went to find Brian’s ships. We did find them, but he didn’t think they were impressive enough to pay admission to see (he grew up working on the old ships in Baltimore Harbor), which was lucky because by that point I was getting hungry to the point of being crabby. We skipped Ghiradelli Square and had a simple lunch in an Italian restaurant with views of the milling streets through the open windows. After lunch we headed to a chocolate shop and bought a large slab for James (which of course melted by the time we got back to the East Coast – good thinking there by us) and some gelato.

Finally it was time to head to Pier 35 and pick up our tickets for the night tour of Alcatraz Island. The boat ride was fun and we learned a bit about the island prison in line waiting to board and on the ferry ride. It was windy and cold (insert Twain quote here) but the tour was very enjoyable. Our guide for the first part of the tour (the walk from the docks to the prison) was knowledgeable and informative.

Did you know that Alcatraz was originally a military prison? It housed prisoners that had gone AWOL and the atmosphere was apparently rather relaxed, even friendly. In October 1993 the island was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons and converted into a high-security federal prison.

We then took an audio tour of the prison itself. The first thing that struck me, as “The Rock” is one of my favorite action movies, was the cells themselves in which the actors playing the hostages in the film were held. So essentially I was in this scary prison and felt like I was on a movie set. Ah, Hollywood.

Anyway, one of the coolest aspects of the tour is that it is narrated by actual former prison guards and prisoners. We learned about library privileges, dining options, rules, items allowed in prison cells, and, most interestingly, escape attempts. There were two attempts that have become the most famed, one in 1946 and one in 1962.

In 1946 five men took five guards hostage and, when the guards refused to relinquish the keys to the outside, opened fire. I believe five prisoners and three (or more) guards died in that attempt and the shoot-out that followed. In 1962, three men crafted paper versions of their heads and left them in their cells. Then, using primarily metal spoons fasted into drills, escaped into the utility ducts. These men were never found and are presumed dead.

There were also some narratives by children of the guards who had lived with their families on the island (when it was a military prison, the island had a school and various recreational activities). I would definitely recommend taking the tour if you ever visit the city.

We caught a ferry back to the city and found a bus to take us back to our hostel. After a slice of pizza and a few episodes of “That 70s Show” we went to bed planning to wake up early and make it over the Oakland Bay Bridge before morning rush hour.

Off to Vegas! Thank you, San Francisco, for a wonderful adventure!

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Cross Country Tripping – San Francisco, California, Part I

San Francisco, CA – July 12-13, 2011

San Francisco was, in a sense, the destination point of our trip. It wasn’t midway through the adventure or the last place we stopped, but it was the furthest West we went and we spent more time there than in any other city in which we were strangers. Despite the fact that we were not prepared for the cool temperatures and that we did not plan excursions in advance, we loved our time there.

We left the Redwood National Forest early on the morning of July 12th. After a long drive, with two wonderful stops (one to put our feet in the Pacific Ocean, and one at a winery), we arrived at our hostel in San Francisco and parked the car in a garage. It was tough saying goodbye to so much of our crap for a few days, but also incredibly freeing. The hostel was nice; we stayed at Hostelling International San Francisco – Downtown.

After getting settled in, we did not have much energy, so we went on a short walk exploring the area around our hotel and had dinner at Chipotle (which made Brian’s trip).

The next morning, we woke up early to have bagels and coffee in the hostel for breakfast. Then, finally, we ventured out into San Francisco. We walked to Market Street to catch a bus to Golden Gate State Park, a place I remembered going with my family the summer I turned eleven.  The first building we came upon was the Conservatory, at which there is a special exhibit this summer called “Wicked Plants” which focused on poisonous, deadly and otherwise “evil” members of the plant kingdom.

We learned lots of interesting things. Among them: the cashew and the mango belong to the same family, and also in that family are poison ivy and other poisonous plants. In fact, all cashew nuts are steamed out of their shells in order to avoid human contact with the shells and skins before consumption. We also learned that the water hyacinth, native to Africa but abundant now on several continents, depletes clean water supplies, chokes other plant life and is so thick that it can provide cover for predators which then attack swimmers, etc.

The other exhibits in the Conservatory were lovely, but not very different from the ones we saw in Chicago or even in D.C. Next, we walked to the Japanese Tea Garden, which I remember visiting with my family, and which was a lot larger then. It was beautiful, though, and the koi in the water were quite as large as my memory served. Brian really enjoyed the structures, such as a large red pagoda and a small bridge.

We purchased a few souvenirs there too: a crane-shaped incense holder and green tea-scented incense for my friend Elisabeth, and some funny sort-toe socks for Brian’s sisters Cristin and Renee. We then left the tea garden and bought vegetable samosas from a truck in the park for lunch. They were among the best samosas I’ve ever had; when we finished, we bought more. I love food trucks.

We decided not to visit the Academy of Sciences, mostly for budget reasons, and hopped back on a bus to “our” area of town intending to walk around Chinatown. On the way, though, we passed a huge open-air market – one of my favorite things in the whole world. So we hopped off the bus. We saw a street performer opera singer who sang a few songs from “Les Miserables” and was just wonderful. We bought some dried fruit and some almonds for my Dad from Cipponeri Family Farms. We then walked along Market Street, marveling at the variety of people we saw. We bought more souvenirs for the wonderful friends babysitting our cats back home.

After a brief respite in the hostel and much unloading of packages, we went back to an enticing bar we’d passed earlier for happy hour. The bar was also playing the World Cup game we’d missed at 9:00 a.m. that morning; the U.S. beat France 3-1. I had champagne and bruschetta, and Brian had an Anchor Steam Brewery draft and oysters on the half shell. We met a young man there from Lexington, Kentucky traveling on business.

After our snack we walked to Chinatown—uphill, which means something direr in this city than in others—and had a lot of fun there. Brian got a real kick out of all the merchandise and wanted to go into every store. We wandered the street with the souvenirs for a while and then looked for what has also been, for me, the most memorable part of Chinatown: the food markets. We saw shark’s fins and ducks and turtles and frogs and fish in all stages of life and death.

On the way back to the hostel we stopped at a Swiss chocolatier and picked up two truffles for later. We had dinner at a Japanese restaurant near our hotel. This dinner was my favorite of the whole trip. We sat at the sushi bar and watched the chefs create the rolls and enjoyed miso soup, chicken yakitori, steamed tofu with shitake mushrooms and several rolls.

We went back to the hostel to rest in preparation for another exciting day, including a trip to Fisherman’s Wharf and a night tour of Alcatraz Island.

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Stay tuned for another post detailing the rest of our time in California. Thanks for reading!