Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Has anyone seen my heart? I seem to have left it somewhere...

Exhausted! That is how we felt upon arrival in San Francisco. New York had left us drained and we lacked the enthusiasm needed to tackle the initial arrival. Keep in mind that we had just said goodbye to some close friends and spent the last few hours dealing with JFK International Airport and a flight that sent us backwards in time. Mix this with the joyous realisation that your hotel is a 20 minute walk from the nearest BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and you are in one of the hilliest city centres in the world... Needless to say, the sight of our hotel as we rounded the last corner was sweet indeed. Our hotel was old school fancy with a big bathroom and two double beds (one for suitcases and one for sleeping) so once we were showered, rehydrated and rested we began to get excited!

Alcatraz was quite literally our first port of call as I had booked our tickets for the very same day we arrived. We had decided on the night time tour for the extra creepiness and this meant that there was plenty of time for a tasty dinner by the pier before we set sail. The tour included a 20 minute introduction to the island by one of the local guides and a little booklet with some handy information (and a valuable map as well). From there you can do as you please! There is an Audioguide tour, several unique presentations at various locations around the island, unique areas of the prison (not available to the day trippers) are opened especially for the night tour and there are
information boards all over the place if you just want to wander aimlessly. We took in the Audioguide tour and caught a fascinating presentation about the daily life in the prison as well as the events that took place during the great escape and the battle of Alcatraz. After this we wandered around while the rest of the tour was watching a short documentary. This wandering afforded us the opportunity to get a real sense of the despair that the prisoners must have felt by being so close to the city but so very far away. San Francisco itself is really very visible from the island and we learnt that inmates could hear the sounds of revelers and party goers on quiet nights and especially on festive New Years Eve.

Alcatraz has the uncanny ability to look scary, lonely, beautiful, exciting and depressing all at the same time.

Handy Shanwah Hint: Ensure you book tickets to Alcatraz in advance. The official (and best) tour fills very quickly and will quite often be sold out weeks in advance during the high seasons. If you go with "Alcatraz Cruises" You get several worthy options of tours that offer different experiences. I highly suggest doing one of the more inclusive (and yes, more expensive) tours because there really is so much to see and this place really is super unique! Second to this I recommend that you get to the pier a bit early if you want a seat on the ferry as it is first in best dressed and the line fills up quickly. My final piece of Alcatraz advice is to visit the gift shop on the island, there are some fantastically unique gifts and souvenirs here.

Now maybe it's because I grew up in the beautiful city of Melbourne, which boasts the largest tram network in the world, but I was incredibly taken by the streetcars (trams) of San Francisco! The city has a very hodge podge collection of public transport options (overground train, underground train, cable cars, streetcars, buses, trolley buses and ferries) and as such there isn't a very extensive streetcar network. Despite not being very extensive, the streetcar network is certainly beautiful! The fleet consists of over 45 vehicles taken from 30 cities around the world (including two bad boys from Australia) and painted in their original livery! This means that almost every streetcar you see is different to the last and it is like a whole new experience every time you ride!... Okay so I realise that I have a small amount of fanaticism when it comes to trams and that it may not be as exciting for everyone else as it is for me... but it is definitely a great way to see the city because these streetcars hit most of the best tourist destinations!

My little tribute to the San Fransisco Streetcar! These little gems carried me on some fantastic journeys around the city and look fantastic at the same time!

tasty tip: So I am going to unapologetically spend the next paragraph recommending another American chain restaurant called "The Cheesecake Factory". I realise that most people think that chain restaurants are a mortal sin and I have had my share of arrogant ranting travellers telling me... "you should be sampling the unique local cuisine at every possible opportunity!". But considering the amount of time you spend sightseeing and wandering the city, I think it is just as valuable (if not more so) to recommend places that will be easily available wherever you are... This way you can avoid eating McDonald's every time you need a quick meal. Now that I have justified my actions, lets talk about the Cheesecake Factory! Ross and I didn't discover this US culinary gem until San Francisco offered us one perched atop Macy's with fabulous views over Union Square. For me the decision was made purely for the photographic value and food was a happy byproduct. Upon arrival we were seated next to the railing under some sun umbrellas with heat lamps (a necessary, if odd, combination in sunny/foggy San Francisco) and, as promised, the views had me snapping away. The surprise came when we were handed our lunch menus... And when I say 'menu', I actually mean 20 page tome... Full to the brim with a massive array of starters, drinks, salads, soups, steaks, and desserts In as many combinations as you could ever want. The prices are reasonable (if anything they are a touch higher than general American prices) but the meal sizes are grand! Ross and I both ordered salads that I swear involved an entire lettuce and chicken each. The staff are attentive and the cheesecake is amazing (if you are a sweet tooth then dessert will be the hardest decision you will make all week). The drinks are mixed by proper bar staff and come in more varieties than you need. I suppose the point I am trying to push here is variety... The Cheesecake Factory is by far the most well stocked good value food chain that I have come across that doesn't compromise on taste (a risk you take when dining at a restaurant that is a jack of all trades and master of none).

On one of our hop on hop off tours, we learnt about some Japanese Gardens that where located in the golden gate park. Both the park and the gardens piqued Ross' interest so we paid a visit to the park hoping that we could enjoy the greenery and also fulfill a year long desire to ride a Segway. Unfortunately the Segway hire store was impossible to find and we had since learnt that you couldn't take the Segway into the Japanese gardens... Who knew?... Regardless we had no choice but to walk around the park like chumps! This aside, the park is quite nice! It lacks the structure and maintenance of Central Park but the flip side to this is that it comes off more natural. The Japanese Gardens themselves are beautiful and I can see that it would be easy to spend hours just relaxing, sipping tea and enjoying the structured zen that that is prolific in this type of environment. Stunning Japanese structures sit comfortably amongst meticulously cared for shrubbery and trickling streams with stepping stones that transport you from element to element. Koi inhabit the streams while squirrels scuttle around the shrubs and trees looking adorable. Despite the relatively large size of the gardens, the area was very crowded and I feel we would have had a much more enjoyable experience if we had visited at a quieter time. My advice here would be to drop in off peak and spend some time really relaxing... If this isn't possible then drop in anyway, it is pretty enough to warrant your time.

The Japanese Tea Gardens in all their beauty! The buildings and statues really become part of the landscape rather than fighting it for attention.

When one talks about San Fransisco it is hard not to mention the fantastic architecture that the city is famous for! The city is absolutely swimming in beautiful Victorian and Edwardian townhouses that line the streets like rows of colourful dresses in a shop window. These "painted ladies", as they are known locally, not only make for extremely pleasant viewing when you are attempting to scale one of the city's many... many hills, but they also offer a beautiful window into San Francisco's past.

A few examples of the "painted ladies" that fill the city with beautiful colour! These beauties are a photographers dream!

Handy Shanwah hint: Keep an eye on the San Franciscan weather and bring along those trusty blue jeans. San Francisco is famous for many things, however the most noticeable to the summer traveller will be the bitterly cold fog that engulfs the city at seemingly sporadic times of the day. Unlike its other west coast counterparts further south where summer means lots of sun, San Francisco has the unique position of being surrounded on three sides by water meaning that its temperature is heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean. When the warmer Pacific Ocean winds hit the cold California Current BOOM... we have fog... Science aside, this essentially this means that during summer months San Fransisco is actually at its foggiest. So just keep in mind that whilst you may have spent an entire week in LA clad in nought but shorts and a tee, you will definitely need jeans and a long sleeve handy when you drop into San Fran.

On our last day in foggy San Francisco we treated ourselves to a much needed sleep in and then proceeded to spend the afternoon casually strolling around Fisherman's Wharf taking in the sights, sounds, people and places of this beautiful city. Nestled amongst the wharfs and fish mongers is the amazing Musee Mecanique. This place is a fantastic way to waste some money! The museum is essentially a fully operational gaming arcade full of old and new game machines left over from the days of carnivals and video arcades. All the machines are operational and most only need a quarter to keep you entertained. Here you can get your fortune read by Zoltar, arm wrestle with a Mexican wrestler (the same one used by Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews in the movie "The Princess Diaries"), watch an old school flip scene, test your sex appeal and love compatibility or play some classic pinball. For me the most exciting part was at the gift shop (essentially a vending machine) which contained a flip book that features a copy of all the photo strips that have been left behind by visitors during the last 20 or so years. A very unique souvenir from a very unique museum in a very unique city!

A girl watching a tawdry antique flip show, Ross and I testing our love personalities and Ross getting his palm read (this doubled as a lovely hand massage) all at Musee Mecanique!

The words of that cheesy Tony Bennett song now best describe my feelings for this beautiful city...

...The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome is of another day
I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan
I'm going home to my city by the Bay

I left my heart in San Francisco
High on a hill, it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, I don't care

My love waits there in San Francisco
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco
Your golden sun will shine for me...