‘Well that mean old, dirty ‘Frisco’ sang Eric Clapton (and Muddy Waters and Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup before him). I must admit, I felt the same way after my first hour in the city; but in all fairness that was largely due to taking the wrong exit off the freeway immediately after leaving the airport, and circumnavigating the Bay Area desperately trying to find our hotel. What had looked like such a simple drive from SFO to the Holiday Inn on Fisherman’s Wharf on a map 24 hours earlier at home, proved somewhat more challenging in the continental USA for the first time in a strange car, on the wrong side of the road, with a bad case of jet-lag. And this was in 2000, before sat nav became de rigeur.
We had already briefly entered then left the city again, heading in completely the wrong direction – east across the Bay Bridge towards Oakland– only to have to turn around and come back. Sitting in a queue at the west-bound toll booth we scratched around for small bills (we had yet to make change) and tried not to look like what we undoubtedly were – stupid tourists. The real low point though was finding ourselves in a large, empty car park in an industrial area near the waterfront, consulting the map for the umpteenth time, and realising that we were the only vehicle, the only living souls indeed to be seen; save for a black & white police cruiser parked up on the far side of the lot. I tried to push memories of Internal Affairs and Bad Lieutenant from my mind, as we quickly got our bearings (again!) and finally found the hotel.
I didn’t want to leave the room again that night; even to walk five minutes around the corner to a Denny’s to eat. Re-fuelled, we did eventually stroll down as far as Pier 39 before hitting the sack. It had rained since we touched down at the airport. Across the water, shrouded in mist, the lighthouse on top of Alcatraz Island looked about as lonely and isolated as I felt right about then. This wasn’t exactly the California I had envisaged.
Needless to say it’s miraculous what a good night’s sleep and a change in the weather can do for your mood and your outlook. Day two of our Y2K trip saw the faltering start to our tour fade into memory, and the California and specifically the San Francisco we had imagined came out to greet us.
Strolling up from Fisherman’s Wharf towards the famously crooked Lombard Street, bathed in spring sunshine, the rolling hills and eclectic architecture distinct from a thousand Hollywood movies and TV shows surrounds you. A tram stopping at the bottom of Lombard Street for Japanese tourists to leap out and take pictures leaves you in no doubt as to where you had eaten breakfast.
Lombard Street with its winding, crooked roadway, stepped pavements, bijou apartments and manicured window boxes, along with the slightly less accessible (on foot anyway) Alamo Square with its row of ‘Painted Ladies’ (Victorian townhouses) are two of the essential sights for a first time visitor wanting to get a flavour of San Francisco city living.
Tram rides or trolley-car tours are a great way to see the various neighbourhoods, from the Downtown area, through Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Pacific Heights and all the way out through Golden Gate Park and the Presidio to the famous red bridge and the Pacific ocean.
Equally essential, but completely different from the city itself, is a trip out into the bay to the infamous ‘Rock’, Alcatraz. Departing from Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf, Blue and Gold ferries operate a taxi service to the island for Alcatraz tours; and the wharf is a great place to get clam chowder in a sour-dough ball for lunch while you wait for your sailing. If clams don’t float your boat, then it’s not too far to stroll to the shops, coffee houses and galleries of The Cannery nearby.
A United States Federal Penitentiary until 1963, Alcatraz played host to some of America’s most notorious 20th century criminals, including Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, and Robert Franklin Stroud, the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, immortalised by Burt Lancaster in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 movie of the same name.
Approaching the island from the water, the sense of isolation grows as the rugged cliffs, derelict towers and foreboding concrete cell blocks loom larger. There are signs too of the less well-known Native Indian occupation (the united ‘Indians of All Tribes’) in 1969, protesting against the government’s treatment of the indigenous population. A faded hand-painted sign above the official penitentiary one at the landing proclaims in large red letters ‘Indians Welcome’.
Landing from the ferry a young girl from a departing college group hands me her guide book without a word (which would only have cost me a small donation to the National Park service). These are the memories of travelling that linger most: the kindness of strangers. If you’ve seen the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz, sitting on the steps in the exercise yard, looking out over the top of the high wall to the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance is quite an experience. Not as sobering as that of hearing the wind howl through the broken cell block windows across the deserted landings with their rusting bars and cages though; a far cry from the cosy coffee shops and neat apartments a mile and a half across the bay. But only if you stand inside one of the tiny, unlit, windowless solitary confinement cells, and dare to even partially close the door do you get a real sense of what this place was really all about.
The Eastwood/Siegel film tells the true story of the 1962 escape attempt by Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin: rumoured to be the only successful escape attempt from the prison in its history, though official records concluded that the men had drowned trying to cross the bay. To this day nobody has fully proved nor disproved that the men escaped and survived; but having seen the prison, at least some part of me hopes that they did.
San Francisco’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ for me though, is undoubtedly The Golden Gate Bridge. If there’s a more iconic bridge in the world than this, I’m not aware of it. Great views can be had of the bridge from the city/south side along Marine Drive or at Fort Point (right under the southern toll gates), and from the north side, views above and below the bridge can be had from the Marin County headlands at Hendrik and Cavallo Points (much better than those from the overcrowded Vista Point overlook, or south side visitors centres). Our own trip out to Hendrik Point in 2000 unfortunately saw the bridge enveloped in dull, grey cloud. A subsequent trip in 2009 yielded the pictures you see here.
The distinctive red spans of Golden Gate Bridge are to me one of the iconic images not just of the city, but of the state. Everything about it is staggering: the concrete piers, the 227 metre towers, not to mention the two 2,332 metre suspension cables, each more than a metre thick, and made up of around 130,000 km of steel wire.
The 1937 structure is without a doubt a testament not only to chief designer Joseph Strauss and his team; but moreover to the men who built it, including eleven who lost their lives in falls from the unfinished structure. Looking out westward from the top of Fort Point underneath the bridge, there is nothing but biting wind and blue Pacific Ocean as far as Japan.
Just north off the Golden Gate Bridge, facing San Francisco across the bay, lies Sausalito: a quiet, exclusive community of art galleries, hillside houses, yachts and houseboats, which is well worth a visit.
Nearby too on the Marin county side of the bay, are Muir Woods, sight of the last stand of old growth Coastal Giant Redwoods in the area. Quiet and secluded, this is a great way to escape the bustle of the city; and standing amongst these 500-1200 year old giants which rise as high as 258 feet (79m), remind yourself that nature can always rival if not surpass anything we might engineer.
Jet-lag and wrong turns aside, San Francisco is without doubt the northern jewel of California, and a great introduction to the Pacific north-west coast of America. Laid back, eclectic, with both man-made and natural wonders. So what are you waiting for?
See you on the road.