Saturday, 25 January 2014

San Francisco Stories

Sorry to bombard you with blogs, but I'm trying to get myself caught up whilst on the very long flight to Hawaii! Driving to San Francisco was a bit of a drag- we had planned on taking the pacific coastal route which is meant to be one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Unfortunately we only had one day to complete the 400 mile journey and with hairpin bends and difficult driving conditions this route takes a lot longer than taking the motorway. Add to that the limited hours of daylight in January and it didn't seem like the most practical idea! The I-5 which we did take however was pretty much the most boring drive in the world with a seemingly endless straight road through miles and miles of identical, flat scenery! We were glad when we finally reached the bay bridge which leads into the city!!

I'd been completely excited for San Francisco and after hearing numerous people say it was one of their favourite cities in the world I was expecting a lot. Unfortunately, while it did like it, it didn't live up to the hype in my mind. Conversely, I loved LA much more than I had expected to based on some of the negative reviews I had heard. Basically it goes to show that travel is completely subjective and thre are always people who will like or dislike things when you feel completely the opposite! 

I'm not entirely sure why I didn't enjoy San Francisco as much as Vegas or LA. I generally just get impressions of places and these stick. I think there were three main reasons. Firstly, I think part of it was definitely to do with where we were staying. The house was lovely but it was a Victorian house at the very top of the city- very San Franciscan but also slightly too far away from the action meaning we were somewhat isolated and getting everywhere became a challenge not helped by the incredibly complex public transport system and the astronomical price of parking! On top of that, San Francisco seems to have a very high population of homeless people, a lot of them disabled, and I feel that American welfare is definitely lacking! Driving through the 'tenderloin' district was actually pretty shocking! Finally and I think the main factor in my preferring other American cities is that San Francisco has a reputation as a quirky, unusual, historic town (not like anywhere else in America) and that the people of the city very much strive to live up to this reputation. I couldn't help but feel that locals looked down on other parts of America and that they were so determined to uphold their image, parts of the 'kookiness' which San Franciscans kept telling me about was actually very contrived. If you compare this to most European cities which have layers and layers of history, it didn't feel genuine. Has anyone reading been to San Francisco? How did you find this?

Anyway, moving on, we still had an enjoyable few days and there are some great sights in the city. Some of my highlights are as follows:

1) Visiting Fisherman's Wharf, the second most popular attraction in California. We took a boat out over the bay and got great views of the San Francisco Skyline, went under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and saw Alcatraz, the famous prison, from a distance (more on this later)

At Fisherman's wharf, they also sold so much fresh seafood including the best clam chowder I have ever had and absolutely amazing crab cakes!!

2) Exploring Chinatown

San Francisco has the largest Chinese population of anywhere outside of Asia and the Chinatown in the city is so authentic I almost felt like I was back in Beijing. It was great to spend an hour looking around the multiple bazaars selling identical mass-produced Chinese souvenirs to those we found in Asia. Annoyingly sometimes they were actually cheaper!!

3) Learning some of the history of San Francisco

Perhaps I'm contradicting myself, but some of the history of San Francisco is really interesting, for example driving around and being able to clearly see where the effects of the huge earthquake of 1906 hit because of the different styles of architecture. Also did you know that in the mid-1800s a man arrived in SF, declared himself to be emporer of the USA and printed his own money which was accepted everywhere in the city? Don't believe me? Google Emperor Norton!

4) heading across to Alcatraz Island

This was definitely my favourite thing that we did in SF. Alcatraz has a pretty interesting history having been used as a military base, a prison (most famously) and a centre for Native American protests in the 1960s when they tried to claim the land for themselves. All this on what is essentially a big rock.

Some of its residents when it was a prison included Al 'Scarface' Capone and Robert Stroud or 'The Birdman of Alcatraz'. We took an audio tour around the cell block which was really well put together and narrated by former guards and prisoners. It really helped you envision the bleak lives that people had in the prison. It also documented all the escape attempts which had taken place which include the Battle of Alcatraz where 5 inmates and 2 prison guards died and the only successful attempt where three brothers dug out of their cells using spoons! While there, we even got to meet a former inmate who was there publicising his book which recounts his experiences. 

4) Climbing to the top of the city at Golden Gate Heights

One one few perks of staying right at the top of the city was the view which it offered over the 42 hills of San Francisco (some of them the steepest I think I've seen!) and right outside our house was a set of 300 steps which took you even further above the city and offered a 360 degree view over the whole peninsula. This was amazing and the view was definitely worth the climb!

If you look towards the back of the photo above, you can just make out the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

5) Heading North for a day trip to Wine Country

San Francisco is only about an hours drive away from Sonoma county which Napa Valley is part of. This is the largest wine producing area in California so we headed up to visit one of the many wineries there. On the way, we stopped at Old Faithful Geyser. A Geyser is a volcanic spring that erupts with steam and water due to seismic activity underneath it and this is one of only three 'old faithful' geysers in the world as it erupts so regularly. We got drenched but it was fun anyway!

We then headed to Sterling Vineyard and took a cable car ride over the ranch where the grapes are grown. We then got to try loads of different wines (any excuse for daytime drinking is fine by me) and learn about the wine making process- it's all gotten a bit more advanced than 'squid he some grapes with your feet' as I thought. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying San Francisco isn't a great city,but it's not one of my favourites and I don't really want to go back anytime soon. I feel I saw the highlights and some of them were great but part of what I enjoy about travelling is being able to compare and contrast different places and learn what you like best in a country, city or area! 

I'm currently on the flight across to Oahu, Hawaii and we have some really exciting things planned during the week we spend here! I'll update soon hopefully while lazing on a beach with a cocktail in hand...

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