San Francisco -- golden city

Elite City on the West Coast

San Francisco has many tourists’ vote as the lowest stress, lightest threat destination in the US, the place people aspire to visit, or long to return to for a replica of that “Summer of Love” T shirt they bought in 1967. Photo - Andrew Downie.

San Francisco

Arriving from the airport we saw a sudden upsurge of tightly grouped, golden skyscrapers. For an awful moment we thought San Francisco had become just like any other American city in the too many years we had been away.

Then we caught the unique details. Cable cars still toiling up those impossible slopes, “climbing halfway to the stars”. The Golden Gate Bridge rising out of great cotton wool dollops of fog.
And the ultimate concrete-calmer: the transplanted half acre of redwoods next to the tallest building, the Transamerica Pyramid. (Unlike the skyscraper, they are still growing.)

San Francisco is one of the elite cities of the world. It has many tourists’ vote as the lowest stress, lightest threat destination in the US, the place people aspire to visit, or long to return to for a replica of that “Summer of Love” T shirt they bought in 1967 - or even an original in the second hand shops in Haight St.

It has a balmy micro-climate, summer and winter. The setting is stupendous – bay, bridge, parks, distant hills, and the Pacific on Ocean Beach. And so compact, with everything accessible, from the club where Barbara Streisand started, to Robin Williams’ jogging circuit.

On our previous trip the aroma of Flower Power was still fresh. Alcatraz had only lately shut. Otis Redding was just down from Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay. Gap was only just launched, although the original Levi’s had been here for ages. Steve McQueen (and the stunt men who drove the Mustangs and Dodge Chargers), had recently lifted off from the famous inclines in the car chase in Bullitt.

So many famous movies were shot or set here, we could have spent a day, say, just tracking down locations of films with a feathery title – such as Maltese Falcon, Birdman of Alcatraz and the Birds, then watched them all again in the magnificently ornate Castro cinema. (The Leopard was showing during our visit.)

So our revisit was turning into one big nostalgia trip, when our guide Tom casually announced he sometimes keeps a sea lion in his garage.

We were walking through the actual seed bed of Flower Power at the time, where Haight meets Ashbury. Wildlife was just about the only thing we hadn’t associated with this city of such broad interests and abundant opportunity. But Tom was a true San Francisco enthusiast: he had found even more to care about.

He had stopped traffic to lead us in a frenetic zig zag, into a succession of specialist shops where they trade peace and love, from Buddhas to tattoos via organic food and 60s LPs, and into Buena Vista Park. We ate dry Monteray Jack cheese, with soughdough bread dunked in Petroni extra virgin olive.

“You won’t find these anywhere else,” Tom assured us. “We keep the best olive oil, wine and cheese in California.”

But the sea lions. “Oh, you see them down at Pier 39. I’m a volunteer looking after the occasional sick one in my garage. My in-laws just don’t get it.”

We saw them there in their dozens next day, one of the most conspicuous populations of wild marine life in any city. Experts are baffled. Within weeks of the 1989 earthquake, an entire sea lion colony set up home here.

They were flopped out on pontoons like decadent Romans after the feast. They would slide into the water, then clamber laboriously back up after a bout of exaggerated, frenzied yelping as yet another tour boat set out for Alcatraz.

We travelled there on “Cincinnati Bumble Bee,” a tram car on the F Line painted in happy apian colours, yellow with green stripes.

These trams – which take the level route around the city - were rescued from other cities as their systems closed. On the way we meet Chicago, Boston and St Louis. It is as if London Transport ran a full service using all the preserved trams of Britain down Oxford Street - we were on Market St, one of the main commercial hubs of N America.

“Ok, folks , let’s gooooo,” hollered our cheerful driver, ringing his bell with a 4th July flourish. Why should the crews on the cable cars (which take the high route through the city) have all the fun?

We found it in hotel lobbies, restaurants and stores - that easy, genial San Francisco style. It’s as if their ancestors used up any spare strife battling their way here to this idyllic spot over such vast distances. Everybody is done with fighting. Even in prohibiting mode, the locals lighten up, as in one notice we spotted. Where other cities’ stores might warn “No tramps”, this one preferred “No gnarly dudes.”

Some city icons should not be missed. We took the one hour boat trip round the Bay. It contains the “wow factor” that only Sydney can match among harbour trips of the world, when you pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was eerily splendid seen from below, mist swirling around the girders.

We had hired a car, our only mistake. Cars are for LA; in this town their place is waiting patiently at red lights. It cost us as much to park it as to drive it. My advice is take the train from the airport – when you are likely to be tired anyway – then ride public transport and hire only for trips out of town. (California is vast, but no need to go far: we toured the Napa Valley, a 90 minute drive away, staying in a lodge next to a vineyard.)
So riding the 30 trolley bus through Chinatown was simply the best way to take our first taste of this few blocks of undiluted Orient, pavements bustling like Hong Kong, mountains of exotic produce.

And things happen on public transport. On the 71 bus from The Haight. a man sat down and began to play his version of the three card trick on a newspaper, hiding a bead under one of three bottle tops. He invited bets. Tourist caution prevailed on our part; then, as if this was what you did on a quiet bus in SF, one lady wagered $1. After a few games, the man was winning. Loser handed over her dues. “Heck, lady, I won’t take that. I have money. I won $500 in Vegas last week.”

My travelling expert declared the Downtown shopping better than New York’s. She liked the big stores, all grouped together around Union Square and Market: a brighter Macy’s than the Big Apple’s; the buzzing five floor Nordstrom shopping centre; Nieman Marcus and Sacks, with a Bloomingdales to come. There’s the original Gap, a massive Levi’s and The Apple Store, where I was free to try out the iPod of my choice.

“Wasn’t that amazing?” asked a total stranger at the next table after we finished breakfast in the Pinecrest on Geary, which claims to be the best all day diner in town. Just another San Francisco enthusiast.

Fact Box:

The writer travelled with British Airways Holidays, (0870 24 33 463) staying in the 5 star Argent Hotel, 50 Third Street
San Francisco, 001 415-974-6400

He also sampled “boutique” hotels - Hotel Palomar, 12 Fourth Street, 00 1 866.373.4941 and Prescott Hotel, 545 Post St, 001 415-563-0303;
(Out of town)
Napa Valley Lodge, 2230 Madison Street
Yountville, 001 707 944-2468.

CityPass (unlimited public transport travel, harbour tour and entry to other attractions.)

Tom Medin, Local Tastes of the City Tours; 001415-665-0480

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