San Francisco – what a cool city! The home of the Giants (although much to Mitch’s disappointment the current baseball champs were playing away while we were there), the birthplace of the gay rights movement (think recent blockbuster, Milk) and best of all, a foodie’s paradise!
We were very fortunate to stay with the U.S. Servas national secretary, Mary Jane for 4 nights in her beautiful home at the top of a steep hill near the Mission District.
With stunning views of the cityscape, the water and the bay bridge, breakfasts cooked for us and lunches packed each day, and motivating conversation about what our futures may hold we had another fantastic Servas experience.
After a bit of confusion with the car hire company Mary Jane (who’s 81 but looks in her mid 60s and took the crazy San Francisco traffic in her stride) picked us up and took us on a little driving tour of the UN plaza, past city hall, theatres, numerous murals painted on the sides of buildings and up to Fisherman’s Wharf where we visited the old cannery, now the Argonaut Hotel.
In San Francisco when someone takes over an old building they try to keep a sense of the history and so the hotel has beautiful wooden beams and old iron gates which were in use during its time as a cannery. There’s also a fantastic timeline exhibition just past the lobby explaining the history. Well worth a five minute look. We had a quick wander around the National Parks Info Centre next door which took you through an overview of San Francisco’s history going from a tiny 200 person village, to bustling sea port and then base for the gold miners. A great introduction to the city and all free!
We had dinner that night with some of Mary Jane’s friends and fellow Servas hosts, Marci and Susan and enjoyed some spirited conversation about American politics as we watched the Republican, or GoP (Grand old Party), presidential candidate debate. It was entertaining but also a little scary as none of them discussed any sensible, progressive policies and the likelihood is that one of these middle aged, white (all but one), conservatives will become the next president.
Alcatraz and Angel
The following day we went back in time to the 1960s with a boat trip out to infamous Alcatraz Island which kept some of America’s most notorious criminals, such as Al Capone, locked up and thwarted numerous escape attempts. If you want to visit Alcatraz in peak season be sure to book at least a month in advance, or if you miss out as we did, book the double pass to include a visit to Angel island in the afternoon.
The tours are very well run and include a free audioguide around the old prison with stories told by former inmates and prison officers.
Angel Island is much larger and there’s a great little guided tram ride around the island which is very informative and takes in some beautiful views back across the bay to the city. It’s a beautiful island and I’d like to go back to do some cycling or hiking around it.
As we were back in the city mid afternoon we decided to walk up to Coit’s tower which looked to be just across the road from the ferry terminal. In fact it was up several steep flights of stairs which got our hearts racing! There was a bit of queue for the lift to the top but it’s set up so you queue around the base which is painted with about five incredible murals detailing San Francisco’s past. Even if you don’t fancy heading up, Coit’s tower it’s worth a visit to look at these alone. However, I would recommend spending the few dollars to go up to the top on a clear day to take in the fantastic panoramic view of the city.
Next up we found our way to the beginning of the Powell & Mason cable car where the workers spin the cars around manually on a turntable and excited tourists queue for about an hour to ride the iconic cable car up and down San Francisco’s famous hilly roads. It’s a bit pricey at $7/person but it was fun to sit up the front, holding on to a pole while leaning out and watching the driver operate the cables.
San Fran for Foodie’s
The following day was set aside for all things food. We started out with the Saturday organic farmers market at the Ferry Building, great for sampling the fresh seasonal fruits, I loved the ‘plucots’, a cross between plums and apricots, although definitely not suited to a backpackers budget.
You’re better to head to the people’s market to stock up on seasonal fare if you’re watching your pennies! For lunch we caught the BART out to Berkley and killed some time wandering through the lovely green campus before making our way to Alice Waters restaurant, Chez Pannise. The restaurant opened in the 60s and was one of the first to embrace using local, organic ingredients. I’d read all about it in American food critic’s Ruth Reichl’s books and so was very excited to treat ourselves to lunch in the more affordable cafe upstairs. Lunch was great, everything was healthy, tasty and fresh however I think my expectations were a little high as I wasn’t totally blown away. The star dish for me was the roasted squid with mixed bean salad while Mitch enjoyed the quail.
We walked off the food that afternoon around the enormous Golden Gate Park which had some lovely gardens but is also a gathering place for much of the city’s homeless which was a bit confronting. There are various galleries and museums you can visit in the park as well as doing a Segway tour but we decided to save that for next time and were content to snooze in the sunshine.
Cycling the Golden Gate Bridge
We were up early again on Sunday to hire some bikes from the ‘Basically free bike rental company.’ For $32/person day hire you get an excellent Cannondale bike (I’m thinking of upgrading when back in Aus!), lock and helmet and you can visit their sports warehouse enroute and get the value of your hire back to spend in store, hence ‘basically free.’ It’s a great deal for backpackers on a budget and the shop is huge. We ‘bought’ a little camp stove which we’ll need for later in our trip. The cycle route itself from Fisherman’s wharf, out across the bridge and around the coast to Sausilito is easy to follow with only a few hills and fantastic views throughout. It’s especially easy to follow in peak season as all of the other tourists are going the same way! We took our time and loved cycling across the long bridge, the tops of which had just emerged from the morning fog typical of the Bay. I recommend buying your ferry ticket and getting your loading token before exploring Sausalito as the queues get long in the afternoon. In fact, if I was to do it again I’d consider doing the loop in reverse as there were very few people getting off the ferry coming from San Fran with bikes as coming from Sausalito, it was pretty chaotic!
On the way back to Mary Jane’s we stopped off to sample Smitten Ice cream’s made to order organic ice cream.. I had sweetcorn and berries while Mitch enjoyed the pretzel, cookies and cream. Both were delicious and unbelievably creamy.
We decided to book a guided tour with Incredible Adventures rather than visiting Yosemite independently as I was put off by the advice I’d read online by having to bear proof all of your food, the cost of accommodation and our lack of camping gear.
It was a great decision as we could relax and enjoy everything the park had to offer without worrying about driving and finding our way around. We were a fairly small group of 13 from Australia, France, Japan and the Phillipines. The journey out to the park is about a 3.5 hour drive from SF which was broken up by a visit to a farmers market, a stop to swim at a gorgeous natural lake and waterfall and a short walk through a redwood forest to view some Giant Sequoia trees. The trees were beautiful and indeed, enormous, however it was a really busy touristy spot and we were a little underwhelmed compared to our visit to similarly ancient trees in Strahan, Tasmania a few years ago. The campsite was just outside the park in the valley where it was verrrry hot. It was a great spot though, just across the road from a river with a little beach which was the perfect way to cool off at the end of a day of hiking.
We did a number of wonderful hikes taking in the incredible scenery of the sheer granite rock faces, spotting chipmunks but unfortunately not sighting any bears.
I loved the views from Taft Point with the vertigo inducing drops from the high cliffs, left in their natural state with no railings or barriers. Some brave (read mental) slack liners had set up across a 2000 foot drop and we were lucky to be there in time to watch one guy venture across.
The whole group pitched in to cook breakfast (breakfast sandwiches – scrambled eggs and sausage in a bagel) and dinner (chicken, avocado and salsa tacos) followed by s’mores around the campfire. One of the Aussie girls in our group broke our guides group record of eating 5 s’mores in one sitting. They are incredibly sweet and she was looking a little worse for wear after number 5!
Visiting Yosemite put us way over budget however it was completely worth it. If you’re visiting San Francisco it is a must do however I would say you should allow a few days to visit. Some tours do a day trip but at such a long drive out it would be exhausting and I doubt you’d visit much beyond the valley. The high country is where the best hiking, views and cooler weather is at. It’s definitely a place I’d like to return to, perhaps at a different time of year to see the Autumn colours or in winter to see the rocks covered in snow.
I’d also like to return to San Francisco to visit the Sonoma wineries which we didn’t have time for and to visit more of the restaurants which we swapped on this visit for Mary Jane’s excellent home cooking!