Thursday, August 2, 2007

Are You Going to San Francisco?

If the answer is yes, be sure to bring your camera or journal to capture some memories of a lifetime. There are plenty of sites to see and experiences to enjoy in this city by the bay. San Francisco is one of those notable cities with instant name recognition with unique areas like Fisherman's Wharf, Nob Hill or the world's crookedest street, Lombard street. The city is known for its iconic landmarks like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, and of course it's cable cars with their distinctive ding ding ring of the bell. You can still ride the historical cable cars first tested and built in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie. Check out the cable car museum for more information. Northern California is rich in history and culture with people immigrating from throughout the world during the 1849 Gold Rush through the 1990's boom giving the city a great diversity. Visitors today can enjoy exotic foods, cultural and artisitc festivals as well as great entertainment, history and architecture. From the moment we arrived at San Francisco International Airport the ease of getting around the city was remarkable. After picking up our luggage, we took the free AirTrain shuttle to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. We bought tickets from a clearly marked ticket machine and entered a clean modern rail system. Within 30 minutes, we arrived at our downtown destination, the Powell Street Station. Just above the station, we were welcomed with a large crowd at the Powell and Market cable car turnaround. Art and jewelry vendors were in abundance in the festive environment. We were entertained by a tuxedo singing gentleman with a deep melodious voice as we lined up to buy a transportation pass good for 1, 3, or 7 days. I recommend buying The Muni Passports as soon as you arrive. The pass is good for unlimited rides on the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), which provides transportation
to all points of interest within San Francisco, as well as unlimited cable car rides. The pass pays for itself after 2 or 3 rides on the cable cars. Once settled into a downtown hotel, more about that in a moment, we took the Powell-Hyde cable car past Chinatown, up and down Nob and Russian Hills past the top of Lombard Street to the end of the line at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square. Both these lines end near Fisherman's Wharf. We thoroughly enjoyed walking up and down Jefferson Street all the way down to the Embarcadero and Pier 39. The area is lively and offers plenty of souvenir shops, eateries, fine restaurants, and of course fresh seafood.
We took the one-hour from Pier 39. This cruise passes the harbor seals lounging on the docks on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, past Angel Island and around Alcatraz. A running commentary provides interesting facts about the city. Located at Pier 43 1/2 is the Red and White Cruise line that follows the same basic itinerary, except for the passing of the Pier 39 seals. Reservations for both cruises are only $18.00 per adult when booked on line. If you enjoy spontaneity, the tour will cost a few dollars more at the booth.
Whether you like history, architecture or a good crime story Alcatraz is the place to visit. There is no entrance fee to visit Alcatraz Island. However, there is a charge for the ferry service to and from the island provided by a private company. Adult tickets are $24.50. These tickets go fast so I recommend reserving online in advance. Once you arrive on the island and enter the formidable prison there is an opportunity to take the audio cell house tour. This audio program is exceptional. The program has actual prisoners and guards telling their stories as you enter and pass key areas in the cell house. The audio tour starts and stops at your control and is available in several languages. I spent extra time “walking the yard” to get a sense of what the prisoners had to look at out while doing time. What fascinated me were the cells with windows facing San Francisco, or the top bench in the exercise yard, where prisoners could hear the merriment of evening parties and see the occasional fireworks displays during holidays. This must have been torturous for the prisoners so close to civilization and yet locked away. For additional information on schedules, prices, and to purchase tickets in advance (tickets are made available about 60 days in advance) go to the Alcatraz Cruises website.

One of the most fun stops I had was along the Embarcadero, across the street from the Port of San Francisco Ferry building at a small park. My wife and two daughters took turns mugging for the camera with the reproductions of the Yin and Yang Egg Head sculpures, by the late Robert Arneson. The originals, along with others, are placed on the University of California, Davis campus, where Mr. Arneson was professor of art. Another interesting stop for me, particularly because I'm not into upscale clothing, is the Neiman Marcus store located just off Union Square. I was there not for the shopping but to view the beautiful architecture and Rotunda restaurant. The glorious stained glass ceiling is from the original building completed in 1896. In 1981 Neiman Marcus bought the property, had the building demolished, and redesigned by famed architect Phillip Johnson. The large oval stained glass dome depicts a sailing ship representative of the maritime activities of San Francisco. The stained glass dome is comprised of 2,600 stained glass pieces.

Now, about the downtown hotel we stayed it, the Hilton on O’Farrell Street, it was five stars all the way. My inattention to detail was the problem not the hotel. I was hungry after arriving a day late, thanks to United, and being to early to check in, we dropped our luggage off in the lobby and took the elevator to the 46th floor and the Cityscape restaurant. I should have realized that lunch was not going to be inexpensive. The clues I should have picked up on were as follows: it was Sunday brunch, the waiters were dressed eloquently, there were fourteen foot high windows around three sides of the room giving us a sensational view of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. If that wasn't enough I should have picked up on the peeled and veined shrimp and Alaskan king crab legs on the buffet plus a three piece string ensemble playing softly. After receiving the check, and turning pale, I politely asked my two girls and wife to return to the buffet and eat like we weren’t going to have dinner later, or breakfast and lunch the next day. Even with the high price, the highest I have ever paid for brunch, the experience was one we will never forget. The entire San Francisco Experience ranks as one of the best family vacations we have taken.
While in San Francisco we met friendly and gentle people wherever we went. So if you go, be sure to make some memories, see the sights and ask how much lunch will cost before you order. Wearing flowers in your hair is optional.

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