There are few, if any, cities whose names bring such a tingle of excitement for the traveller as San Francisco. Even going back to the times before we old'uns arrived on board a smokey old Boeing 707 in the late sixties, with flowers in our hair, love in our hearts and our skinny bodies squeezed into paisley and crushed velvet, this has always been a very special place.
The thrill is that it is packed, as full as your suitcase, with so much history, so much drama and so much color - earthquakes, the Gold Rush, Chinatown, cable cars, precipitous streets, the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39 and, of course, its black sheep of the family, Alcatraz.
Today, this jewel of a metropolis has taken on all the glows and woes of almost every American city. The skyscrapers stand as symbols of success and affluence, reaching for the sky like standard bearers of the new technology boom which abounds here, while on the streets outside, teems of homeless lost souls stand or shuffle aimlessly on street corners, protectively holding their sorry bundles of possessions. The young, smart/casual tekkies stride energetically along the sidewalks with their Starbucks in one hand and their trendy white i-phone listening devices in their ears, passing the tragic, rag-bag casualties in life without so much as a glance. You will not find such an extreme of rich and poor anywhere in the world as you do in the US. Just as the historic old buildings rub shoulders with the sleek new office blocks, so do the extremes of humanity on the busy, jostling streets of San Francisco.
But it is still easily one of the best destinations in the world. It oozes adventure.
Our first stop was Chinatown for dim-sum. Anyone who knows her ladyship will know this is one of her real treats. She is an afficinado. And she was not disappointed. It is hard for some of us to understand Chinese food in its rawest form. Butchers' windows display ranks of scrawny, bronzed ducks, skewered by their necks. Outside other shops, boxes of weird, uninviting, unrecognizable produce are pored over and prodded by gaggles of elderly, unsmiling Chinese customers. Some of the things being admired looked to us more like internal organs ripped from a human corpse and left to dry in the sun on someone's windowsill. The Oriental diet finds the most peculiar things a delight. It is no good asking a local what restaurant they recommend because you can be sure it will be serving all the bits of the animal that we Western folk throw in the trash with a retch.
But we tracked down the well-reviewed City View Restaurant hiding in a small alley off Clay Street. The trolleys raced round with gusto and with the regularity of London taxis and her ladyship was in Chinese heaven.
The City View carts of dim sum.
Californians have their jars of cannabis, Chinatown has its teas.
The Hong Kong gaudiness of Chinatown
After gorging on pancake rolls and large shrimp wrapped in scrotal gossamer sacs, we strolled down to Pier 39, a tourist magnet. It still has that end-of-the-pier attraction. The Americans do this sort of thing better than anyone. It's packed with interesting fast-food stops and overstocked gift shops and is all spotlessly clean. It even has Covent Garden-style street entertainers. But the highlight as ever is the congregation of sea-lions who have made home here and which seem to be either completely comatose or fighting raucously with one another.
We witnessed their own Olympic sport - sumo seal wrestling. The idea is that one fat male on a floating pontoon wins by pushing his opponent unceremoniously off the side into the water. Click on this video to see the current gold medallist.
The best way to end the day is to take the elevator to the Top of the Mark bar at the classy Mark Hopkins Hotel which rises up from the highest hill in San Francisco. There are spectacular 360 degree views from 20 floors up, and the sunset cocktails are sensational. Try the 'Ginger Rogers' with Hendricks and ginger beer amongst other ingredients worthy of an alcoholic alchemist.
Views from the Top
But, as ever, the lure of Alcatraz cannot be resisted. No matter how many times you have done this prison pilgrimage, it is de rigeur to board the ferry and cross the Bay to 'The Rock'. It never fails to be a fabulous day out - the boat ride looking out towards the Golden Gate Bridge, the tour of the grim cells, the stories of scary inmates and their ingenious escapes, and, at this time of year, the birds who are nesting everywhere. White Gulls in the side of the rock faces, Cormorants paired up on the ground on their circle of grass, Canadian Geese with clutches of young amongst the wild flowering flora and the fluffy Egrets, with their hat-feather plumage, in the shrubs. It is an aviary wonderland.
If you have never done the extraordinary trip to Alcatraz, please try harder. It never disappoints. Here is a brief photo tour...
The cell block
The solitary confinement cells
The cell and the hole an escapee squeezed through into the utility corridor (below), before climbing on to the roof and getting away. Three got out in this manner. No-one knows if they survived as they have never been found.
The ruins of the Governor's house
The Officers' Club
The school-house for the wardens' children
An evocative watch tower
The wardens' garden
Inside the Laundry Room
On the steps of the Exercise Yard
The view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Exercise Yard
The view of the city from Alcatraz
One last thing needed to be done - a trip on the iconic cable cars. Rising up the mountainous slopes of San Francisco in these museum pieces is an experience not to be missed.
We shall always love San Francisco. We may not leave our hearts here, next to the Chinese desiccated organs, but as we left we discussed whether, at our senior stage in life, this would be our last visit. We hope not. We came here all starry-eyed over thirty years ago and now returned for a photo in the very same spot at the end of Pier 39. Time may have taken its toll and our energy levels may have waned a tad but the sense of fun and adventure will never diminish.
Thirty Years On 1988 2019
ONE MORE THING
Driving towards San Francisco on Interstate 280, you will cross the Doran Memorial Bridge. Look to the right. One gaudy monstrosity hits you like a migraine. This globular abortion has become known as the 'Flinstone House', an experimental (an experiment that gloriously failed) domed indulgence painted in deep orange and purple. It is also known as the Gumby House, the Worm Casting House and the Bubble House. But we just called it the Bloody Ugly House. It isn't helped by a huge rusty dinosaur, a mammoth and even a giraffe in the garden.
Hardly a surprise then that the horrified neighbors want something done about it. “Yabba Dabba Doo”, they shout, “turn it into Barney Rubble - and quickly”.