San Francisco Part 2
Saturday, September 20, 1997
After a pitfully limited "continental breakfast" at our hotel, we hit the streets. We were booked on a boat trip to Alcatraz later that day, so we headed in the general direction of Fisherman's Wharf.
San Francisco is very hilly in this area and walking is an effort, but we were tired of sitting on planes and in cars so we hoofed it. We started on Nob Hill and walked/climbed until we were on Hyde Street, where at the top of the hill you can take the well-known shot of the cable car going up the hill with Alcatraz off in the distance. No cable cars came by, though, so I took the picture without it. Most of the walk was downhill from here to the bay. It's amazing how steep some of the roads are on the hills and how people park on them. Most of the time the cars are parked along the curb and the wheels are turned to keep them from rolling away. In some places, the cars are parked perpendicular to the curb and I swore I could have pushed that minivan over since it was already leaning at 45 degrees.
We soon passed the famous Lombard Street and left Hyde Street to walk down the steps next to the twisty road. I was surprised to learn that people actually live on this street. It's probably not cheap to live there, either, as everything was well kept and there were a couple Porsches in driveways. I think it would drive me crazy to have tourists driving down the hill at all hours and walking the steps.
A short walk down Russian Hill and we arrived in the Fisherman's Wharf section along the San Francisco Bay. We took a break and sat on the steps near the beach, watching the dedicated swimmers do their laps in the cold water. It turned out to be a day dedicated to city-wide beach cleaning, and several volunteers were pouring over the sand, looking for junk. A local artist was doing the same, looking for broken glass to build tables.
We walked for a while down some of the piers, and then decided that we were hungry after all that walking. A small place called Pompei's Grotto on Jefferson Street looked pretty good, and enjoyed a late breakfast in the sun eating sourdough French toast and pancakes.
Then it was time for more walking, and time to get our tickets for the Alcatraz cruise. Walking toward Pier 41, I was surprised to see a man hiding behind what seemed to be the only shrub along the sidewalk. The shrub was kind of in the way of the sidewalk so people walking the other way were kind of maneuvering around it. All of the sudden the guy behind the bush picks it up and jumps at one of the people walking the other way and cries "boo!" This scares the one guy and causes everyone else on the busy sidewalk to laugh. Then I notice that shrub isn't real at all and the guy has a little money can that proclaims him as the "Bush Man." Certainly one of the most interesting street performers/panhandlers that I've seen.
Just around the bend we arrived at the ticket building for the Blue & Gold Fleet, who runs all of the trips out to Alcatraz as well as other boat rides in the Bay. The scene was ugly. People were everywhere and the lines were enormous. I was glad that I had bought tickets by phone earlier and just had to pick them up. The pick-up line was somewhat shorter, but it was all still a zoo. Apparently the tours to Alcatraz often sell out far in advance. I got the tickets and we quickly proceeded to another line, this one to get on the boat.
As the line slowly progressed toward the boat, each group of people had to stop while they took our picture. I though this was really cheesy, I mean, after all, we were just going a little ways across the bay to Alcatraz. Knowing we weren't going to buy the picture afterwards, we let them take it anyway. The guy in line behind us was more obstinate and managed to not get his picture taken. The double-decker boat was soon packed and on its way to the "Rock." We sat on the outside of the top deck and enjoyed the view of the bay as we crossed.
Bright sun and a steady breeze collaborated to bring scores of sailors into the bay. Not only were there several boats out there just cruising, it seemed as if there were one or two organized regattas going on as well. The boats were beautiful large one-designs, far bigger than what we race on our tiny lakes in Ohio. It was a thrill just to watch the races from a distance.
Soon we had arrived at the rock, filing off the boat like cattle. Like San Francisco, Alcatraz is a hilly place. The boat let us off at the bottom and we had to walk a ways to get to the actual prison at the top. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular: as the regatta played itself out in the bay, the skyline of the city shimmered in the midday sun, the Golden Gate standing tall as the guardian of the scene. We were eager to get into the prison before the bulk of the crowd had made it up the hill, so we got into another line.
The "tour" of Alcatraz is a great idea, but I think it's a bit poorly implemented. I was expecting to follow a ranger around, much like "Vickie" in So I Married An Axe Murderer. As you enter, you are given a walkman containing a cassette in your native language. This is smart since most of our fellow tourists that day were not speaking English. The English cassette was narrated by former prison guards and prisoners who were at Alcatraz. Following the dialogue and instructions on the tape, you go to different places in the prison and hear interesting history about these places. The big problem with this method is that you end up in a big herd of people who pushed "play" the same time as you did, and therefore all of you are trying to fit into a one-person cell at the same time. The prison is definitely old and decrepit you feel like you're walking through a part of history. I wonder though, if the prison really looked much better than this back when they built it. It wasn't made to look pretty, that's for sure.
We stepped out of the prison and back into the bright sunlight. This had a psychological effect on me, as if I had been released from Alcatraz myself. It must have been tough to be a prisoner here, knowing all the while of the beauty and excitement of the places just across the water from the "Rock." We spent some time walking the paths outside of the prison, enjoying the views and the foliage, and then slowly made our way down the hill to the boat.
Walking had become the theme of the day. After a quick snack at Pier 39, we decided to climb some more and visit Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill. This trip had to be one of the best sightseeing workouts we had ever had. I wasn't sure exactly how to get to the tower, but it was easy to see from the waterfront. We strolled down the Embarcadero until we were roughly in line with it north-south, and then we started going uphill. It turns out you can't get there that way directly, so we ended up making a slight detour. The hills become very steep and the sidewalks become stairs as you get very close to the tower.
The top of the hill is well-planted, with trees everywhere. They obstruct a great view, but it's not a big deal as the best view still comes from the top of Coit Tower. We each paid our $3 and got into a rickety elevator for the ride up.
From the top of Coit Tower you can see virtually everything. There are large windows looking out in all directions from the circular tower. The windows were covered with plexiglass, which made the view a bit less clear, but they were welcome, as the wind at that height would have been overbearing. We had good views and got nice pictures of all of the places we'd walked earlier. From this vantage point, the well-laid architecture of the city was impressive.
As it was getting into late afternoon, and we were worn-out we decided to head back to our room to relax awhile before dinner. Even the trip back to the top of Nob Hill was a workout, so we were exhausted by the time we got back.
I thought it would be cool idea to ride a cable car down to the wharf to go to dinner. We waited at California and Powell for our ride. The first cable car that came by was bursting at the seams, so we had no choice but to wait for the next one. Car after car came through the intersection, but they were all headed down the hill, away from our destination. After about ten cable cars passed, all heading the wrong way, we decided just to walk again. It was mostly downhill, so it wasn't that big of a deal. I really just wanted to ride the car for the "experience" of it. We had walked two-thirds of the way to the wharf by the time the next northbound cable car passed us. We continued walking.
After walking the waterfront for a while, we settled on eating at Bobby Rubino's, a ribs place across the street from the waterfront. A nice view, and the food was OK, but nothing spectacular in my opinion. During the meal, some jerk decided to park across the street and demonstrate his sound system, with the entire trunk dedicated to pavement-cracking bass. I half-expected the windows of the restaurant to shatter.
My next idea was to take the cable car back up the hill to our hotel. We arrived at the Hyde cable car station to find hundreds of people in line. One look at that and we were hoofing it back up to Nob Hill. Fog was rolling in from the west as we climbed up the sidewalks. Sleep came easy shortly after we returned to our room.