San Francisco, USA - Between a rock and a crooked place

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January 15th 2019
Published: March 11th 2019
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We used the remaining hours on our 24 hour HOHO bus ticket to get us down to the docks to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz from Pier 33 in the harbour area. The trip was about a mile and a quarter and only took 12 minutes but everything was very efficient. The weather was cool but fine and the crossing was smooth. Brochures and maps were available outside the Visitor Centre on the island, with an honesty box for the $1 cost. Many people just took them for free. C’mon, it’s only a dollar – where’s your conscience? We saw the sally port, guard house and guard tower on immediate arrival, then the post exchange and officers’ club (now a ruin), the electrical repair shop, mortuary, chapel, warden’s house, lighthouse, barracks, recreation yard, water tower and the tour of the cell block itself was by audio-guide so we could take our time exploring. The stories about the history (it was initially a fort, then a prison and it was most recently occupied by native Indians as a protest), the daily routines of the prisoners, the attempted escapes and its infamous occupants were fascinating. The sights and sounds of the mainland were loud and clear on the island and must have been a constant reminder of opportunity lost to the prisoners, who rarely braved the freezing waters and strong currents in what would have almost certainly been a futile effort to regain freedom. We really enjoyed the trip in the cold but sunny weather.

On return to the mainland we walked along to Fisherman’s Wharf at Pier 39 which had a funfair theme and atmosphere and we saw all the famous sea-lions basking on the wooden decks before having a meal in the Hard Rock Cafe which, unsurprisingly, paid tribute to rock legends (Jefferson Airplane, Carlos Santana, Grateful Dead, Janis and the Big Brother Holding Company, etc) who had hailed from or cut their musical teeth in San Francisco. As well as the usual guitars, gold discs and other memorabilia one of the windows made reference to the ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’ lyric which pleased me, for some reason.

I had refused point blank to climb all those hills back to our hotel, and we looked for the bus that would take us back but couldn’t find the stop. I was ready to hail a taxi but Steve, ever the pragmatist, said it really wasn’t that far and we hadn’t done that much walking today anyway. Really? We did more or less the same route as the previous night but this time we climbed the steps up the Crookedest Street in the World, and it was a much shorter route, but just as strenuous. Cars often queue at the entrance at the top of the street to make the slow journey down, just to say they’ve done it. If I’d paid millions of dollars for my home there, I don’t think I’d take kindly to the constant traffic and pedestrians like me gawping through their windows. I wanted to see how the other half live – quite normally as it turned out, if you call having a grand piano in your lounge normal! Of course, the plus-side to all this walking up is that eventually you have to walk down and the incline down to our hotel was precipitous but much easier than going in the other direction. We were passed at one point by a guy literally rolling down the hill. I think he was either high or drunk because he fell, then rolled, then uprighted himself and ran back up the hill only to fall over and roll back down again. It all happened so fast we were unable to check if he had hurt himself as he managed to put the brakes on before coming to the crossroads at the bottom and disappeared round the corner before we could enquire! I think he may have woken up the next morning wondering where all his cuts and bruises had come from ... The stairs back to our room were almost the final straw for me after days, weeks and months of climbing (oh yes, I will remember this holiday for all the climbing we did) and I was glad to make it back to level ground.

We had a lazy day the following day. Constant travelling is very tiring and we’d had a sequence of long, overnight flights which were catching up with us. Despite our ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door the chambermaids knocked anyway. Oh well. At least it gave us an opportunity to replenish our dry towels and coffee supplies, though the Americans only provide facilities for a one-cup-at-a-time brew and their coffee is nothing to write home about. We’d learned from our previous experiences though, and we had made sure we had plentiful supplies of drinkable coffee and sweeteners with us, though cups and mugs were a different issue. We ate at Bobo’s Bar, just across the street, once again. It was a very small bar with plenty of atmosphere and ambience, though seemed to be populated by visitors who were staying in the hotels in the area so not much chance to talk to locals, apart from the bar staff. That night the place was full with us and tables of people from Denmark, Ireland, and Australia. The Australians hailed from Perth and were amazed when we said we’d just visited there as no-one, according to them, ever visits the west coast! She had been born in Birmingham, UK, left there aged five, and now worked in the Australian tourist information sector. She was gobsmacked to hear about our travels, was pleased we were impressed with all the tourist information stuff she had a hand in organizing and had never heard of my favourite place (Sandstone) in the Outback but said she would be sure to find out more about it! They were joined later by their two sons who wanted a meal at Mum and Dad’s expense but, being aged only 18 and 20, were restricted to soft drinks only being underage for alcohol in the USA. They didn’t seem to mind and were convivial and interesting to chat to. The Irish table asked for burgers and chips and were disappointed when their meals came with crisps instead of fries, though this was quickly rectified. It was a very pleasant way to spend our final evening in San Francisco.

It rained on our check-out day. Proper stair-rods of rain, which was a shame as we once again had an evening flight and were effectively homeless after check-out time at noon. We left our luggage at the hotel and walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf once again. We found a much better pedestrian route (a bit late, but hey ho) and we got very wet and very cold on the way. We spent some time further exploring the harbour area but it was a bit miserable in the cold rain. We called in to a MacD’s, just to get warm, before buying our tickets for the cable car ride we just had to do, given how iconic a trip it was in the city.

The cable cars were the brain child of a chap who, in the days before motorised vehicles, had sadly witnessed a heavily-laden cart and horses rolling backwards down the near-vertical inclines and had decided there must be a better way to transport goods and people around the city. His solution resulted in the cable cars being born. These days the cable cars are mainly (but not exclusively) used by visitors and operate on two main routes one of which, quite handily, ran across the top of Lombard Street. The tickets were quite expensive and we caught our cable car at the harbour terminal where we were able to see it being turned around before setting off again. We had a lovely journey up and down all the hills, from Wharf, through Hyde and on to Powell where we disembarked at the Westwood Shopping Centre and were able to duck out of the rain and use the toilet facilities and spend some time in the dry before eventually catching the trolley back to Lombard. The cars are only able to stop on level ground and they have a driver at the front and a brakeman at the rear. It seemed to me that the brakeman worked the hardest, heaving on the lever to keep us from slipping backwards. I chatted with a young man who said he worked in the centre and used the cars daily to get him to work and back – it must be a lovely commute!

We arrived back at our hotel about 6 pm and had a relatively short wait before our transfer transport came to collect us for the airport at 7.15 pm. Our flight this evening would initially take us to Charlotte for another transfer on another overnight flight. Big sigh. I’d never heard of Charlotte and when I Googled it I found there were several Charlottes in the USA. Our initial, very early-stages, plans had scheduled a transfer in Chicago (OK, I know where that is on the map), but American Airlines had cancelled that flight quite close to our date of departure which had necessitated a hasty, complete change of route! Thanks, American Airlines ... The one positive aspect was that, on check-in, we found we were already ‘TSA approved’. I’d no idea what that meant, but it did mean we had a much speedier, less rigorous, process to get through all the airport malarkey, which was a bonus. We eventually took off, on time at 10.26 pm, and I’d absolutely no idea where we were aiming for! Steve ‘exchanged words’ with the passenger behind him who asked if he was going to have his reading light on for the whole flight. Steve said probably only as long as he was reading his book and left it on until he had finished. He’d just turned it off when the passenger behind the one who had asked decided he wanted to read something now, and turned his own light on, which was some sort of poetic justice maybe?

Turned out we were heading for Charlotte, North Carolina, and we landed just before 6 am (factoring in a 3 hour time difference) after a super flight in clear skies full of brilliant stars which twinkled brightly. As we were coming in to land we saw lots of lights illuminating what turns out to be a very large city. A quick stroll through the airport saw us waiting for our transfer flight to Washington at 7.30 am.

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