Travelling to the US takes a looooong time so it’s well worth making a longer trip of it. We factored San Fran into the first part of a three week road trip, but we really should have stayed longer. There’s just so much to oggle over and enjoy.
Of course, when we arrived on the West Coast, we missed a day… when you travel with young kids and miss an entire night’s sleep then have a whole day (we arrived at 8am) ahead of you, it can be kinda scary, but we troopered through it. We caught a cab from the airport to our fab little hotel – Buena Vista Motor Inn. We loved it there – such a lovely spot and the foyer breakfast of fruit and bread rolls put me in mind of my backpacking days in Europe.
Once we’d unpacked, we caught a local bus to Ghiradelli Square (great bus network in San Fran! check out the 511) to the Balclutha square rigger (1886) at the Maritime National Historical Park near Fisherman’s Wharf. You can walk onto the ship for a peek, if you like, and there are great vistas here to Golden Gate Bridge.
Walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf, we were a teensy weensy bit disappointed. Admittedly, it was the height of winter and raining, but it was still a little disheartening. Having held in my mind’s eye for many years a bustling, colourful, noisy, authentic market of fishmongers and greengrocers, we were instead met with a quiet, over-styled, almost sterile (but very pretty) tourist haunt.
We nonetheless enjoyed it. We bough taffy (oh my, the flavour choices!) and donuts and took a ride on the carousel and spied Alcatraz through binoculars on the water’s edge. We even heard the echoing call of nearby seals. Husband stood staring wistfully at Alcatraz, keen to take a boat ride and a tour but this is difficult with smaller kids – the tours last at least 4 hours and with only 4 days in San Fran, we didn’t want to ‘waste’ the time, especially as the kids just wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Next time.
Our next must-do was the San Francisco streetcar or ‘cable car’. We bought a three day Muni pass which allowed us to travel on all of the city’s buses and trams, which made for super-good value. This was just such brilliant fun. The kids LOVED it and curious me got to ask a ‘driver’ about how one goes about getting such a cool job. Turns out you have to be incredibly strong (the cable cars are quite literally manually operated using a huge lever) and only a small percentage of people qualify to run a cable car, after extensive training and testing.
As we travelled around on the cars, it struck me how many Chinese live in San Fran. Chinatown has the greatest single concentration of Chinese people outside of Asia – at 80,000. Interesting, though, to note that most were speaking Cantonese, not Mandarin.
We travelled downtown on the cable car and wandered around, had some lunch and then caught the car back to Union Street where we ogled the magnificent houses (well, I did) before returning to the hotel for rest. Basically, we didn’t let that pesky jetlag defeat us, and it was well worth the effort, despite having to drag the kids around (quite literally) like ragdolls.
It was 5pm in our hotel room when we quite literally dozed off exactly where we’d removed our shoes, waking at 2am San Francisco time, starving hungry and wide, wide awake. All four of us. Cursed jetlag. Travelling would be sooo much more convenient without it.
We took the fab bus system down to Presidio park to the sensational Exploratorium, right next to the Palance of Fine Arts. Like, wow. Not much is going to compare to this in any one lifetime. Exploratorium veterans (Canberra has a wonderful site – Questacon), the kids nonetheless absolutely loved it.
After many hours, we struggled to drag the kids away. When we did, it was into torrential rain. So, we did what any self-respecting travellers do – we went shopping along Beach Street near Fisherman’s Wharf and found such knicknacks as San Francisco snow domes and trolley cars. It just had to be done.
For dinner, we spent a decent whack of time at the fabulously kitsch Rainforest Cafe, which really is an institution unto itself. You enter at street level into a massive shop the envy of Walt, and then descend into an underground fantasyland via an elevator.
A cavernous area completely fitted out like the inner workings of a jungle greeted us, packed with tables and even a real life aquarium built into the rocks. Everywhere you look, animatronic animals peep at you from jungle leaves, including massive elephants, wildcats and monkeys.
Every now and then, a ‘volcano’ erupts and the animals start screeching and howling. It really is a sight. But not as much as a sight as the meals. You could feed four on one plate. They are enormous. We paid around US$70 for dinner, including desserts and fantasy drinks like spurting volcanoes but only managed to finish less than half of it.
Take note, new travellers to the States – you only need to order half the amount whenever you dine out. And remember the tip – 20 per cent is good. Crushing, but good. If you’re like us, you’ll probably find yourself frequenting the supermarket, anyway (el cheapo McCartney travel trip).