USA Road Trip Part 1 – San Francisco & the Bay Area
“Welcome to the beautiful Bay Area”, came the voice of the cabin steward through the tannoy, as our plane descended into San Francisco International Airport. Martha had been waiting for this moment not just since we booked our 3-week US road trip nearly a year previously, but for as long as she could remember, having had a poster of the Golden Gate Bridge take pride of place in her bedroom as a child. Tears of joy were streaming down her cheeks as she looked out the window, full of excitement.
Thanks to the “Super Shuttle” taxi service – which operates from most major US airports and can be booked online or upon arrival – we arrived just over an hour after landing at what was to be our home for the next four nights. We had rented a cute little cottage on Balboa Street, a quiet residential area, and a five-minute walk from Golden Gate Park. It was 8pm US time, which for our weary limbs meant 4am, as our adventure had begun just under 24 hours ago in Dublin, but our excitement kept the jetlag at bay, and so we explored our new home and then headed to the local “Safeway” supermarket to hunt down some provisions.
After just a few hours sleep due to the jetlag and excitement, we set off the following morning at 7am on a cloudy San Francisco morning with the intention of walking to the Golden Gate Bridge which was fairly close. Our walk through Presidio Park should really only have taken an hour at most, but we were sent off track by a San Franciscan, who directed us to a viewpoint of the Golden Gate. We were not sent directly to the bridge and managed to get slightly disorientated, shall we say, and about two hours later we finally emerged from the by then foggy forest onto the coastal road close to the viewpoint. As it turned out we did not actually get to see the Golden Gate Bridge from there as it was totally shrouded in dense fog, which was so thick it felt like drizzle.
We took it with good humour however and walked on another quarter of a mile to the bridge since obviously we would be guaranteed to see it from closer range– NOT! When we finally made it to the 2.7km-long icon of the city, it appeared to dissolve into thin air after the first few metres.
We decided to catch a bus downtown in order to appease our by then growling stomachs. Something worth knowing: bus drivers in San Francisco cannot give change so it pays to always have the right change for the ticket to avoid having an irate driver. We know that now from experience! Your bus ticket is not only valid for that journey but stays valid for about three hours…it shows the time on the torn off ticket…so you can maybe hop on and off a few buses in that time!
So a slightly irate Chinese bus driver dropped us off near the Fisherman´s Wharf, where – ironically – we were greeted by blue skies and high temperatures, whilst where the Golden Gate Bridge should have been, continued to be hidden under a low lying blanket of fog. Following our well-deserved refueling stop for an American Breakfast, we explored the popular Pier 39 with its charming sea lions as well as the many restaurants and shops selling all kinds of things that you never knew you needed.
Lombard Street – the world’s most crooked street – was our next destination. The strenuous uphill walk on a now rather hot afternoon to the famous top end of the road was worthwhile because the view over the bay, the Oakland Bay Bridge and Russian Hill, is unforgettable.
San Francisco has been the setting for numerous films and series over the years. Fans of Mrs Doubtfire can find the beautiful Hillard family home on 2640 Steiner street. For Martha, it was the sitcom Full House that was partially responsible for her love of the city and so we made Alamo Square the next destination of our adventure. Alamo Square was the setting for the Tanner picnic in the opening credits of the series and the “Painted Ladies” are also located here – the colourful Victorian houses that can be found on almost every postcard with the Downtown skyline as their backdrop. One of the houses was recently sold for $3.1 million – nearly $1 million less than the seller had asked, but perhaps not everyone wants tourists staring through their windows every day. A visit to the home of the Tanners on 1709 Broderick Street was of course mandatory to make this day the quintessence of perfect.
The next morning was spent not seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, once again (the fog!), and visiting Golden Gate Park and its impressive Japanese Tea Gardens (free entry Mon, Wed and Fri before 10am). Golden Gate Park covers a large area and is home to many museums and other attractions so we were only able to get a taste of it with our busy sightseeing schedule.
Our next stop was Haight Ashbury, the epicentre of the hippy culture in the 60s, which is still home to many unique shops and colourful people.
The “Blue Front Café” at 1430 Haight Street served us an unforgettable breakfast, we spent the rest of the day in Chinatown (the largest Chinese community outside of China) enjoying an ice cream at Ghirardelli Square (home of the famous American chocolate maker) before walking to AT&T Park to cheer on the San Francisco Giants during their game against the Colorado Rockies, stopping at the impressive Oakland Bay Bridge on the way.
Our final day started with great excitement, because with the help of a webcam, we found out that the Golden Gate Bridge wasn’t hiding in the fog for once. We were dressed and beautified in record time to capture the beauty of the city landmark in hundreds of photos. We then walked across the bridge and back – a unique experience, but be prepared for a 5km-long round trip with a lot of traffic noise, wind and cyclists who try their best to run you down!
After this brisk walk, we’d earned a refreshment and treated ourselves to a sandwich from the “Warming Hut” which is located not far from the bridge on the shore of the bay and from which you can enjoy panoramic views of the city’s landmark, Alcatraz Island and the skyline. We humans are obviously not the only ones who like eating here, because Martha shared her sandwich – involuntarily – with a particularly daring seagull that stole the top piece of bread directly from her hand.
We ended our time in San Fran with a romantic dinner in a small restaurant off the beaten tourist track close to our house, and made plans for our next destination: we would go to Phoenix, Arizona by plane in the morning (to save two days of travel time by car), where we would pick up our rental car and begin our road trip through Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Telluride (Colorado), Lake Powell, Zion National Park, Las Vegas and Palm Springs.
But more about that in the next part of the series…