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Sunday, August 26, 2012

••◊ Never trust San Francisco schedules, part 4.

Welcome to my final installment about San Francisco travel. I think I saved the best for last.  Today I am declaring this work my "blue period" for reasons that will soon become obvious. 

Tuesday morning I woke up and was really looking forward to visiting Muir Woods, best known for miles for rigorous hiking and Northern California giant redwoods.  I had looked up the ferry schedule on the web and it was a leisurely 10:20am departure from Pier 41 to get over to Saucilito.  No problem, we made it there in plenty of time...however the information I found on the web wasn't quite right.  The Pier 41 ferry services was a different company ("Blue and Gold Ferry") that left at 10:50 and didn't take a clipper card!  The ferry service I actually wanted ("Golden Gate Ferry") was at Pier 1.  So we all had to pay cash to get on the ferry and hope it arrived by 11:20 so we could connect with a bus to Muir Woods.  This was just the first sign of how my day was going to go.

The ferry arrived on time, however as I quickly found out the public buses only run to Muir Woods on the weekends and the company that runs the tour buses during the week had closed recently.  A taxi is $40-$50 one way, so that wasn't going to work.  After walking around Saucilito with a great deal of heavy disappointment and grabbing lunch at a local pub we headed back on the correct ferry to Pier 1.  At least I could use the Clipper Card this time.  I was really looking forward to gathering photos from a nature hike.  The disappointment drained my energy for a bit until I realized I still had my camera and plenty of daylight.

The ferry boats like to give everyone their money's worth and take the long route to show off Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge.  I figured I could try to salvage the trip by at least taking some pictures I wouldn't be able to get otherwise.  Below are a couple fly-by's of the well known Alcatraz Island prison.  The prison operated from 1868 to 1963.  Now you have to reserve your visit in advance with the National Park Service, otherwise you can't get on "the rock."



Here's a couple photos I took off the back of the boat looking toward the bay bridge and downtown San Francisco.  The panorama turned out surprisingly well considering I wasn't stationary, as would normally be required to stitch the photos together.  I did have to do a little Photoshop tweaking to improve the seams, but I think it portrays the northern coast of the city quite well.



The last tourist destination I'll show is the Golden Gate Bridge.  The bridge was finished in 1937 for a total of $35 million dollars.  I used our fellow tour group members as a framing guide for the tourist-centric picture below.

Each cable strand on the bridge is actually made up of more than 27 thousand strands of steel, but you can read specifications on the cable below.  Imagine how heavy just a one foot section of cable is!  Each tower is held together with 600,000 rivets in order to take the load.  A few years ago the city had a bridge anniversary event where people could walk on the bridge in the traffic lanes and the bridge actually buckled from the weight! 

Another interesting factoid is that the navy initially wanted to paint the bridge black with yellow stripes.  Thank goodness people in the right minds put a stop to that.  Today the bridge is painted the reddish-brown color it is in order to blend into the natural landscape, at least that was the designer's intent.




One surprising thing I found on the bridge were these locks.  It reminded me of the Lover's Walk from Riomaggiore to Manrola along the Cinque Terra, where this public show of affection is common.  The first picture was obviously a German couple with their inscribed "Fur immer verbunden" - Forever joined.  Yes, I know I left off the umlaut, but I'm typing on an American keyboard.



My favorite photo of the whole trip, which I wouldn't have gotten if I was on the correct ferry.


What's left are two random photos that I think just look cool.  The first architecture photo is typical of what you would see in a hotel room or restaurant downtown.  The second photo is a panorama from Crissy Field facing northward to Marin county, which looks surprisingly tropical.  It isn't. 


Saturday, August 18, 2012

••◊ Never trust San Francisco schedules, part 3

One of the redeeming factors about San Francisco is the mixture of lovely architecture.  The photos below show some features of the lobby at the historic Hotel Whitcomb, where I stayed.  The hotel has been declared a historic landmark and even served as San Francisco's temporary city hall from 1912-1915 because of the 1906 earthquake.  As you walk in you're greeted by the door man dressed in classic garb who proudly proclaims, "welcome to my hotel," followed by, "well...it's not really my hotel...I just work here."  One might expect jazz music and a smokey haze coming from the meeting hall just around the corner from the check-in desk.  I know that it felt very international to me.  When checking in, almost all the groups in line spoke a different language.  Some days we would note the Italians, or Germans, or English, or the hardest language to understand - Scottish.

The rooms have obviously been remodeled with force fed bathrooms.  I would have taken a picture, however I don't think a 17mm lens would have been wide enough to shoehorn an image out of the bathroom.  My Aunt wrote the following haiku about the guest rooms.

Hotel Whitcomb-ah
Historic landmark beauty
tiniest bathrooms
 




On Monday's walking tour of the city one of the places we explored was the Palace of Fine Arts.  The area was originally built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, so the original structures were made out of chicken wire and plaster - not very durable.  The city decided to keep the landmark, but replace the structures with concrete and proper construction.  The park and Greek inspired ruins are now enjoyed by a mix of families and tourists, all left with crooked necks from looking up.  The second picture features our fellow tour-mates taking a picture in front of the fountain.  The third picture is a stitched panorama showing a 180 degree view of the inside of the dome. 





So far during the day the buses had been running according to our tour guide's iPhone app.  However things began to get a little random mid-day, which meant walking a block or two more to catch buses that we're quite timed right.

Below are three pictures from neighborhood homes I found interesting.  First up is the Marina district homes, literally across the street from the marina.  These homes were built on "reclaimed" land, which isn't as stable as natural land.  In the last major earthquake a lot of these homes were devastated; as in broke in half.  I guess if you have the money to buy here, you don't mind a little home repair from time to time.

The second picture represents the view that $6 million dollars can currently buy you in San Francisco.  Sure...sign me up for two or three of those. What the hell, make it four.

The third picture represents some of the classical home styles in San Francisco that weren't destroyed by the great fire.  Victorian, Queen Anne, and other styles dot this upscale family neighborhood.  I know that these homes would require massive upkeep, but I still wonder what it would be like to live away from the bland cookie-cutter suburbs.  It's probably better as a thought than reality.   




A characteristic of San Francisco that has remained consistent in my mind is the wonderful assortment of neighborhood restaurants.  On the walking tour we ended up at a place called The Plant on Steiner Street.  I had the seasonal tempe, which was very tasty and well seasoned!


On Tuesday Sara and I broke away at the bay piers and walked up the infamous Telegraph Hill steps to see Coit Tower.  I mainly wanted to see the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, but they were off satisfying some other tourist this day.  Telegraph hill was originally used as a giant signal to let business people in the city know what ships were approaching the harbor.  In 1929 Lillie Coit left a portion of her fortune to the city and they built Coit tower to acknowledge her support of the firefighters of San Francisco.  If you walk inside the tower (too dark to take pictures) you'll see the inside is covered with murals of firefighters.

The Coit Tower backyard has a grand view of the bay bridge.  I suddenly had a continuous stream of foreign tourist couples walk up to me asking me to take their picture with the view in the background, probably because they were fooled into thinking I was a fancy photographer with that 5 pound camera around my neck.  With the last couple I murmured something like, "man, I should start charging."  To which the Frenchman brushed his hand against my shoulder and replied, "yes, right after us, OK?" 

I still haven't figured out the connection to the Christopher Columbus statue out front, but I'm sure it's buried in the Wikipedia entry somewhere.  From this hill you pretty much have a 360 degree view of the city, with a little of the view blocked by trees. 




The final installment comes next week.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

••◊ Never trust San Francisco schedules, part 2

Monday began as any normal Monday begins for me.  If my alarm clock doesn't get me up, my stomach does.  I swear I was born with a German brain and a Swiss precision stomach.  If it doesn't get fed by 6am, there's revolt.  So I got myself up, early morning cave man style, to go foraging for breakfast in the urban jungle.

Hotel Whitcomb is on Market Street in downtown San Francisco.  Lucky for me, across the street from the hotel is Sam's Diner.  What I quickly learned is that if you get there at 7am you can sit at the counter and get better service.  By 8am they are swamped and service comes to a standstill.  Also, Sam doesn't really exist.  S.A.M. is an acronym made up of the owner's kid's names.  Dad walks the floor, mom works the back office, and the kids work the counter and tables.





After breakfast my Aunt had arranged for an all day walking tour of the city from Anton of Urban Trek USA.  Normally I like to blend in with the locals, albeit with a fancy camera in my hands, but today was a day to just go with the flow, man - Sorry; had to throw in the mandatory hippy reference - there, it's done...it's out of my system.  This day we were a few minutes late for the meet and greet with our host and fellow tourists at the San Francisco visitor center, which was mostly my fault.  A lot of the tour involves exploring the neighborhoods, which are refreshingly distinct in San Francisco; somewhat due to the fire that destroyed a large portion of the city.

One of the first stops was Filbert Street up in the North Beach neighborhood.  This street is one of the steepest residential streets in America at 31.5% grade (yikes!).  Sara and my aunt are actually standing straight up in the second picture.  That's Coit Tower and Telegraph Hill off in the distance, but I'll get to those later.  Notice how all the cars are parked perpendicular to the curb for good reason?



Lombard Street ads to the unique flavor of San Francisco.  It has the distinction of being the second most curvy street in San Francisco.  Vincent Street is technically more curvy, but Lombard Street is more well known and prettier by far.

The gardening is done by 'John', an east coast transplant who is retired and now spends his time making this tourist destination beautiful.  I just feel sorry for the residents on this street.  I think the last photo in this series shows how packed this street is with tourists.  The street entrance above was consistently backed up for a block or two.





Two more parts to come in this series.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

••◊ Never trust San Francisco schedules, part 1

First of all, just to be fair, I have to say that I have a general negative attitude toward San Francisco.  I've never had a good experience there.  Not that there's some type of superstitious bad voodoo going on, but my experience has always felt that way.

Last Sunday morning I was online wasting time before leaving for the airport.  Sure enough, an email comes through stating that my flight has been pushed back from 10:20 to 11:15.  No big deal.  It just throws off my plan for the day in San Francisco a little.  I get to the airport and now the flight is pushed back to 12:50.  Well...there went my plans.

One of the compromises I have to make as a broad shouldered individual on a discount airline is seating space.  My work around has always been to find two smaller people who like window and aisle seats and sit between them.  Most of the time it works out...  This time, however, a mother of two young children sat down on the opposite side of the aisle.  Five minutes into the flight the baby decides to just start screaming.  For me it was a sure fire advertisement for Yaz or Trojan.  The mother considers her options and decided that the best path forward was to play with the tired child instead of letting it sleep.  Twenty minutes into the flight I'm considering options involving duct tape and/or a cockpit door exit and the woman next to me says, "ah, that poor darling."  ...I'm thinking the polar opposite.  My cortisol levels are spiked after the 1.5 hours of putting up with a horrible mother and her screaming brat.  At least my experience is being consistent.

Upon arrival I was anticipating my suitcase spinning around the silver oval in baggage claim, but after waiting until nearly everyone else has left the baggage claim - no bag.  Did the airline lose it?  I was thinking, "oh great...at least my camera wasn't in that suitcase."  Then a person working in the area pointed us in the direction of the luggage claims office - which turned out to be the wrong office.  After a few more minutes of walking around I found the real luggage claims office expecting to hear that my bag was dropped somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between San Diego and San Francisco.  The bag was there waiting for me.  It had arrived on an earlier flight.  Cortisol level - 1.




I have to admit that one of the nice things about San Francisco is the public transportation system and it's positive acceptance of bicycle riders.  On the BART train there was a dedicated space for bicycle parking that allowed the bicycle to stay out of the way of pedestrians.  Nice.  Seattle and San Diego seem to have more bike paths, but San Francisco certainly has a better overall public transportation system.

On Monday my aunt paid for a professional tour guide to take us around the city - more to come on that later.  On Russian Hill I spotted a couple unusual forms of transportation.  The 3-wheeled Go Car was unexpected, but cool.  The car guides you via GPS and has a narrated tour of the city.  If I would have stayed longer I would have rented one.  The other iconic form of 9mph transportation are the San Francisco trolley cars.  I still haven't figured out how they run a cable that long.  Is a series of cables?  A series of synchronized motors?  A Wikipedia entry is out there somewhere that explains it. 



On Wednesday morning I had a flight out at 6am so I could make it to work in the morning.  The online BART schedule said a train would arrive at my station at 4:23am.  OK, that should leave enough time to get to the airport...or so I thought.  I woke up at 4am, got dressed, and went down to the station just outside my hotel - which doesn't open until 4:15am and has multiple people of questionable mental state surrounding the entrance until then.  The station opens up, I buy a ticket, and wait down in the lower corridor for the train.  4:30 comes.  OK so the train is a little late.  4:35 comes.  Something isn't right.  Of little comfort was the fact that the passenger 10 feet from me starts discussing his last felony with another outbound passenger.  About that time I searched around for the schedule and it says the train arrives at 4:59.  Oh crap!  It's too late to go up and find a taxi that takes a credit card and make it to the airport through 101 traffic, so I have to risk it.  The train shows up at 5:01am.


I'm negotiating a new plan that mostly involves buying another ticket to at least make it home that day.

The BART train arrives at SFO and I run up to the SFO terminal train platform, mostly with false hope.  At the second stop I'm at the international terminal and decide that rather than waste 15 minutes getting to the domestic terminal I'm going take charge and just run for it.  It was something surely inspired by Usain Bolt.  The early morning Starbucks zombies are staring at me as I do the 1/2 mile sprint through the domestic terminal while pulling my two wheeled suitcase.  I arrive at the Southwest counter panting something like, "I'm late for my flight."  The check-in agent put my bag right through and tells me my bag might arrive later than me.  There's still hope!  I then bolt (no pun intended) to security and and tell them I'm late for my flight.  They put me at the front of the line, which means the mandatory TSA digital strip search.  I can still make it!  I can just smell the aroma of gate 31 - which is actually a good thing this day!  My last 1/4 mile sprint to gate 31 involved a dodge and weave technique that the US soccer team would be proud of.

Turns out I was 5 minutes early. 

At least I got a cool down period before boarding.  The flight was 1/3 full, so I sat away from other people so they wouldn't have to smell my manly effort (i.e. sweaty stench). 

Homeward bound.

My luggage arrived on time too.  Never give up.  Never surrender!