Wednesday, September 02, 2009

San Francisco

"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco", I was skeptical about this quote. From above, as my plane was landing I glanced over the city through the window, it was like watching a 10 times fast-forwarded movie: the mist from the sunny Pacific Ocean becoming a thick condensed fog pouring into the city. Apparently, the elevating high heat air of the California mainland sucks in the cold ocean air in the summer, as a result San Francisco's characteristic fog that can cover the western half of the city all day and create an unique climate: summer is actually colder than the winter.

After a roadtrip to New York and Montreal, my baggage was full of crap, so I took a small bag and checked my luggage in the Airport Travel Agency which is the only place one can store baggage in San Francisco Airport because of the security regulations (all baggage is x-rayed prior to storage). The Airport Travel Agency (opening hours: 7:00-23:00; contact: 650.877.0422 or, is located on the Departures/Ticketing Level of the International Terminal, near the entrance to Gates G91-G102.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is the subway system that serves of the Bay Area, it has a direct connection to San Francisco airport. A single ride from the airport to Powell station which is the center of downtown San Francisco is $8.25. However, moving around the city of San Francisco, BART is not a good choice as it only has 4 stations in the area. San Francisco Municiple Railway (Muni), on the other hand, has 54 bus lines, 17 trolley bus lines, 7 light rail lines (known as the Muni Metro), 3 cable car lines, and a heritage streetcar line known as the F Market & Wharves that covers the whole city and county of San Francisco (system maps). Fares are $2 for adults and $0.75 for seniors over 65, youth aged 5-17 and disabled persons, except for the cable car lines which require a $5.00 one-way fare. I bought a 3 days Muni pass for $18 at a tourist information counter in the airport (not all tourist information counters sell the pass though, you can buy it at the tourist information center of Powell station as well) that gave me unlimited rides on all lines of the Muni system from 12:00 of the date being scratched off to mid-night of the third day by showing the pass to drivers.

I wasn't expecting to see so many Asian looking people in SF, it was like being in an Asian country but there was something peculiar about it: how people speak fluent English without accents. It's confusing to see the "Whites" were more like tourists here and the oxymoron term "minority-majority" (a term used to describe a U.S. state or other jurisdiction whose racial composition is less than 50% white. 'White' in this context almost always includes "Non-Hispanics and Whites", excerpted from wikipedia) discribes it all. It is very interesting to study the history and the demographics of SF: Spanish street/town names such as Sausalito were legacies that could be dated back to the land was claimed by Spain since the early 16th centry and became part of Mexico upon the independence from Spain in 1812. Russian hill and Russian river were named after the trace of Russian's settlement; being one of the first ports to dock when sailing east from Asia created a gaint Asian community and the oldest and one the the largest Chinatowns in North America. The California Gold Rush drew people from all over the world, Italian, Germans, etc. set foot on this land and brought in exotic flavors to the city; to live in a life that Havey Milk promised to homosexual, SF has the highest percentage of gay and lesbian individuals of any of the 50 largest U.S cities; and for some reason (some say it's because SF is a liberal city with more programs to help the homeless and destitute than most cities and the steady wheather) SF is believed to have the highest number of homeless inhabitants per capita of any major U.S. city... all in all, it gives you a glance at San Francisco.

I don't know how to categorize those who ask for money from anybody who walks by, only for beers. They seemed to be everywhere (they could be found in NYC and Montreal as well, but not as many as in SF) and an encounter with one of them was inevitable especially when walking around the city in the afternoon. I didn't find them intimidating or annoying though, actually I liked the way they made their requests bluntly, at least they wouldn't pretend to be sick or disable to earn my sympathy. I saw a man with a board written "Why lie, I need money for beer" and a quite creative guy had "Smile, if you masturbate and want to give me money"(Photo from onVertigo), the bottom line is they wouldn't harass even if you didn't give them a cent. How long does it take for them to collect enough money to buy a can of beer? Is life easier and happier this way? I wonder.

I took a bus to the west tip of the city where the Cliff House is located and had breakfast in the bistro. Go and visit their website and don't skip the intro as you can see the change of the place chronologically since 1863. Each window is a painting that changes views from time to time: sometimes rays from the sky unveiled the 3 reefs from the mist and one minute later swirling fog covers it all, leaving a mysterious blank in the frame. Photos of celebrities who have dined here were hung on the wall telling me that it wouldn't be cheap to have a breakfast here. The food was great and it was a good way to start the journey.

I then took a bus to the Legion of Honor which is a fine art museum in SF collecting mainly European art. A big fountain in front and one of Auguste Rodin's famous sculptures "The Thinker" was meditating alone in the forecourt of the empty plaza, a good way to create an atmosphere that matches the thinker. Simplicity was the feeling I got from the museum and I didn't just mean the plaza itself but also its collections. Nevertherless, Legion of Honor was a great connecting point to take a trekk down to the Golden Gate Bridge. I took the EL Camino del Mar through the Lincoln Park Golf Course then took a bus #29 at the intersection of the 25th Ave. and the EL Camino del Mar to the Golden Gate Bridge (bus #29 takes two routes, ask the driver to make sure you get on the one that goes to Golden Gate Bridge).

The view on the way was stupendous, greenish grass on the ground of the golf course with dark green pine trees as foreground; different blue hues from the ocean and the sky together with white mist hightlight the color red of the bridge. I waited for both piers to clear up, but it got worse. By the time I arrived the terminal of the bridge it was all covered in the fog so I moved to my next destination: the Palace of Fine Arts. It was built for Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Colonnades surrounding a rotunda with figures of Greek myths sculptured on the frieze, it looked like a miniature renovated forum in Rome. Images reflected in the water of the lagoon, it's not only a great location for photographing but also a lovely picknick spot. The adjecent exploratorium is now a experimental, hands-on museum of science.

I jumped on a bus wandering the city and was attracted by the colors of the Haight. Graffiti, long hair hippie looking guys, stores that sell pipes, it was the famous hippie street in 60's and it still is the focus point for hippies if you ask me. I went to the Red Victorian for a cup of coffee, the truth was I wanted to pee so badly, but the only rest room was locked from inside for at least a half hour! I was cursing whoever had stayed inside while lining up with other customers, and somehow a girl realized the door was unlocked, but no one saw anyone get out! I wonder if they added something in my coffee? Did I get high in the Haight?

I purchased a ticket online for Beach Blanket Babylon, a musical extravaganza that is now celebrating its 35th anniversary. Casts wearing grandiose wigs/costumes on their heads are the signature of the show, a model wearing the theme costume of this year in the SFO airport was a successful propaganda. A seat at the side/center Boxes where the best seats for the show are reserved, to get a ticket there one must call 415-421-4222 for availability. I got a seat at the rear balcony ($37), as it was an unnumbered seat I went to the theatre (678 Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard) around 17:00 to pick up my ticket and the staff told me that the queue usually starts at 18:00 even though the show wouldn't start until 20:00. I had an entree calamari for dinner in a bistro nearby, by the time I went back to the theatre, around 19:00, there was a big line ahead, luckily I was ushered to a seat that still had a panorama view of the stage (well, the theatre wasn't that big). Ushers took orders and sent them to your seat before the show started. The story was about snow white was looking for her true love, and she traveled the world looking for a perfect man to be her prince... Well, I know it sounds boring but the way they did it was a combination of immitation, exaggeration, sarcasm, grandiose costumes and powerful vocals. I enjoyed it very much and the laughing through out the show was proof of its popularity. The only thing I didn't understand was how could they wear the whole city on their head and why the show was restricted for adults only?

The whole San Francisco City was built in between hills as a result some of the streets were so steep and driving there tests brakes and gas pedals. To reduce the slope of Lombard St on Russian Hill between Hyde and Leavenworth streets section, 8 switchbacks were introcuded making the section of the street the crookedest street in the world. The landscape was added by the property owners later on and this street has become one of the must "drive" streets in SF for tourists. Cars lined up on Hyde waiting to drive down the hill; cameras, videos sticking out from the sky or door windows of cars, these people were fully equipted and I couldn't help laughing inside as it reminded me the parody by Bill Cosby: "They built a street up there called Lombard Street that goes straight down, and they're not satisfied with you killing yourself that way—they put grooves and curves and everything in it, and they put flowers there where they've buried the people that have killed themselves."

My original plan was to take public transportation to Guerneville on the Russian River for a horseback overnight riding tour (organized by Armstrong Woods Pack Station) in the Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve. I had the schedule made using the Public Transit Trip Planner on, however, with the waiting experiences for buses (expecially the cable cars) to arrive I wasn't brave enough to do it because I had to catch my flight back to Taiwan the next day.

An introduction of its official website: Grace Cathedral is a house of prayer for all people, without exception. It has no breath taking interior design as in the Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal, nor vivid sculptures that create the atmosphere of reverence, but there is something about the Grace Cathedral that makes it a place that resonates with some parts of anyone's heart. Another great feature is that their Sunday service is streamed online. An AIDS Interfaith Chapel at the right as a memorial to the nearly 20,000 San Franciscans and many others who have died of AIDS, as a place of meditation, healing and remembrance for caregivers and those who are still fighting against the disease; the indoor and ourdoor labyrinths are symbolic diagram of the pilgrim's journey and a walking meditation; stained glass windows not only tell stories of Christianity but also leave spaces for science (Einstein window, E=MC2) and galaxy (the gift window) etc; a fresco on the wall of the right entrance records the founding of United Nations in 1945 in San Francisco (notice the Republic of China flag on the 3rd from left)..., all the highlights of the Grace Gathedral make it one of a kind.

I couldn't shake the wonderful Armstrong Woods itinerary that I gave up out of my head so I booked a tour to Muir wood National Monument and Sausalito ($48, duration 3.5-4 hours) via my hotel. A bus picked me up at my hotel at 13:30, after about a 40mins ride with the driver picking up the other tourists from different hotels all over the SF city, I ended up at the Fisherman's Wharf and the driver told us to pay our trip at a booth that is located in the first floor of the Franciscan Crab Restaurant. Apparently, travel agencies that provide similar services all set office at Pier 43 1/2, Fisherman's Wharf. I didn't know if they were all affiliated to each other or not, but it seemed the journey all departed from Fisherman's Wharf. You can google it and find lots of agencies that have this service (usually twice a day, departing time from 09:00-09:15 in the morning and 14:00-14:15 in the afternoon). My advice is don't use the free hotel pick up unless you need it, which may save you 30 mins for other sightseeing, and book the trip in advance.

On the way, our driver introduced the history of the Muir Wood National Monument which can be found in the official website. We got an hour in the forest, despite the fact that the accessibility of the main trekk was easy, I could only take a glance on these colossal natural monuments in the first 1/3 of the trekk before heading back to the bus. Surrounded by these giant cypress, bathed in the rarely seen warm sunshine, I felt safe and peaceful.

Sausalito is situated near the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, it is interesting to see how the bridge seperates a foggy and sunny sky in San Francisco and the adjacent Sausalito respectively. Standing in the sun at the port of Sausalito watching the tumultuous mist cascading from the hill on the back, Sausalito looked like a promised land of Sun.

We had the choice of returning by ferry from Sausalito but the time was too early to see San Francisco city lights from the ferry so I took the bus back and used the time to tour Pier 39. I don't care if people say it's a tourist trap, it's a great area full of interesting shops including a Buba Gump Shrimp restaurant. Just on the side you can see many sea lions resting on floating decks relaxing without worry as its a protected area.

After a wonderful steak experience in Montreal (prepared by chef Andre), it was a dilemma to decide on either going back to the hotel and eating a steak at Mortons or trying the famous red lobster. I decided to go to Joe's Crab Shack for dinner, it was fun, great music, very nice staff. It was a little expensive but a very enjoyable dinner environment and a great treat to end the journey.


Sunny said...

stumble to ur blog randomly (I was looking for the black card technique). SF is one of my favorite cities in N.A. and you definitely have some awesome photos here! The interesting fact is that we have all heard about the famous Mark Twain quote regarding SF's winter, but allegedly, there is no record of him ever saying that to be found...

I am actually from TW, too, just don't have access to a Chinese keyboard now...@_@

Hanjié said...

Welcome, Sunny!

Even though I only stayed in SF for a few days and didn't have a chance to see much about it but I love the atmosphere of the city. I would also like to back someday and go for a horseback overnight riding tour in Guerneville on the Russian River.

Gladys Christabel said...

Hey how and where you got these Photos.It was really nice and memorable.Even i am staying in San Francisco for long years i would taste San Francisco Beautiful things like you.Really Great:):):)

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