Messy Travellers Finale: San Francisco

To be known as 'America's favourite city' is probably enough to tempt most people to San Francisco, however the fact that this was to be our last stop on our round-the-world trip meant as much as we were looking forward to spending a couple of days there it was tinged with that looming feeling of going home soon. Nevertheless, jet-lagged or not we crammed it all in...

First shock was the flight - 12 hours from Sydney only to arrive 4 hours before we left due to the time difference!. Second shock was much more alarming - the United Airlines stewardesses. I'm all against age discrimination but this was like having your Auntie flying past you with a food & drinks trolley!! a sharp contrast to the stewardesses on Singapore Airlines who were young and very attractive, or so Beth tells me, I honestly hadn't noticed...

I don't think Beth was looking forward to walking up all those hills that San Francisco is so famous for but I couldn't wait to get stuck into where some of my favourite films were made: Bullitt, Escape From Alcatraz, A View To A Kill (the one where Roger Moore finalling realises he's too old to play Bond when he gets a kicking from Grace Jones). Our hotel was pretty much in the centre which is a handy start for the tramline that runs through the city. This is by far the best way to see San Francisco, a great step back in time as the driver pushes and pulls the huge brake in the middle of the tram, rings the bell for everyone to get on and off and yells out the next stop. The view as you come to the highest point in the city (Nob Hill) with Alcatraz staring at you below is fantastic.

About 3/4 of the way down the hill towards the Wharf is probably San Francisco's most famous (and bizarre) street - Lombard Street. Our image of this steep, winding street that has been used for many a car chase in films was slightly spoilt however when, just about to take a photo, a white limosine appeared at the bottom of the street and from the sunroof up popped a large fearsome looking black woman who then took a photo using a cheap disposable camera!! Seems she spent all her money on the limo!...

We carried on walking down towards the Wharf and by now we were getting used to seeing the iconic San Francisco fire engines, Police cars and hearing people say stuff like "yeah it's just off 7th and 42nd Street". A helpful traffic policeman even let us both sit on his huge police motorbike, although I couldn't help feeling like the camp one from that 80's cop series 'C.H.I.P's'...

The Wharf itself was pretty impressive although the accent on tourism made it feel like some sort of fishing theme park, I particularly liked the 100 or so seals that basked on the floating platforms. They honked and stank and generally stood out a mile from all the tacky tourist shops and seafood diners.

As one of the centres of attracting tourists (you catch the ferry to Alcatraz from here but more of that later) you also get quite a few people wanting you to part with your money. I'm loathe to use the word 'beggars' because the people are so varied. One guy, claiming to be from the 'Smile Police', arrested and fined us for not smiling enough while another guy was selling the San Francisco equivalent of 'The Big Issue'. Personally I was happy to part with a dollar for what was an interesting read about their fight for action and recognition for homeless people. Particularly when you put into perspective how little, if any at all, of the tourist income actually makes it down to these people. Something to bear in mind the next time you're abroad and over-charged in a restaurant, bar, taxi etc yet being English you just think "hmm bit pricier than I thought it'd be" but do nothing about it - this is your chance! Anyway I've climbed down off my soapbox now...

After walking round the Wharf, which curves around the bay, we headed back towards the city area passing through the Chinatown and Little Italy areas. We also climbed to the top of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill where the panaramic view of the city was unbeatable. Facing out to Alcatraz, you have the Golden Gate bridge on your left, then the white, almost meditaranean buildings in the San Francisco suburbs, moving on to the skyline-dominating CBD with the Transamerica Pyramid building the most prominant and out to the Oakland Bay bridge which is almost, but not quite, as impressive as the Golden Gate.

We then walked down the other side of Telegraph Hill and, being liberal twentysomethings, took a tram to one of the largest gay and lesbian communities in the world - Castro. To be honest I found the area a bit of a disappointment from the lively, cosmopolitan area I'd expected. It certainly stuck out as one of the more colourful districts but perhaps we just happened to be there at the wrong time (it was about 4:30 in the afternoon so not the liveliest time of day). However I did notice that tonight's showing at the Castro Cinema was "The Return of the Cockettes"...

A trip to San Francisco just isn't complete without a trip to Alcatraz. After crashing out early due to jetlag finally catching up with us and all that walking we boarded the ferry (see www.blueandgoldfleet.com for tickets, about 10 each without audio tours) and headed over. The instant you set foot on the island you start picturing what it must have been like for the prisoners and thanks to the pictures, films and preservation of the place you get a good idea. You're allowed to pretty much roam everywhere and we surprised ourselves by spending three hours on the island. Despite the crowds around you it's still very eerie walking through the main cellblock, the manmade and very life-like dummies which featured in "Escape from Alcatraz" are still in their original cells and you can sit in opposite sides of the visiting booths where the only communication was by hand signals and telephone. Quite rightly one of San Francisco's highlights and well worth visiting.

And then that was it. Not just the end of San Francisco but the end of the our trip. It was a very strange stepping on the plane back to England seeing the last four months suddenly flash before my eyes...

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