Escaping to Alcatraz

23 01 2010

We booked an Alcatraz tour for 11am and then asked the concierge for some breakfast recommendations; but upon leaving the hotel it transpired that neither of us had listened to the directions. So we headed towards China Town to a café that Heather had visited on a previous occasion – Café de la Presse. Heather had a cream cheese and salmon bagel with a chai latte and I decided to go for some American pancakes with fruit. I couldn’t understand why on Earth you’d have milky tea but when I tried some of Heather’s I think the cardamom made it just about palatable.

After breakfast we wandered back to Market Street to pick up the trolley bus. This is also an old tram but not as old as the tourist “cable cars” that go up the hills of San Fran. We got to Pier 33 with plenty of time to spare but it was really cold and rainy so we cowered indoors with hot drinks willing the bad weather away. Since we were there so early we were almost first in line for the ferry but they still didn’t seem to board it that quickly. Whilst there we posed for the fake Alcatraz picture below. Given the grey conditions there was no way we could have taken a shot like this.

Heather and I in front of "Alcatraz"

The audio tour of Alcatraz was really good and I’d recommend it to any visitor of San Francisco. We got back to shore a lot earlier than the hotel had told us which was great because it meant we didn’t need to have another late lunch. We decided, based not on recommendations or any knowledge of the area, to get lunch in Nob Hill. Mostly just because we liked the name. We had forgotten that the word “hill” in San Francisco generally means that you have to ascend a mountain to get there. My Kili experience probably came in quite useful in this. Whilst walking there we saw some stairs to Coit Tower and – not knowing what it was – we decided to pop there.

Fortunately the weather had improved a bit on earlier – the rain was holding off and there were occasional bursts of sunshine so our walk was quite pleasant. Coit Tower turned was a tower built at the bequest of a wealthy San Franciscan, Lillie Coit, and commanded great views across the city. After that mild detour we headed further on our descent and ascent to the area known as Nob Hill: a district almost entirely devoid of eateries. Heather’s iPhone suggested the Nob Hill Grille on the Urban Spoon application which was a really good find.

After lunch we headed back down town (through what was apparently hobo central) towards our hotel. We did a bit of window-shopping in the Union Square area but even Heather found the sales assistants too over-the-top and obsequious in Barney’s. Eventually we headed back to the hotel to rest a bit. I was quite happy to head off to a happy hour within the hour but Heather needed some downtime so I settled with playing on the Internet (disgusted that I had to pay for another 24-hour period when the previous one ran out).

After a couple of hours respite, we went down to the concierge’s desk to get some bar recommendations but there was huge queue there so we decided to head off to SoMa (South of Market) which our guidebook said was a happening and lively area of converted warehouses. Either we didn’t find the centre of SoMa or it was never really a lively place. Eventually we ended up in the W hotel bar which was really cool although all the women in dresses made me feel ever so slightly under-dressed in my Patagonia fleece. I can thoroughly recommend the lychee martinis there if you ever go.

Although we’d said we might pop out to visit Monika in Oakland, we’d decided to stay in San Fran, but it was a very pleasant surprise when Monika said she’d come back to Frisco to dine with us. We asked the bartender, Ryan (according to Heather he was very cute), at the W where we should eat and he’d recommended a sushi place called Ozumo. He told us we didn’t need to bother booking a table because it was a big restaurant. This didn’t go down too well with the maître d’ when we turned up but we were able to get a nice table in the bar area.

The food there was absolutely exquisite and some of the best sushi and sashimi I’ve ever had. I also had cold saké which I think is a first for me. I had a few glasses so I must have enjoyed it. I don’t what it was about that area but for some reason the women were getting absolutely piss-drunk. One woman was held up by her boyfriend as she exited the premises – providing much amusement to the restaurant staff who were watching from the kitchen. I’m not quite sure why her boyfriend thought that holding her up by the buttocks was the most efficient way of keeping her upright but it just about seemed to work. Once outside in the car we saw another super-drunk girl staggering along against her boyfriend’s shoulder.

Monika dropped us back off at our hotel and although Heather felt pretty much done, we tried to find another quiet bar in our area for a last drink but eventually just returned to the hotel bar for a nightcap. It was our last night in San Francisco and I wasn’t much looking forward to going back to dull and rainy LA.

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

22 01 2010

Since Heather was no great fan of LA and the weather was dire we’d decided to head off to San Fran. This involved a short flight from Long Beach airport. It’s a very small airport but that meant that check-in and security were pretty quick and to cap it off they had free WiFi. More airports should follow their example!

Heather was feeling quite hung over and due to the inclement weather the ride was very turbulent. These factors coupled with her profound fear of flying did not help her enjoyment of the flight one bit! After a shaky landing we touched down in SFO.

Straight away I felt more affinity with San Fran than LA. For starters they had this phenomenon known throughout the rest of the world as “public transport” but apparently anathema to LA. We got the BART down to Powell Street which was right next to our hotel. Heather had catered to my travel budget (no doubt that’s going to cost me an extra trip later!) by booking us into separate rooms at the 4* Parc55 hotel. It was a very nice hotel although they never had enough people on check-in or the concierge desk and other features that I’ve now come to expect of such places were sadly lacking. (Did I mention I liked free WiFi yet?)

We’d not really eaten and it was already quite late (3pm) so we popped down to the concierge’s desk and asked for some Chinese restaurant recommendations. The first place had already closed for lunch and wouldn’t reopen until 5pm so we went to the second recommendation. This was a really nice restaurant called the House of Nanking. From the outside I would never have picked it since it looked quite basic but the concierge was right on the money to rate it so highly. Since my stomach was busy eating itself I had both an appetiser and a main: pork dumplings and a slow-cooked beef wrap. It was really tasty stuff.

Me in front of the China Gate

The sun had been out briefly on the way to China Town but by the time we’d finished lunch it was a distant memory. From China Town we walked up and down hills to Lombard Street – the world’s most crooked street – and then headed down to Fisherman’s Wharf. I snapped a few shots of the Golden Gate bridge in the misty murk and then we headed over to Pier 39 to see the sea lions there. At first we thought that they weren’t there (some of our tourist information said they were seasonal) but suddenly I heard their familiar cry and we rounded the corner to see them sprawled over the decking.

By this point it was drizzling a lot and the wind was very cold so we decided to get a taxi back to our hotel. The taxi driver was from Vietnam and asked us where we were from. This proved a problematic question since both of us are homeless vagabonds but we eventually discussed the large (hitherto unknown) Vietnamese populations of LA and Amsterdam.

Once back at hotel we chilled for a bit and then got ready to head out for our first night in San Fran. We arranged for Heather’s friend Monika (she lives in nearby Oakland) to come and pick us up and then went to California’s oldest restaurant, the Tadich Grill opened in 1849. The food was okay – I had the local seafood speciality Cioppino – but apart from saying that we’d been to the oldest restaurant in the state I’m not sure the atmosphere or food were anything special.

Monika, Heather and me at the Tadich grill

Afterwards we were feeling a bit drowsy so we went to a bar that Monika knew of in the Mission district. It was a nice, busy bar – I had caipirinhas again to try to pep me up a bit – and had a sort of student-y vibe. After a few drinks there we decided to call it a night and Monika dropped us off back at the hotel.

Apparently back at the hotel, Heather’s television wasn’t working so she’d called someone up to fix it. That was when she discovered that the hotel was also lacking bathrobes and had to answer the door in her leopard print nightie. I think the guy must have thought he was in the start of a cheesy porn film – especially when the technical fault with her telly was an unplugged power cable!