San Francisco – Golden Gate Park, Alcatraz & Lombard St

It turns out that pancake mix is actually okay. I’ve always scoffed at the idea of such a thing – I mean, how hard is it to make pancakes? You just mix a bit of flour, water and eggs… Hang on, is it water or milk? And do you add eggs? I can’t remember. Anyway, the point is, pancakes need the smallest number of ingredients, mixed together and poured in a pan. Who needs pancake mix?

We do, actually, and it’s what we’ve been breakfasting on every morning so far. I am a pancake mix convert. It is the easiest thing in the world to watch husband mixing the powder with water, then presenting me with a cute little 4-inch pancake on a plate, which I drench with maple syrup and mixed berries.

It is the perfect way to start the day.

That and a cup of tea, which hasn’t presented too many problems here in the US of A (unlike in eastern Asia last year), though I had understood that coffee is the national drink of choice here. Yesterday in Starbucks, I asked for tea, and was irritably asked what sort of tea. I said, “Umm, just regular black tea with milk,” and the barista even more irritably thrust a tea menu in my face. They had a multitude of black teas from which to choose, which was great but still didn’t excuse the obnoxiousness of the barista.

So. We have been cramming in the activities, despite consciously trying to take it easy. There’s just too much to see and do. Gone are the days of lying on a sunbed reading a book for two weeks (I kind of miss those days). Now, with a fidgety husband and hyperactive children, holidays mean sightseeing, taking hundreds of photos, and a lot of walking.

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On Sunday we ended up doing a playpark crawl around the city, every playpark passed necessitating a pause from our trekking. We began with a short play at our “local”, Alta Plaza Park, before heading south again via the Raymond Kimbell Playground, where we stopped briefly to watch a baseball game. They really do wear those stripy trousers.

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We continued south – crossing Ellis Street (my Ellis family laying claim to the territory) – to Alamo Square, 12 blocks away from our apartment, to see the Painted Ladies. These are a line of pastel Victorian houses, which are apparently more special than all the other pastel Victorian houses in the city by virtue of the fact that one of them was the set of Full House, a sitcom which daughter was horribly addicted to for a while. It seems many people have been addicted to the show at some point or another, because there were a lot of tourists standing on the hill of the park taking photos of a perfectly innocuous-looking row of homes, though Google calls them an “historical row of Victorian houses well-known for appearances on movies, TV shows & postcards.”

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We then, on the advice of some TripAdvisor reviews, walked through Haight-Ashbury, which was an eye-opener. This is the home of the most laidback* San Franciscans,  and the streets are a riot of colour and smells. Very interesting smells. Laying claim to being the birthplace of hippy culture, it has pretty much stayed in that era.

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From here we hired bikes and cycled through the Golden Gate Park as far as we could, which was the Buffalo Paddock (where we saw the tiny rodent). The bison were distant, and lying down, so fairly unengaging. More engaging was the Japanese Tea Garden in the east of the park, which was beautifully laid out, and a true representation of eastern Asian philosophies.

Even the hordes of tourists couldn’t quite dampen the sense of peace and tranquillity. Perfectly formed gardens can do that to people, you know – just calm things down. What was most touching was the 9000lb Lantern of Peace, presented by Japanese Consul General Yasasuke Katsuno in 1953 – such a short time after World War II ended, when feelings were still so raw, and tears hardly dried. This lantern was funded by Japanese schoolchildren, apparently, which seems a bit harsh. It was hardly their fault the Americans nuked them.

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Golden Gate Park is huge. It would be a brave woman who cycled round the whole thing – and if you did so, you wouldn’t get the best out of it. It’s a place to stop off and experience, including a botanical garden, a museum, a boating lake, a stadium, and a golf course, all contained within the hills, fields and trees. It was here I saw the eagle, nonchalantly gliding away from a pack of small, nagging birds.

Perhaps the vastness of the park does require a bike to cover more of it – that or a Segway, of which there were many trundling along the paths. I thought they looked ridiculous, until I remembered that’s exactly what people thought of the first bicycles, too.

As we headed back though the park, we passed what I consider the best representation of the San Franciscan character – an outdoor rollerblade disco. This seemed the epitome of the search for fun and hanging loose. The older, more experienced rollerbladers were performing a choreographed routine to Michael Jackson’s Thriller as we arrived – and young learners were circling the track, nervously watching their feet and clutching parents’ hands. It was a brilliant meeting of the ages, and a fun, active way to spend a sunny Sunday.

Walking on, husband took us on a detour to show us what he and his family consider rightfully theirs – a house in Lone Mountain which was owned by a distant relative until his death, which nobody seems to have noticed in time to lay claim to his home. Son wanted to ring the doorbell and ask for a tour, but we thought saying, “A distant great-uncle used to own this house – could we come in?” might not have been persuasive enough.

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The rest of the walk back to our apartment was apparently a parade of gorgeous houses, judging by the photos on my phone. I wonder when, and if, I would tire of the intricate details and rainbow colours of San Francisco houses. At some point, no doubt, I would become inured to them. (Though possibly not, judging by my joy at the variety of gins on offer in a downtown bar. Bear with me, this is relevant. I drink a lot of gin. I mean, I don’t have it for breakfast or anything, but I am a habitual gin drinker. I ordered a martini and the bartender asked if I would like vodka or gin. I said gin. She asked which gin. I said I didn’t know, what did they have to offer? She showed me the menu, and I became childishly excited at the sight of Hendricks and, joy of joys, Bombay Sapphire. “You’re easy to please!” said the bartender, and that is why this continuing love of gin is relevant to my liking of pretty houses. Maybe I would never tire of them after all.)

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The next day was our trip to Alcatraz. This was another pinnacle of weirdness in the mountain range of being freaked out. I can’t believe I’m in the USA. I can’t believe I’m in San Francisco. I can’t believe we visited Alcatraz, the most famous prison on Earth. (Second most famous? I reckon Guantanamo pips it to the post now.) Our journey to the port was very laidback, thanks to a bus driver and a cable car driver who couldn’t be bothered to take payment. Laidback? I meant cheap.

At the port (Pier 33) we collected our ferry tickets, then stopped for a quick snack in the unimpressive café attached. A marauding pigeon kept us amused as we waited – marching in through the open doors to peck at crumbs on the floor, before dive bombing diners on his flight back out the door.

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As we queued for the ferry, I pointed out a photo of Al Capone to son. “That’s Al Capone?” he said. “He doesn’t look very dangerous.” I don’t know what he was expecting – a man in a Darth Vader helmet, perhaps. The ferry to Alcatraz takes only something like 12 minutes. Alcatraz Island is surprisingly close to the mainland – well, it looks close, though as the tour guide pointed out when we landed, it takes good club swimmers about 45 minutes to an hour to swim the channel that separates the two. As the boat approached the island jetty, a young Indian boy on board pointed out the graffiti on a sign. “Indians welcome!” he said with delight to his mum. This statement, it turns out, was misunderstood by us both, as I learnt very soon afterwards. Our tour of the prison was definitely a highlight of this holiday. It was educational, sensational, informative, depressing, impressive and unbelievable.

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The US civil rights movement is not a subject I have ever been taught, or gone out of my way to learn. So I had no idea that, from 1969, a group of Native Americans occupied the island for 19 months, in an attempt to highlight their plight, draw attention to their erasure from their own country, and claim back their land. Hence the “Indians welcome” sign at the jetty. Though the campaign was ended by US Government forces, it was considered a successful one, since it did have an impact on federal Native American rights policies.

Though the prison’s history was on occasion sensationalised by the audio tour narration and the guides, the prison remains are enough to make visitors pity those who had to endure it. It was the setting for harsh punishment, not rehabilitation. Having said that, I intend to adopt one of the regulations for my own home:

Regulation #5: You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege.

That’ll keep the kids on their toes.

Alcatraz is now not only a museum to mankind’s cruelty but a nature reserve, and a very successful and well protected one at that. It is a site of sustainability, with the toilets flushed with seawater, and the plants irrigated by rainwater. The prison roofs are covered in solar panels, unseen from the ground, and therefore not considered in contravention of the buildings’ historic character. There are beautifully planted gardens (which husband saw but I missed, due to apathy. I mean exhaustion). There was also a plethora of seabirds, which  was  exciting – husband saw a snowy egret take flight, and son and I were accompanied down the hill by two geese and their goslings.

I would definitely recommend this trip.

On returning to the mainland, it seems as though we set ourselves the challenge to climb all the steepest hills in town. Well, two of them. We started with 448 stairs up the Greenwich Steps (which, by the way, are awesome – I mean, very steep and don’t attempt them without a bottle of water and some next-of-kin info on you, but fairytale pretty, tree-lined and quiet) to Coit Tower, at the top of Telegraph Hill. Having made it that far, we settled for looking briefly at the Art Deco murals in the lobby of the tower, and forewent the lift to the top. Having recently begun art lessons, I peered closely at the murals to take in the paint strokes. Looked simple enough. Might try it when I get home.

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After the mammoth climb to Coit Tower, we then sought our next tourist attraction, Lombard Street, which is that really famous zig zag street you see in all the movies. The locals don’t use it at all, as far as I could tell – only tourists in hire cars wound their worried way down it, recording the route on their mobile phones. We started from the wrong end, i.e. the bottom, and climbed the 224 steps to the top, then took in the view as we got our breath back.

Almost as soon as we got home, we piled into bed. We had walked something like 16,000 steps that day, and were pooped. One final piece of excitement, though – as I sat on the toilet that evening, the bathroom juddered, the shower cubicle rattled, and the door shook. It was an earthquake tremor. I momentarily pictured myself dying on the toilet in San Francisco, but the quake passed within fractions of a second, and I sighed with relief as I realised I would survive to have pancakes again for breakfast.

*For laidback, read “high”.

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