San Francisco – Autodesk Gallery, Cable Car Museum, Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito & Pier 39

The discovery of the cable cars saw us all vow to use more public transport and less leg power in our travels round San Francisco. It didn’t quite work like that, since of course there were many routes without cable car, and also we occasionally grew bored waiting for one, so ended up scaling the truly dizzying heights of the steep hills on our own two feet.

As we headed to the downtown Financial District, we ended up walking most of the route, since the passing cable cars were full to the brim with whooping tourists.

Yes, I said the Financial District. The City, as it were. We were heading here because, thanks to checking on TripAdvisor for the best places to visit, I discovered some great reviews of a wee place that nobody else had recommended or told us about. And it turned out to be one of the best tourist spots we found. Husband said he felt it was like a hidden treasure that nobody else knew about; judging  by the fact there are 215 reviews on Google, he was sadly mistaken.

Sorry ­– I’m talking about the Autodesk Gallery, which, from the reviews I read, I assumed was a modern type of gallery/museum, with interactive displays that would entertain the children.

I was partly right ­– it was interactive.

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But Autodesk is actually a company, one which basically designs software for inventors, engineers and creators. This gallery, on the 2nd floor of a Victorian downtown office block, is part of the company’s offices, and is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Its purpose, I assume, is to highlight and therefore promote the work the company does, and also to publicise the sort of technology and engineering we assume is a vision of the future but which is actually being used now, in current applications.

We saw a model of the new 3D printed bridge that is this year being put into place in Amsterdam; the digital animation technology which is used to create CGI films such as Avatar and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs; a competition-winning model of the Mercedes Benz of the future; an eight-and-a-half foot Lego dinosaur; and the technology behind prosthetic limbs. It was fascinating.

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But the cherry on the top of this visit was the fact that we got to do some 3D design and printing ourselves, using the web-based Tinkercad app, under the tutelage of a very cool dude called Mike, who guided us through the programme and then presented us with the 3D printed products of our designs. It was a ton of fun to be able to see your design on screen, then watch it being built in the 3D printer.

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Daughter was unhappy with her final design, so Mike encouraged her to go back to the computer to amend it, which she did.

“That’s cool, man!” said Mike. “That’s iteration! That’s what we like to see!”

Iteration – the new word for doing it again, but better.

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We spent something like three hours at the Gallery, as business folk were shown around it by Autodesk bosses, being sold the technology. I don’t know whether our amateur enthusiasm, oohing and ahhing at the exhibits, would have made or broken the deals. It was the most chilled-out experience; husband even appeared at one point with a cup of coffee he had made for himself in the kitchen. Absolutely go there, if you can.

Back on the cable car outside, and we headed for the Cable Car Museum on Mason Street, which is also where the cars themselves are stored at night, and where the cables can be seen turning on the huge winding wheels. There is much to learn about here, even if you’re not that interested in cable cars. To be honest, you can’t not be – the city is very proud of them and they play an important part in San Francisco’s history.

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In 1947, they were threatened with retirement but a lovely lady called Friedel Klussman rounded all her chums and launched a campaign to save the cable cars. She is still a city hero.

We learned that there are four cable routes in the city, and about 40 cars, with only 26 out on the roads at any one time. We learned that the gripman (and it was all men we saw) must be very strong, as using the grip to pick up the cables is hard work. We learned that there are two ways of going round corners: the “let go” or “drift” curve, and the “pull” curve.

It was all quite fascinating, especially because all this learning was done in the vicinity of those huge winding wheels, which turned relentlessly and noisily in the background.

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From the Autodesk Gallery to the Cable Car Museum in one day – it was as though we had travelled forward and backward in time. To compare the engineering simplicity yet brilliance of the cable cars with the digital, virtual genius of computer programming… It was incredible to see the evolution and progression.

For our last day in San Francisco we had planned to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, and we woke to the best weather of our trip so far. Glorious blue skies, benignly warm sun, and a breeze that had dropped from being very noticeable to merely refreshing.

We made our way to Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up the hire bikes (from San Francisco Bicycle Rentals, and a lovely young man with a California drawl and a beanie hat that seemed a permanent fixture). And then we set off – heading west along the coast. I have to admit, after all the hills we had been climbing throughout our stay in San Francisco, I was a bit nervous about going on a bike ride. I thought I might die; or that, at the very least, there would be pain, tears and recriminations.

But this was a glorious, civilised, relaxing, enjoyable experience, and yet another one I would wholeheartedly recommend.

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We made our way along Marina Boulevard, then turned north after the Yacht Harbour; continued west along the San Francisco Bay Trail, between Crissy Field East Beach and Marsh; and stopped off at the Warming Hut Bookstore & Café for a quick snack and drink to fuel us on our way. It must be said, we were far from being alone in following this trail. It was very popular; hundreds of walkers, and also hundreds of cyclists. If you’re after some peace, quiet and me time, maybe don’t take this trail. It was busier than I expected but also surprisingly good-natured. Everybody was polite and considerate, and cyclists gave way to pedestrians.

Leaving the café we were presented with possibly the steepest hill of the journey; but we were fuelled by sugar and caffeine, so we powered up it, and at the top were rewarded by the steel majesty of the bridge, the deafening roar of the traffic, and the poisonous stench of the car fumes. It was brilliant. We cycled across the bridge, and just couldn’t believe we were there. We stopped at periodic moments to look across the bay to the city, and up at the red columns that towered above us.

“It’s not as big as I thought it’d be,” said son. Oh.

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If you’ve ever wondered what’s on the other side of the bridge (and to be honest, I hadn’t), it’s some more of California – lots of very green California. It is still hilly, and very pretty. We didn’t see an enormous amount of it, since our bike ride was taking us just to Sausalito, a town about three miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. This part of our ride did feel as though it was only us; it seems most of those who traversed the bridge terminated their tour at Vista Point, a hilltop spot with views back across the bay to San Francisco. So our bike ride was largely just us on the road, speeding down hills, enjoying the views of the ocean and the green coolness of the tree shade.

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Sausalito is a wee seaside town, with houses piling high into the hills above the coast. Its USP, as a tourist destination, are the houseboats ranged along jetties on the shore – we stopped off at the town’s first, the Galilee Harbor Community Association, which houses artists and maritime workers. We stopped to chat with a tenant of one of the houseboats, a retired commercial fisherman who moved to Sausalito 30 years ago, and has always lived there on a boat. “I know the sea better’n I know the land,” he shrugged. His pet cat trotted out of the boat to be petted and stroked, then bounded up onto the deck to sunbathe among the potted plants.

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Husband rode on to see more houseboats further along the coast, these ones bigger, grander and more expensive… The children and I cycled back into town for food at Cibo, a café that looked thoroughly unimpressive from the outside, but which harboured lovely, friendly, helpful staff and the most delicious seared tuna and bean salad I have ever had the good fortune to tuck into.

Our return from Sausalito was not back over the Golden Gate Bridge – this tourist trip is one that takes the ferry back to San Francisco. With only seconds until the ferry left, husband battled with the ticket machine, while son went to beg the ferryman to hold the vessel just for one more minute.

“You’re not gettin’ on without your family,” said the ferryman gruffly.

“I don’t want to get on without my family!” son retorted. “I want you to wait for my family!”

“You’re not gettin’ on without your family,” repeated the ferryman. Husband grasped the tickets from the belligerent machine and raced past us onto the ramp, son about to follow when he was grabbed by the ferryman.

“Not without your family!” said the man.

That’s my family!” said son, pointing at husband and terrified of missing the boat.

The ferryman was so apologetic I thought he was going to cry. “I was just doin’ my job,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m really sorry.”

His determination not to allow minors to travel unaccompanied made me wonder how many Huckleberry Finn types attempt to sail away from home alone.

The ferry back took us past another view of Alcatraz, and gave us a glorious sunlit vista of the city as we berthed in the port.

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We set off to cycle back to the hire shops when husband reminded me of Pier 39… “The bike shop shuts at six,” said husband. I looked at my watch – 20 minutes to six. But that meant nothing when Pier 39 beckoned. We swung our bikes down the jetty, towards the cheering crowd at the end.

“Where are we going?” asked daughter.

“To the end,” I said, excitedly.

“The end of what?” Daughter was very tired by this point, and had little time or energy for yet more sightseeing. But when we arrived at the end, and joined the crowd standing on blocks to look across the water, her little mouth fell open with excitement.

Pier 39 is the home of the sunbathing sealions. They are many, and they are big, and they are noisy, and they are utterly wild.

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Most lay stationary in the evening sun, oblivious to the mob of humans pointing cameras and laughing at them. Some barked and launched at each other, teeth bared, occasionally throwing their weight fully head on, tumbling heavily off the pallets into the sea, to roars of appreciative “woah!” from the observers above.

We could have stayed there for hours.

As it was, bed beckoned, so we returned the hire bikes and waited for half an hour for our last cable car of the trip. The sun dipped, and with it went the day’s warmth; we began shivering in the queue, but, listening to the ever present banjo busker, we refused to get on the quicker bus, so that we could perch on the steps of the cable car and take a final, golden-red, windblown look from the city hilltops across the bay.

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