Many Canadians, myself included, dream about visiting San Francisco because of the fantastic array of attractions, as numerous as points of light on a star map. As it is only a short flight two hour flight from my home town of Vancouver I have had the opportunity to visit many times over the years. San Fran is a city of neighborhoods, each a unique patch in this delightful urban tapestry.
On this visit I was on a mission to relive a time when San Francisco was the center of the groovy universe. As a young traveler I had visited San Fran in many disguises, wandering mendicant, guitar troubadour, poet. I slept on benches, in yippie flops and spent an entire summer residing in Golden Gate Park at the end of Haight Street. In 1968 and ’69 there were so many people making love openly in the grass that you had to wind around the ecstatic bodies of balling freaks.
In the psychedelic Haight – Ashbury District, a single famous street corner at Haight Street and Ashbury was where two dimensions intersected to open a new but sadly short lived universe for a generation of people between the ages of zero and twenty something who became known as ‘the hippies’ . I’m grown up now, no more flowers in my hair, patchouli oil , buckskin jackets or saying ‘Right On’ , ‘Far out’ and ‘Groovy’ in every sentence. It didn’t matter why, I was out to discover San Francisco again, a bit more comfortably this time.
The setting of this magnificent city in the geography of Northern California is a stunning act of nature. The deep water entrance to the harbour has been mastered by a world renowned landmark, The Golden Gate Bridge, connecting the city of San Francisco to the bedroom community of Oakland. Golden Gate Park at the foot of the bridge should be a ‘must see’ stop on anyone’s visit to ‘the city on the bay’.
It’s easily accessed by public transportation , ask any driver, they’re helpful. The civil war outpost Fort Point under the bridge still points it’s cannon towards the Pacific Ocean in symbolic defense of liberty. A scenic seawall along the coast line reveals big wave surfers in action and delicate indigenous plants.
On my most recent trip I chose to stay at the Nikko Hotel, right downtown close to Union Square. I like to be close to the center of things when I’m only going to be in town for a short visit. The Nikko is on Mason Street, two blocks from the historical heart of the city, Union Square. This is a lively area day or night. It was once quite rough, but not anymore. Don’t let an old story dissuade you from venturing out. There are some panhandlers left over, yes, but there are more street performers than anything these days. In the evenings I have seen entire rock bands set up on a street corner and wow the tourist crowd for tips.
Another reason to stay downtown is the fact that you’ll be the hub at the center of a wheel. Travel in any direction along a spoke and you’re headed towards something famous , distinct, or both. My direction on the first morning was straight to Union Squares surrounding streets of Powell , Geary and Post. These streets are shoulder to shoulder with great coffee cafe’s, some extensions of major hotels , some individually owned bistro’s. Coffee and a light breakfast is served at a sidewalk table for people on their way to work and the tourist alike. I like to watch the morning action of a busy city. My choice of cheese croissant and a tall mocha latte at a sun kissed ‘mom and pop’ brasserie seemed just perfect.
Come to any major US city from Canada and one of the first things you notice is that there are lot more shopping outlets . There are hundreds of franchises lining the streets and mall concourses that have never been heard of on the retail scene north of the border. I like to walk through Macy’s on Market Street when I get the chance. It’s a holiday in itself.
Inside any Macy’s they have hundreds of individual manufacturers represented in kiosk style outlets, some very fancy and expensive. The store was on my way and I ‘popped in’ for a visit. I chose to walk down Powell Street so that I could take a few pictures of the famous Cable Car round-about at Powell and Market.
It’s a popular image for people waiting to travel the opposite direction by Cable car after the two conductors muscle the cars around on the spinning platform marking ‘the end of the line’. From here I would walk down to the scenic waterfront Embarcadero where the commuter ferries to Oakland dock and disgorge passengers into the business district.
San Francisco is a great walking city, lots of variety, from flat to gradual rise with some challenging hills to climb if you choose the right streets. I decided that today would be a street photo day and I had worn my comfortable shoes. If you forget, there is an incredible Shoe Warehouse outlet beside Forever Twenty One on the Cable Car Station corner than has to be 40,000 square feet on three levels of shoes. If you’re a ‘shoe horse’ this may be an overload experience , bring a friend to guide you home.
I was lucky today, things were going my way. I walked through a crowd of bike couriers at the foot of a commercial building and chanced to engage a few in conversation. One perk about being a travel writer is that once you identify yourself as such people get talkative and interested in your work. I told them about my plan to circumnavigate an old route I had taken in the late 1960’s when San Francisco was still the Hippie Kingdom. “That’s a lot to take in all in a day,” it was suggested. My new guides and resident experts suggested I add some efficiencies into my game plan and schooled me in the new Bay Area Rapid Transit system, BART for short. I’m glad I got the lesson.
Instead of walking the entire distance, I chose the highlights as suggested by the bikey’s. From the Embarcadero I hopped the tram towards Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s hard not to feel like a kid again when a jolly tram conductor is ringing a jingling brass bell and you’re hanging out the door of a rattling orange time machine full of happy people. Between the warehouse units along the water I got my first glimpse of the island of Alcatraz, famous as a prison and now a famous landmark for visitors.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a collection of piers and an aquatic park at the end of the Embarcadero Boulevard. My favorite stop has always been the Pier 39 mob scene of Sea Lions lolling in the sun on the floating gangways. The big beasts stink, bark and cavort the day away much to the delight of everyone. The food outlets are extensive and I opted for a plate of fresh crispy calamari to eat on a bench to watch the crowd. Buskers and artists add to the convivial and totally photogenic atmosphere.
I decided to walk up Grant Street which would take me uphill past Coit Tower and shady Washington Square and the lovely cathedral there. This is one of those classic hill streets where colourful town homes shoulder each other distinctly on the steep inclination. To my right I could see the famous zig zag Lombard Street. I was headed towards Chinatown. This route would take me through Italian inspired North Beach and bring the world famously pointed spear that is the Transamerica Tower into view as I crested the rise of Nob Hill.
Jack Kerouac infamously held court here and has an alley named after him. As a writer I can’t resist an homage whenever possible. As it was lunch time and I’d worked up an appetite climbing the hill I decided to entertain a Chinese meal at a busy restaurant on Grant Street.
My smattering of Cantonese caused quite a stir. I had one of the best lunches of Char Sui, Gai Lan and Rice I have ever. In the same street I found a lady crowded tea/shop bakery and picked up a box of my favorites to savor later in the room. Gai Mei Bau, a coconut paste filled sweet bread, Char Sui Bau, a spicy meat paste baked treasure and several Dan Tat, the egg tart that can only be described as heavenly.
I took the shortcut under the mountain my biker friends had recommended through the Stockton Tunnel back into downtown. I wanted to catch the bus across town towards ‘The Haight’. This is an interesting route because it takes a traveler through all the distinct ethnic neighbors that divide San Francisco into a patchwork quilt. The bus becomes like a mini United nations after passing through several. It took twenty minutes before my driver gave me the signal. I stepped off onto the lowers steps at the Grand Temple of the Hippy Kingdom, the foot of Haight Street. Walking up the rise was like reliving my youth, I was transported as I ascended this personal Stairway to Heaven.
Of course almost nothing ever stays the same. It was all just a memory. Shopkeepers had banded together to keep the vibe rolling in order to sell poster reproductions and T-shirts. It’s still cool though, but much quieter than the old days. I popped into the new McDonald’s for some coffee and reflection. What did you expect? I asked myself the same thing. Across the street the tunnel entrance to the park beckoned. A kid was banging away at a timbale inside for the acoustics and sort of magnetized me in that direction. I wasn’t half way through when an itchy straggler sidled up and whispered, “Do want to buy some grass”. Just like the old days. There are no hippies balling in the grass these days. Just a beautiful sunny expanse of lawn well patrolled by police on ATV’s.
‘It’s all so beautiful’, are the words of a one hit wonder from back in the day. And it really was, but like so many precious memories they fade with time and reliving them is impossible. The best thing is too have a great life now and make lasting memories today. I walked away from my 1969 bubble world quite happy in the knowledge that I ‘d seen it at it’s best.
My next stop would be to once again commune with the Pacific Ocean, a few short minutes away, in the town of Ocean Beach. The Grand Highway along the sandy beach is a dreamscape of drifting dunes , floating gulls and the eternal Pacific.
As I sat in the sand atop a soft dune I contemplated the world behind me. The Ocean is the metronome of all things living. The constant sound of long waves crashing on the shoreline has a way of peeling the stress from anyone who opens their heart and mind to the natural world. I thought about my day in San Francisco, truly one of the worlds great cities. I saw that it is a place of renewal and not just a monument to the past. I felt satisfied to have found my place in the story of San Francisco and maybe you will too.
I returned to my hotel to share my little box of bakery delights with Patricia. I’d had a dreamy day. I’d lived a dual life in a single journey of rediscovery. On the way back I chanced upon a Thai restaurant which to my noses surprise was serving exactly authentic Thai food. By some miracle of logistics they had got hold of the especially rare ingredients that make Thai food in Thailand an experience worth flying fifteen hours for. How they’d traveled fresh so far from the Kingdom I don’t know. It was a San Francisco miracle. Pat and I hurried back there for dinner in case it was just a temporary mirage. We decided during the meal that the King of Thai restaurant on Farrel Street was a new point of light in San Francisco’s pantheon of stars.