The first weekend in December, just after returning from our Mediterranean trip, NoVA Travelers were off again; this time to San Francisco.
There were five of us on this excursion and my job as the organizer was to expose the members to as many facets of San Francisco life as I could during our short stay. The first jaw dropping moment of joy on this trip came with the view of our hotel lobby. We stayed at the Sir Francis Drake and the historic hotel is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. The hotel is a Kimpton property and as usual their standards for customer service set the bar high. We were treated complimentary cocktails each evening to be taken either in the impressive lobby bar or the famous Starlight Lounge that gives a 360 degree view of San Francisco from the 21st floor.
After a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant (the butternut squash ravioli is superb), we spent time the first evening exploring Union Square and Powell street, watching the neighborhood come alive at night with the Union Square Christmas Tree twinkling in the background. I had never been to the city during the holiday season and it's just lovely.
We started off our first full day in the city the next morning with a visit (after a tasty and relaxed breakfast at our hotel) to city hall. It is an architecturally significant building with master craftsmanship in its design details. I was especially happy at this stop on our tourist trail because I have a weird hobby of taking pictures of brides and pigeons in every city we visit and man there are a lot of brides coming through city hall! From city hall we proceeded to the Mission District for authentic local Mission burritos (and the story behind the district) before heading to Pier 39. I like to give members a taste of all the forms of public transportation available in the city so we took the trolley via the Embarcadero over to the pier. Frisco is the queen of public transportation. Buses, electric buses [they look like regular buses on the bottom but run like bumper cars with a big pole on top that snags the old trolley lines] trolleys [run like the electric buses but on train track rails underneath instead of tires], taxis, ferries, and cable cars. There is also the subway [which when it comes out from the underground and runs above ground uses the same overhead electrical wires as the trolleys and electric buses], and the regional train system [similar to commuter trains in DC or NYC but travel both directions all day long].
No trip to Frisco is complete without a trip to Pier 39-tons of shops, fresh seafood and street entertainers!! Add in ocean views [you can see the Golden Gate and Alcatraz] complete with seagulls and the famous sea lions and you are starting to get the picture.
The sea lions are adorable!!! Apparently in September 1989, sea lions began to appear consistently at PIER 39's K dock for unknown reasons. The dock had recently been refurbished and for a period of time no boats were docked there, leaving large open spaces where sea lions could easily congregate. By mid-January 1990, there were about 150 sea lions at PIER 39. At first, the sea lions were viewed as a nuisance and rightly so; the owners of the 11 boats docked on K dock had to get to their boats while trying to avoid wild animals weighing in at 100 to 1000 pounds. In February, 1990, there were about 250 sea lions, and by March the population was more than 400. At this time, PIER 39 had to force the owners to relocate their boats from K dock to other locations in their Marina. By this time the city was happy to host the lions as they were a huge tourist draw bringing cash into the wharf area. The dock was officially closed to the public and set aside for the sea lions. The last official high count was 1,139 sea lions on September 3, 2001. The lions bark at each other, play and even snore.
I really enjoyed the vicarious thrill of experiencing the wharf for the first time through other member's eyes. Of course, even for me as a repeat visitor it was great fun- watching the sea lions frolic never gets old, nor does consuming large amounts of fresh seafood. Once we saw the lions we made our way along the piers to the Museum of Mechanical Games. It is this really cool museum on Pier 41 - basically a hanger filled with all of these old mechanical moving arcade attractions. You know, like the one where you put a quarter in and the gypsy woman gives you a fortune in the Tom Hanks movie BIG? They have some of the oldest ones still in existence. Some of the most interesting include a laughing man [which was actually funny enough to make me laugh, but would have scared me as a child], an execution game [you put the quarter in and watch a mechanical doll get taken to the gallows and then hanged when the floor drops out], and fifty cents for the largest and most intricate mechanical arcade game in history [an entire working village the size of an air hockey table that comes alive with men chopping wood, kids on swing sets, wives making dinner, pigs and cows moving in the pasture, horses pulling carts on the streets, etc]. Very cool! The museum is completely free, except for the cost you spend [voluntarily] to play the games.
After our afternoon on the wharf we had dinner on the pier at the Crabhouse. The restaurant is always bustling with activity and that night was no exception. Crab, crab, and more crab, any way you like. Yum! Our next stop was the Cannery several blocks away. At dawn of the 20th century canning was high-tech, so the largest fruit cannery in the world was built in San Francisco. It was called Del Monte Foods Plant No.1. Now these buildings are occupied by the Cannery venue which hosts a lot of shops, dining and music. Our final stop on the tourist trail for this day was Ghirardelli Square. (History of the square here: http://www.ghirardellisq.com/ghirardellisq/about.asp) There are three major sections to the square-outdoor fountain area with a lovely fountain sculpture; chocolate shop [which of course we dropped into to pick up some goodies to take home]; ice cream shop. We each enjoyed a famous Ghirardelli sundae in the ice cream shop to close out the evening.
After dessert we walked a few blocks over to Hyde Street and caught a cable car headed back toward our hotel. These things are amazing. (History and full details here: http://www.cable-car-guy.com/html/cchow.html.) Basically the cars [which look like those open top touring buses in major cities] run along a wire cable buried in the street. The cable is moving up and down the street and pulls the car along and the car can also move up and down the length of the cable also. Really neat, but you don't want to be in one if the cable loses its grip and becomes runaway. The streets of Frisco are REALLY steep and it was a bit scary but fun to be moving down the big hills in the cable car. It is such a beautiful view of the city though, late at night from the car. We stood on the very back of the car as it moved, leaning sideways over the street [just like in the movies] and enjoyed the wind on our faces and felt alive! The car dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel and thus concluded our first day in SF. I think it's pretty much a given now that my tours give members the most experiences and sights per day for the least amount of price. That was a lot of ground we covered in just one day and a lot of lasting memories made.
The next day, we were picked up at our hotel in a double decker tour bus (with a very entertaining driver) that took us over to the wharf again to catch our tour bus to Muir Woods (home of the coastal redwood forest). The ride to the woods was very scenic and took us right over the Golden Gate bridge. The coastal redwoods are so majestic. The trees are just massive and awe inspiring. It seems the man who owned the land was being pressured by the surrounding city to develop the land. They were getting close to using eminent domain in a bid to take it from him so they could use the resources it contained for the public good and then develop the land. In a shrewd move he called up President Theodore R. and offered to give the land in its entirety to the federal government to keep it out of the clutches of the city. Theo accepted the land and it has been protected ever since. As you enter the forest you also see Eucalyptus trees which are pretty neat too.
We had an hour to hike the park [and stop at the gift shop] and then the bus took us to Sausalito [across the bay from Frisco] to tour. We stayed in Sausalito after the tour bus left to go back to Frisco in order to take the ferry back to the city and enjoy the view approaching San Francisco. We toured Sausalito on foot before enjoying a seafood lunch at the Spinnaker, a Sausalito landmark. I also met an entertaining street person in Sausalito who bills himself as a guitar playing street minister, hippy, and strong republican. You don't often see that combination. I had always thought that hippies and republicans were mutually exclusive circles (I say this as a Republican myself). It was refreshing to see that's not the case. He happens to be running for congress also, so it was fun to chat with him while we waited for the ferry.
Once we were back in Frisco, we did a little more shopping and then walked the whole way back to our hotel. Climbing up and over the hill via Hyde Street affords a beautiful view of the pacific and a chance to look down Lombard street (famous crooked street) and get some exercise. Probably no more than a 3 mile walk total, but you really feel it with the steep hills.
We did dinner that night a cheap and tasty Thai restaurant not far from our hotel.
Our last day in the city saw us focused on our neighborhood (Union Square), Chinatown, and Little Italy. We spent the morning window shopping in Union Square and watching the ice skaters in the park. Macy's has an elaborate display with live shelter/rescue animals for adoption in their windows each Christmas and of course we were drawn to that. We did lunch at Neiman Marcus in their famous Rotunda. They are most famous for their complimentary chicken broth served in what can only be described as an espresso cup and their fresh from the oven popovers with strawberry jam. As always, their food was perfect. A couple of members had the crab Louie salad which they reported was perhaps the best they'd ever had.
Following lunch we meandered up to Chinatown in the light rain, darting into little shops tucked into the alleys and along the main streets [24 blocks of knick knacks] of the neighborhood, picking up souvenirs and window shopping. The store window displays are really fabulous. We made a stop at a very old Buddist temple as well as at a fortune cookie factory where we got to taste the product as we watched it being made.
Past Chinatown we entered North Beach, Frisco's Little Italy where I lead the group on a walking tour of the most notable sights like Washington Square. It's called North Beach because at once point it actually was a beach. Eventually it was backfilled and now some of the major landmark skyscrapers stand where the ocean once rolled ashore. We stopped to dine at the Steps of Rome restaurant for dinner as we discussed our favorite parts of the trip and prepared to say goodbye to city of San Francisco. After dinner, we headed back to our hotel to gather our bags and leave for the airport.
For me it was one of the best weekend trips of the year. First because I simply love San Francisco. I could easily live there and seeing the city decked out for Christmas really put me in the holiday spirit. Second because my husband was able to join us on the trip and that is always a blessing to me, especially when visiting a place he hasn't been and I get to see his reaction to a new city experience. Finally, the members who attended the trip with me are just a fantastic group of ladies and it was great to get to know them better and share laughs and memories.
Because of my fondness for San Francisco (and also because it is great for my airline mile running hobby) you can bet there will be a trip to SFO for NoVA Travelers in 2010. If this report has peaked your interest, I hope you will plan to join me on a repeat visit.
I'd like to close with the member comments left on our website about this trip:
" This was a memorable trip for three ladies who had never been to San Francisco! We covered all the tourist high points and a few little known out of the way gems! We walked, we talked, we dined, we lunched as ladies, we snapped a million photos, and we rode on every single form of public transportation available in Frisco! It was an absolute blast and I would recommend the trip to anyone with a curiosity about this culturally diverse and geographically interesting city. For those who think traveling with strangers might be awkward.....I suggest that you open your mind......your mouth will follow, and before you know it you will have made a special new friend. I know I did....thank you for the great trip Marsha & Deb (my roomies!) "
" I had a great time in San Francisco. Went with an open mind and soaked up the city. From the cable cars, to mission burritos, and lunch ladies at the Rotunda. San Francisco has a lot of surprises to offer, including the elegance of City Hall and the out of the way fortune cookie factory. We covered so much in three days. I have a multitude of pictures and memories. I also had the pleasure of sharing the trip with people who have a sense of adventure. Kudos to Jenni, who had a great itinerary and provided us with little known facts about the city. "
" I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend in San Francisco! I had always wanted to visit and the city is as beautiful as I imagined. The weather was cooler than I anticipated but sunny and perfect for walking...which we did a lot. We packed so much into the few days that even we had a hard time recalling what we had done...but were able to trace it back through our meals! What could be better! Beautiful city, fun companions, good food and full days. I flew from Dulles and met the group in the San Francisco airport, and it worked out well..after we realized I was in a different terminal :) I had never traveled with people I didn't know, and was a little nervous, but decided to take the chance. It was so worth it! "