Like in Chicago and Portland, staying in or near San Francisco’s city center was cost prohibitive, so we again used points and stayed at an airport hotel. The commute into San Francisco was about 25 minutes but ran aside the beautiful San Francisco Bay. Finding parking was never a problem as there are plenty of public, but pricey, garages.
Alcatraz – Messages of Freedom and Justice
Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A ferry operated by a private company from Pier 33 is the only means to access the island. They run about every 30 minutes and you have to purchase fares for a specific departure time, but you can return whenever you’re ready.
That was a good thing as Trey and I became captivated by the island… its history and stories, and all the once hardened but now deteriorating skeletal structures juxtaposed amid beauty. (One only needs to look.)
We spent most of the day touring the former military outpost-then military prison-then federal penitentiary-now national treasure.
During our visit, Alcatraz was also serving as an art exhibit space. We were fortunate that our trip coincided with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.
The installation exhibit filled two work rooms, and began with the wonderful, welcoming face of a giant, intricate paper dragon, its body comprising the full length of the room.
The contrast of vibrant colors against decaying prison walls was surreal. As were the Lego portraits and brave words of individuals imprisoned for voicing or acting upon their truths…
including Mr. Weiwei himself who at the time was being detained by the Chinese government.
The entire island is open for exploring and we spent as much time outside as we did inside the various cell blocks, industry/labor buildings, and administrative offices.
The NPS has done a great job (as always!) in telling and preserving Alcatraz’s stories, from its notorious prisoners and attempted breakouts to those of the families and children of guards that were also Alcatraz residents.
We learned about the Native American 19-month (Nov 1969 – Jun 1971) occupation of the island. The cross-tribe participants (including the late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller) claimed the island as their own citing an 1860’s treaty.
In reality, the takeover was an act of rebellion for past and ongoing injustices carried out by the U.S. Government against its native people. The civil disobedience effort was successful at calling attention to those injustices and their continued effects. We were happy to find that signs of the occupation are well preserved and protected as part of Alcatraz’s rich history.
San Francisco by Boat, Car, Bike, & Foot
Just before leaving Austin for this trek around the U.S., Trey and I struck up a conversation with a businessman at the downtown PF Chang’s bar. He was from San Francisco, so we quizzed him on what his #1 must-do-in-San Francisco recommendation was. “That’s simple!” he said. “You have to see San Francisco from the vantage point of its bay – sail out into the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge.”
That’s exactly what we did on the “Privateer” through the San Francisco Sailing Company. The day was gorgeous, perfect for sailing! Plus, the unique views and perspectives we experienced were well worth the $60 ticket price.
We struck up a conversation with a couple sitting adjacent to us on the cozy sailboat and soon after regretted doing so. They were weirdly interested in us and toward the end of the trip, a bit too touchy and invading our personal spaces. We politely declined their invitation to join them at their home thinking that the boat’s sails were not the only thing they wanted to experience swinging that day. California!
The bay was beautiful though, and like our no-strings-attached friend at PF Chang’s, we highly recommend sailing around it to fully enjoy the San Francisco skyline and surrounding bridges and hills.
Beginning in the late 1800’s and through World War II, the entrance to San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean was deemed militarily vulnerable.
As such, a series of defense “batteries” were constructed along both the northern and southern shores. The remnants of these fortifications remain for intrigued tourists to explore. We selected the northern shore route because it allowed us to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, a new experience for Trey.
Once across the bridge, we followed Conzelman Road that curved around the hills’ edges and offered amazing views of the bay, bridge, and city.
Stopping at Kirby Battery gave us a feel for what guarding America’s western gateway was like during World War II.
It’s easy to imagine diligent soldiers scouring the ocean’s horizon for enemy vessels and the skies for foreign aircraft while bunkered behind sixteen-inch barrel guns. The never used guns are long-gone, but the bunkers and other structures are open to climb about, picnic on, or find a peaceful moment while taking in the serene beauty.
Continuing on Conzelman Road until it dead ended, we turned left onto Field Road which leads to the steep ledge of Bonita Point. The tiny Bonita Point Lighthouse sits atop a rugged crag and is accessible via a wooden suspension bridge – a good challenge for those wanting to confront a fear of heights.
The ocean and bay views are spectacular, but we enjoyed the scenes below the most… sunbathing seals and ocean spray rising from waves crashing upon black rocky ledges.
Heading inland on Field Road, we made our final stop back in time at Nike Missile Site SF-88…
where we walked above ground among retired missiles and below ground where missiles were stored and readied for launch.
The site closed in the 1970’s and is well maintained by the NPS. Just as the old battery sites had done, this retired missile site provided a good sense of life at a cold war defense site.
From The Embarcadero’s Pier 39, it is about a 5.5 mile ride (one-way) across the Golden Gate. The route takes you along the beach, by gorgeous waterfront homes, and through Presidio to the Battery East Trail.
The climb up to the bridge is steep, but there are plenty of overlooks to stop, rest, and take in the changing scenery… another great way to enjoy the cityscape.
As we climbed we noticed a thick fog rolling in at a fury’s pace. It quickly engulfed the bridge and we wondered whether we’d be able to ride across the bridge, and if so… would we be able to see anything? By the time we huffed our way to bridge level and emerged from the trees there was no trace of fog, not a single remnant.
I understand that is how fog is in the bay area… it is an entity in itself, choosing to come and go, disrupt and displease at will.
The ride across the Golden Gate was thrilling. The rails are high enough and the path wide enough that we felt perfectly safe and comfortable crossing over and back on the 1.7 mile bridge.
Along with sailing around the bay, I consider bicycling across the Golden Gate as a San Francisco must-do!
We fell in love with San Francisco. It’s a very walkable city if you don’t mind hills. If you’d prefer to avoid hills then stick to the shoreline areas of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero.
With loads of fabulous restaurants, shopping, boats, nightlife and wildlife, they contain essential elements of the quintessential San Francisco experience.
We also loved walking through Pacific Heights, China Town, and Telegraph Hill.
Golden Gate Park was on our itinerary, but the streets surrounding it were impassable due to an annual bluegrass festival. Next time!
San Francisco Food
Breakfast – To offset the expense of eating out, we started most days with a cheap but hearty breakfast from Ed’s Diner in South San Francisco.
They served an excellent version of Trey’s favorite, the traditional American breakfast. We would fill ourselves enough to skip lunch and then carry a snack bar and piece of fruit to make it to dinner.
Our one breakfast exception was Mama’s On Washington Square, a recommendation by my sister-in-law who grew up in San Francisco.
We were warned that it is small and there is always a crowd, so we arrived twenty minutes before its 8:00 a.m. opening time. That wasn’t early enough to keep us from waiting in line, but the owner-operated café knows their business and has perfected a system of getting people in the door, through an ordering line, seated, served, and back out the door with a full stomach and happy heart.
The freshness and quality of the food is tops! The menu is extensive so I felt a bit overwhelmed with being pressured to order quickly and not hold up the line. We also completely forgot to record or photograph what we ordered.
Dinner – This is it! My absolute favorite dish from our trip around the United States…
Crab Enchiladas from the Crab House at Pier 39. They were what I imagine eating in Heaven will be like. A melt in your mouth unique flavor, yet still enchilada tasting enough to be called an enchilada. The above photo is not an exaggeration, together the two enchiladas were the size of a Texas big-as-your-face burrito and I finished off each one then wiped the skillet clean.
Even Trey, who is not a shell food person, enjoyed the small bite I shared. He opted for the Fish & Chips, a very generous portion of perfectly fried and fluffy cod, served just as it should be.
R & G Lounge in Chinatown – Authentic, traditional Chinese. We Texans felt a little out of place and lost at first, but the servers were kind and helpful, and the food was excellent.
McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood & Steaks, Ghirardelli Square – we failed to take a photo of our meals and neither of us recall the meal. We do, however, vividly remember the gorgeous bay views.
We watched swimmers doing their evening laps while the sun set behind the hills and turned sailboats into silhouettes.
Dessert was a Caramel Sea Salt Hot Fudge Sundae that we split from Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory.
Alcatraz Artsy pics…
Next Stop… Carmel By The Sea