In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district I went looking for the last rays of the Summer of Love. I’d missed the hippy revolution, being straight jacketed in a school uniform imprisoned behind Catholic school gates in the heady days of 1967. In Haight Street I spied a huge plastic pair of fish-netted legs dangling from a building. Beneath them was a shop selling clothes that rock chicks and drag queens would die for, and next door Positively Haight Street was blasting out the ‘60s tunes and selling Grateful Dead T-shirts by the score. It was heaven.
I ate a late breakfast at the People’s Café , breathing in its good vibes, strolled past the Red Victorian B&B (a self-styled “peaceful world hotel” run by a woman called Sami SunChild) and when I rounded a corner I bumped into a VW beetle painted in an authentic flower-power design.
But stopovers don’t allow too long to linger, so I headed to Union Square to snap up a half-price ticket to the Janis Joplin musical to cap off the nostalgia.Union Square is the city’s heart, geographically and lyrically as I came face-to-face with a red masonry heart depicting a scene of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge in tribute to Tony Bennett’s famous song.
San Francisco has many great neighbourhoods to mooch around and a few killer hills that need to be tackled.
I found the perfect solution was to base myself in the heart of town and buy a three-day pass to ride the cable car up over Nob and Russian hills to Fisherman’s Wharf, and take trolley cars and buses everywhere else.
The Handlery Hotel, a family-run boutique establishment was buzzing with Australian accents, travellers who like me appreciated the proximity to the theatres, cafes and the retail palaces of Macy’s, Saks and Tiffany’s.
The staff was helpful and warned about the long queues at the nearby cable car terminus and suggested I jump aboard at stops along Powell Street.
A cable car ride is fantastic – the first glimpse of the bay as the car lurches to the peak is magnificent and the ride downhill, especially when you hang on the outside, is a thrill. I tried to snap a picture as the quirky, crooked Lombard Street can into view, but missed, so I went back later – up that same hill – by foot! Two ferry companies run almost identical one-hour bay cruises for the same price.
We heard grim tales as the boat circled the notorious island prison of Alcatraz and buttoned up jackets as we swept under the Golden Gate Bridge.
The next day I took another boat trip over to Sausalito, a picture-perfect village of waterfront boutiques and eateries and houses clinging to the slopes of wooded hills.
I spent several hours ambling around Fishermen’s Wharf watching as men ladled out steaming crabs from big boiling pots and I joined diners at one of the dozens seafood restaurants to sup on clam chowder served in a bread bowl. Several piers make up the “wharf” the best known being Pier 39, which is packed in summer with people eating, strolling, watching street performers – and a few feet away – with sea lions basking on a jetty seemingly oblivious to the constant ferry traffic.
The best place for a bird’s eye view of this beautiful, often foggy, city is the observation level of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Here I took in the enormous bay stretching for miles and the distinct city neighbourhoods, the stately Victorian mansions on the hills, the church spires and the green belts of parkland.
It was a great way to see the sights I couldn’t jam into my stopover.
Published in Get Up & Go Magazine, Summer 2006