Our Lucky Day

Trip Start Aug 01, 2005
Trip End Nov 22, 2005

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Flag of United States  , California
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Our lucky day

Today the weather gods were looking upon us. And it's about time I must say. San Fran is renowned for having a cool climate and for being covered in a semi permanent fog. As it is on a 32 mile peninsula, San Fran has its own microclimate, resulting in a cool and foggy climate year. In fact as a result of the fog it took explores an additional 200 years to realise there was a city behind the fog. Monterey to the south was already an established city before explorers finally saw San Fran from the sea. Mark Twain once said, "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." So to have a day in the mid 20's two weeks before winter (when the average is around 14), with bright blue sunny skies was a miracle. I guess the gods were apologising for the Northern Lights debacle.

To make the most of the weather we planned an action packed day starting with a city tour, a good way to orientate ourselves and learn some titbits of info that I could pass onto you. Like this- San Fran only has a population of 800,000 people (which I thought was surprisingly low) although up to 2 million work in the city and commute from nearby cities. The city is only 46 square miles meaning real estate is at a premium. We toured some of the most expensive and impressive areas of the city. As space is at a premium the only way to build is up. This means people either live in apartments or expensive Victoria townhouses. These "painted ladies" as they are known are colourfully painted and are not designed by architects but ordered out of a Sears's catalogue. There are five different designs available meaning many houses look similar, the only differences being the colour.

The most expensive area is predictably the area near the bay. The problem with this area, known as The Marina, is that is on an earthquake zone and known as the Shake and Bake area. Despite the possibility of waking one day to find your three storey house is now underground, there are no houses under a million bucks. The other rich area is Pacific Heights where the rich and famous live, People like Robin Williams, Danny Glover and author of trashy romance Danielle Steele. We saw all their houses; the most impressive was Ms Steele's which was valued at over $50 million, five years ago before the real estate boom. Those who can't afford to buy can always rent a 2 bedroom apartment for $3800 USD per month. A bargain. Of course parking space is extra.

No matter how rich you are it is hard to avoid those damn hills. We were told that there are 43 hills in downtown, 7 of which are major. I must tell you that what they call you a minor hill still requires the services of a Sherpa to get up. It was like an amusement ride, travelling in the motorised trolley car as we flew down hill at breakneck speeds. If I lived in this city I would open a brake and clutch business, as there is a lot of money to be made. Our driver told us the brakes on his trolley are changed every six weeks. I am surprised they lasted that long.

One thing the hills provide is fantastic views over the bay. I said it yesterday, I will repeat it today, San Fran is a stunningly beautiful city. We were constantly gazing in amazement as we had glorious vistas of the bay and the surrounds. Of course the highlight is the Golden Gate Bridge, supposedly the most photographed man made object in the world. Fee and I certainly helped it to retain its title today. The bridge was built in 1937 by the private sector for $35 million, an engineering and architectural masterpiece of the time. To show you how ineffective governments businesses are, the city built the nearby Bay Bridge (the bridge we drove in on) in 1938 for a cost of $88 million. The Golden Gate gets its name from its colour. It is continually painted (International Orange is the colour if you are looking in your local hardware store) to maintain its look and this consumes 120,000 gallons of paint each year. The weather was perfect and allowed us to take many great photos, the driver told us that 90% of the time it is engulfed by fog, hence the reason it was painted such a bright colour- so people could see it.

The area around the Golden Gate, an old military barracks, had a familiar smell- that of eucalyptus. There are thousands of eucalyptus trees in the reserve, which the US government had planted. The reason was to use the wood to help make the railroads. In a typical display of government ineptitude, after spending lots of money on this project they realised the trunks were too twisted and unable to be used. So they were left with a big slice of Australian fauna in one of their biggest reserves in San Fran. Nice one.

Our tour also took us through other interesting areas such as Nob Hill, Union Square, Chinatown, the financial district and Little Italy. All enhanced the reputation of the city. We briefly stopped for lunch in San Fran's oldest bakery for the city famous clam chowder served in a sourdough bowl. Two thumbs up. No wonder the queues were twenty minutes long.

It was now time to head into the bay to The Rock- Alcatraz. Only 2kms from the city Alcatraz is famous for being the island prison that no one could escape from. It was home to famous criminals such as Al Capone and Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz who kept over 300 birds in his small cell). Open for only 30 years, Alcatraz has a famous history and is the scene for many films. Walking through the prison, entering the cells was a chilling experience. To make matters worse, the prisoners enjoyed some of the best view possible from a few of the prison windows. They could see the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Fran skyline and on big events such as New Years Eve could clearly hear people having fun. The prisoners said this was one of the hardest things to take. We heard stories of riots and escape attempts. Only three people escape in the history of The Rock. Using spoons they tunnelled from their cells into a utility corridor. They made dummies and put them in their beds, which gave them time before anyone noticed. They then climbed onto the roof and using homemade life jackets jumped into the icy, choppy waters. They were never found and presumed to have drowned, though they are all still wanted.

Alcatraz was also the setting from 1967-1970 of a peaceful protest by Native Americans who wanted to highlight their plight. They lived on the rock and refused to leave. The protest was successful and is seen as the catalyst for Native Americans to achieving many of the rights they have since obtained.

Rather than face the hills back to our hotel we decided to have dinner on Fisherman's Wharf. Touristy yes. Overpriced yes. But you dont get much fresher seafood. We saw fisherman bringing in their catch and selling it to the restaurants. The local specialty (apart from clam chowder) is crab. There are lots of stalls selling seafood, with people standing up at tables eating them takeaway style but with our sore muscles we chose to eat inside in a restaurant. The food was great and well worth the price.

The only way to cap off such a busy and action packed day was with a cardio workout. You may have heard Fee's screams of "nooooooooooo!!!" back home as we slowly climbed the steep hills (major, minor, they are all steep) to our hotel. You think that with all these hills the locals would be fit. And many are. But today we saw (and I swear go god this is true) a t shirt in size XXXXXXL. Yes that is six X's. At first I thought they were advertising something erotic with all those x's. The T shirt was enormous. It could have fit Shaquille O Neal, Homer Simpson and a hippo inside. It could have provided shelter for a small African community. It could be used to block the sun. And it fits nice and snug on some Americans. Amazzzzzzzzzing.
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