Saturday, July 08, 2017

Sisters in San Francisco

As an adult, I've been on a few trips with my extended family - the beach, the lake, etc. These trips are rather involved, complicated affairs, as we have a group of 12 that ranges in age from 3 years old to up in the 70s.

Recently, my two sisters and I convened to plan another one of these complex outings. As we banged our heads against the wall to find a destination, lodging, timing, and activities that would appeal to such a large, varied group, my older sister, Laura, all but whispered, "What if the three of *us* just went somewhere fun, and left everyone else at home?"

Grace and I were silent for one moment of guilt. Then, we hastily agreed. So began our sisters' trip to San Francisco. While both Laura and Grace had visited the city before, I never had, and I. Was. STOKED!! We immediately set about planning, mapping out must-see attractions, dining, and more.

Anguish echoes quietly off the walls
in cell blocks at Alcatraz.

Day 1

When the big day finally arrived, I got to town the earliest, around lunchtime. (Laura wouldn't arrive until that evening, and Grace the next morning.) First things first - I checked into our hotel, the Omni San Francisco. I booked this hotel because it got great reviews on Trip Advisor and also because the location is very central. The lobby is gorgeous, the staff is helpful, the rooms are comfortable (though we did hear quite a bit of street noise), and two on-site restaurants make a quick bite easy. After dropping off my bags, I hopped a car to Fisherman's Wharf.

I'd pre-booked an afternoon ticket to tour Alcatraz! Both of my sisters had visited the storied prison on previous trips, so they weren't interested in seeing it again. I, however, couldn't wait to snoop through the place. As I didn't have much time for lunch, I grabbed some snacks at Pier 33, boarded the ferry, and was off!

The ferry ride both to and from Alcatraz is a lovely experience in itself. You get great views of the city and enjoy the sea air. The ferries from the pier to Alcatraz (and back again) are large boats, and they are frequent. After a 30-minute ride, you arrive on the island. You're ushered toward a park ranger, who provides some general announcements to the group. (It's a good idea at this point to take a quick photo of the ferry schedule for the day. That way, you can be sure you catch the boat back at the most convenient time.)

Alcatraz feels like the island that time forgot.
The island Alcatraz sits on is actually quite lovely, and the former prison, employee housing, and other facilities spread across it. There are lots of gardens, many of which were in full bloom during my visit. The other thing that the island displayed in abundance during my trip were birds - hundreds and hundreds of gulls, cormorants, and other species. It was nesting season, and they owned the place - like a giant rookery! In many ways, Alcatraz is like the island that time forgot. It's largely taken over by flora and wildlife.

I took my time making my way to the spot where you pick up your audio tour. (This ensured that later, as I walked through the tour, I wouldn't be straining to see over the heads of everyone else who arrived on the same boat as me.) There's a quick orientation film that I stopped to view, which provides historical background on the island and is a nice introduction to all you're about to see.

I admired the gardens and views as I ambled to where the audio tour, which routes you through the cell house,  begins. On the tour, you see cells, learn about famous escape attempts, observe the warden's offices, and see where prisoners ate meals and received visitors. It's chilling. The cells are so tiny. It's hard to imagine the whole place chock full of desperate men. The anguish echoes off the walls a bit, and the solitary cells are positively frightening.

After turning in my audio tour guide, I explored more of the island, inducing the warden's house, some of the industrial buildings, the morgue and the bookstore. The parade ground was literally covered with birds. Amazing.

I caught the ferry back, sitting on the open, upper deck to enjoy the ocean for a bit. After I arrived back at the pier, I decided to walk back to the hotel to orient myself and see the city a bit. On the way, I stopped at Bocadillos (a Spanish wine and tapas bar) for a delicious dinner - a lamb burger with a side of Catalan spinach, washed down with a bit of red wine. I completely stumbled over this place, but it was a great choice! I sat at the bar and service was prompt and friendly.

Biking the Golden Gate Bridge with my sisters!

Then, it was back to the hotel for a rest! Laura arrived from the airport late that night, and we both slept gratefully.

Day 2

The next morning, we were both hungry! We decided on an indulgent breakfast at Cafe de la Presse, which was only a few blocks from the hotel. Yum! I chose the oeufs en meurette, a decadent concoction of eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and wine sauce. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! It was delicious and very filling! Laura had the spinach, feta and tomato omelette. Laura and I chatted, laughed, and drank our coffees. But this time, Grace was arriving in town. She dropped her bags at the hotel and met us at the restaurant, where we'd ordered her a filling breakfast sandwich to start the day.

I hadn't seen Grace in a while. She lives in Portland, Oregon, so we rarely get to visit. This is going to sound corny, but watching her smiling face come bobbing into the restaurant made me so happy! The three of us were together again, in a fun city! I gave her big hugs and kisses, and tears sprang into my eyes because we were beginning an adventure together.

Once Grace had a chance to eat, we were off on our first exploration. For that first day, we'd decided to bike the Golden Gate Bridge!! We walked down to the piers and found San Francisco Bicycle Rentals, which had gotten great reviews online. We'd pre-booked three reservations. The kindly staff there fixed us right up with bikes and helmets for the day (around $35 per person), and we were off!

It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday. During our ride, we discovered that we were biking the bridge on the very day of its 80th anniversary! So cool! And because we were biking on the weekend, the ocean side of the bridge was reserved for cyclists. This meant we didn't have to dodge walkers and other tourists as we rode.

We happened to be biking the Golden Gate Bridge
on the 80th anniversary of its opening! Cool!

I cannot recommend this experience enough. The bike can be challenging (There were three big hills that we had to stop and walk up along the way.), but it's easily doable for someone in reasonable physical shape. There are lots of places to stop for a rest if you need one (including a great little park station just before you cross the bridge; we bought bottled waters there). And the ride to Sausalito isn't far - about 8 miles. You ride on designated bike paths for most of the journey, so it's pretty safe, too. On a lovely, sunny day, with my sisters with me, it felt like an iconic California experience.

We took our time on the ride, stopping to take goofy selfies and photos of the amazing views. (The Palace of Fine Arts was amazing, and piers/parks on both sides of the bridge give you gorgeous shots of the bridge.) When we got to downtown Sausalito on the other side of the bridge, we found a service that allows you to drop your bike off. For a $10 fee, they'll return it to the shop you rented it from, allowing you to enjoy your day in Sausalito (and your trip on the return ferry) bike-free. Sold!

After taking care of our bikes, we had a lovely late lunch at The Spinnaker, a seafood restaurant situated out on a pier and boasting lovely views through its giant picture windows. We started with a scallop and mussels appetizer, which was delicious. Then, I chose the angel hair pasta with rock shrimp, washed down with a beautiful glass of cabernet and plenty of water. (After the bike ride, we were all starving and thirsty!!)

Amazing views!

Our tummies full, we decided to explore Sausalito a bit. We ambled through the sweet little downtown, poking our noses into shops and people-watching for a bit. We picked up coffees and made our way back to the pier for the ferry to San Francisco. Because we didn't have bikes with us, it was easy to get a quick ferry ticket back to town, so we hopped on one. On the way back, we took amazing photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from the water. A quick walk, and we were back at the hotel, where we gratefully took a load off.

More to come . . .

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