Friday, October 29, 2010!

When I traveled to San Francisco for my marathon two weeks ago, things were not all work and no play.  I purposely timed my arrival three days before the race so Roger and I could do some sight-seeing.  It's been years since I've visited this great city, and I was looking forward to exploring SF again.

It doesn't get any more San Francisco than this!

Our first full day in the city, Roger and I toured Alcatraz Island.  I'd visited this place once before with my brother Dale, but it was on a rainy day.  We mainly stayed inside, and had no views.  But not this day!  The weather gods blessed us with clear, sunny skies.  The blue sky and sparkling water of the bay was a delight.

"The Rock" as viewed from our tourboat

We boarded a tour boat that shuttled visitors over to "the Rock."   I had some great views of Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline as we motored towards our destination.

Dive-bombing seagull going after the tourists

As our boat traveled across the bay, a couple of seagulls, hopeful for handouts, dive-bombed the passengers.  Some of the people held out various food samples, trying to tempt the gulls.  That is, until the tour boat operator told them to stop!

The fog started to roll in while we were on the island

We docked on the island, and as we deboarded, a parks official told us "welcome to prison."  Our group was directed up a road that climbed a steep hill to the top of the island.  Along the way, we passed some decrepit old buildings, all in various stages of disrepair.  The island gets a lot of harsh weather that causes rapid aging of everything exposed to the elements.

A typical prison cell at Alcatraz

Our admission included an audio tour of the prison.  The tour was great!  Lots of good information.  I learned that Alcatraz has been closed since 1963 (the year I was born).  It wasn't made a national park until 1972.  The prison was open for 29 years, and in these 29 years only 14 escape attempts were made.  All the escapees either died or were captured, except for three men who escaped in 1962 who were never seen again.  The assumption is that they drowned in the bay, but no one knows for sure....

Not a very cheery place

We toured the main floor of the prison, and looked into the rows of cells.  Very sparse accommodations.  Only a bed, sink and toilet, and small table and seat that folded down from the wall.  The cells have cold cement walls and floors.  There was three levels of cells stacked on one another.  Alcatraz had a capacity of 336 prisoners, however there were rarely more than 260 at any one time.

Roger's been put in prison

Of course, a couple of the cells were open so you could go inside and experience what it must've been like to be a prisoner.  Made for some good photo ops too!

The island did have nice views of the bay

Our tour led us outside to the parade grounds in front of the cellhouse.    There is an old lighthouse that is in rapid decline and another building that looks ready to slide down the cliff.  The views across the bay are stunning.  You can see the skyline of San Francisco.  I'm told you can also see the Golden Gate Bridge.  However, the fog was beginning to roll in from the west, so we weren't able to see the bridge that day.

"Let me out!"

The audio tour led everyone back into the prison building.  We had more fun taking photos in the cells.

Old building ready to tumble over the bluff

After Roger and I finished our tour, we walked around the island.  The plant and bird life on Alcatraz is abundant and unusual.  The families of the prison guards lived on the island, and the wives cultivated large gardens with unique plants.  Alcatraz has established a conservancy to rebuild and maintain these historic gardens.  The island is also a sanctuary for seabirds.  Such birds as cormorants, snowy egrets and night herons nest in the steep cliffs of the "Rock."  Visitors can view these birds up close.

Fisherman's Wharf sign and vintage trolley

The rest of the day Roger and I spent walking around Fisherman's Wharf.   We did all the usual things - ate seafood, got ice cream, and watched the sea lions.  We ended up at Ghirardelli Square.  You can't visit Ghirardelli Square without buying some chocolate, so we did our part!  (and then some..)


One of the things I've always wanted to do on past visits to San Francisco was ride a cable car.  But for one reason or another, it never happened.  The following day, I was determined to get my cable car ride.  We located the south terminus for two of the routes near Union Square.  There was a large crowd of people waiting in a super-long line.  But we bought our tickets anyway.

Cable car turnaround at the end of the line

While waiting for our turn to ride, Roger and I watched the cable cars come to the end of the line, turn around, and climb back up the hill.  The cars are all spun manually on a large wooden turntable in the middle of the street.  Once facing in the right direction, the car takes on its passengers, and heads up the steep street.  We tried to figure out how these cable cars are powered. 

I'm riding in a cable car!  Yahoo!

Finally it was our turn to ride.  We jumped into a seat on the outside of the car.  A large group sat around us.  They were very animated, and a lot of fun.  One lady started singing the "Rice-a-Roni" jingle.  When our cable car descended a particularly steep hill they all screamed and cheered.

View out the window of a cable car

The ride was really, really fun!  Some of the hills in San Francisco are super-steep.  When the cable cars head down those hills, you'd better hang on to your hat!  Our operator rang the bell in a very rhythmic beat.  The conductor was very friendly and joked with the passengers. 

Passing cable cars

Roger and I asked the conductor how the cable cars work.  We learned they are powered very similar to a ski lift.  There is a moving cable running underneath the roadway.  When the cars need to move, they clamp onto this cable, and the cable pulls them down the road.  When the cars need to stop, they detach from the cable.  The driver of a cable car is known as the gripman. This is a highly skilled job, requiring the gripman to smoothly operate the grip lever to grip and release the cable.

The cable cars were first introduced to San Francisco in 1873, after an engineer witnessed a horse-drawn wagon slide backwards down a steep hill, injuring the horses.  Today, three lines have survived, and operate mostly as a tourist attraction.  San Francisco has the world's last manually operated cable car system still in use.  It is the only transportation system listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A super-steep cable car hill

The streets of San Francisco are some of the steepest I've ever seen.  However, the street grade always flattens out at each intersection.  (Being the transportation engineering geek that I am, I notice these things!)  The cable cars always stopped in the middle of the intersections, blocking traffic while passengers got on and off.  It didn't seem to be a good practice.  However, the conductor explained that the flat intersections were the safest place for them to stop.  Stopping on a steep hill makes it difficult to keep the cars from slipping.

Lombard Street draws a crowd of tourists

Our cable car ride took us by Lombard Street, which is well-known as San Francisco's "crookedest" street.  The cable car terminus was only a few blocks away, so when our ride ended, Roger and I headed over to check out it out.

Check your brakes!

A big group of people congregated at the bottom of the street.  They were standing all over, even in the middle of roadway, shooting photos.  A steady stream of cars crept through the switchbacks.  You could smell brakes heating up.

Wonderful view from the top of Lombard St.

Lombard Street's switchbacks were constructed in 1922.  The design was thought to be necessary to reduce the street's natural 27% grade, which was too steep for most vehicles to climb.  The street is one-way, downhill (eastbound) only.

There was a steady stream of cars navigating the switchbacks

Roger and I climbed the stairway on the side of the street.  It was a good hike up to the top.  The views were wonderful - you could see the Coit Tower, a portion of the city skyline, and San Francisco Bay.

The sidewalks are sets of stairs

Lombard Street was lined with beautiful homes.  Those homes had some very nice views of the city.  The planters in between switchbacks were nicely landscaped with colorful flowers.  It was a lovely place.


Our hotel was located in San Francisco's Chinatown.  This area of the city is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.  After taking nine trips to China, Roger was interested in seeing how San Francisco's Chinatown compared to the real thing. 

One of the many shops in Chinatown

Due to our proximity, we made several visits to Chinatown.  It was really fun to walk down the streets and scope out the shops.  There were tons of gift shops, camera shops, tea shops, and restaurants.  One street, Stockton Street, was made up strictly of produce markets, selling fruits, veggies and meat.

Fancy street light luminaries

The streets were festively decorated with colorful banners and bright red Chinese lanterns strung between buildings.  The street lights had very elaborate luminaries, with pagoda house rooflines and dragon decor.

Roger in Ross Alley, looking for the fortune cookie factory

We were told to visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, located in Ross Alley.  It took us awhile to find this little alley, tucked away in the middle of Chinatown.  There were tons of businesses all packed into this small space.

The owner of the fortune cookie factory mugs for the camera

The fortune cookie factory was tiny.  There was barely room for five people.  The factory's owner, a demanding old man, hustled people in and out as quickly as he could.  You basically saw three women stuffing fortunes into cookies and bending them into their classic shape.  If you wanted a photograph, you had to pay 50 cents per shot.  I threw a buck in the kiddy, and as I was composing my shot of one of the women, the owner stuck his head in the photo.

The factory gave out free samples of untwisted cookies.  You could also buy bags of fortune cookies.  The cookies came in plain and chocolate flavors. They also had bags of cookies with "adult" fortunes.  Of course, we were curious and bought the bag with "adult" fortunes!  However, the fortunes were really lame, and not funny (or racy) at all.

YMCA.....Chinese style

Roger was impressed with Chinatown.  He said it was very similar to the markets he'd visited in Shanghai.  Some of the stores displayed tea and other foods the same way it is done in China.  It really did feel like you were in another country.  All of the signs were in Chinese characters, and all of the Asian people spoke Chinese.  Roger got to practice his Mandarin language skills, and said it was really helpful.

Colorful red lanterns hung over many of the streets

It was fun to visit a big city.  San Francisco makes Portland look like a sleepy little backwater town.   Although we didn't get to do everything I wanted, we hit the most popular places.  And I finally got a cable car ride, which was the highlight of my trip.  It was a great vacation, and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the city by the bay.

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