The view from my hotel room, overlooking the bay of San Francisco, is impressive and includes tall ships from the 19th century, and two of the city’s most famous landmarks: Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’m staying at The Argonaut Hotel, at Fisherman’s Wharf — arguably the busiest tourist spot in San Francisco — and thinking that it doesn’t get any better than this, when I suddenly hear loud roars outside.
As in the beloved poem The Night Before Christmas, “I sprang to my feet to see what was the matter.”
What I discovered was that I had a front-row seat to the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels practising daring manoeuvres over the city’s landmarks.
Unbeknownst to me, my three-day visit to San Francisco was happening during Fleet Week, an annual celebration of the U.S. armed forces, where thousands of spectators flock to the bay area to see members of the navy, marines and coast guard showcase their ships and airplanes’ capabilities.
The fall event culminates with an air show that includes parachute jumpers and aerobatic demonstrations. At one point in the Blue Angels’ practice session, four of the six jets soared sideways past my window until breaking their synchronized flight and disappearing, leaving white clouds in their wake.
The city that gave us the Summer of Love, electric streetcars, the original Ghirardelli Chocolate & Ice Cream Shop and Levis jeans, and was the birthplace of Silicon Valley, continues to amaze visitors with surprises (although not typically combat jets doing death-defying moves).
My next day included more jet sightings, as well as seeing part of Fleet Week’s Parade of Ships near the Golden Gate Bridge. On board the 300-passenger Alcatraz City Cruises boat, on my way to a self-guided tour of the notorious Alcatraz prison — which is less than 2.4 kilometres offshore — I photographed a San Francisco fire boat shooting plumes of water into the air.
Once I disembarked at Alcatraz and looked back at San Francisco’s skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge, it was easy to imagine how difficult it must have been for the estimated 1,500 men once incarcerated here, witnessing life playing out before them from their outdoor recreational area, surrounded by barbed wire and a high concrete wall.
When you first arrive at “the Rock,” you climb a hill (or hop on a motorized cart if you have difficulties walking) to get to the prison and are given headphones, before moving on to the first cellblock to listen to the fascinating story of Alcatraz prison, told by former guards and inmates.
Famous prisoners included mob boss Al Capone, Robert Stroud, “the Birdman of Alcatraz,” and jail breakers Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. On June 11, 1962, the trio escaped from their cells by using crude tools, including spoons, to chip away cement under the sink to access their prison vents.
They left dummy heads on their beds to fool guards during the head count, and were never seen or heard from again. They were presumed to have drowned in the strong currents surrounding the island. The following year, Alcatraz prison was closed because of increasing operating costs.
The next day, I climbed into the front seat of a quirky Volkswagen van for a two-hour city tour, with emphasis on the city’s hippie days. San Francisco Love Tours’ six-passenger VW vans are hard to miss, and the tours begin just outside the Argonaut.
Our brightly painted van, with ‘70s psychedelic art and images of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, was driven by an equally colourfully dressed tour guide, Tiana Boudreaux. Throughout the trip, she regaled us with stories about San Francisco’s past, the topic changing depending on the neighbourhood we were cruising through.
In Haight-Ashbury, for instance, we learned that the neighbourhood was chock-a-block with famous singers and characters during its hippie heyday.
“You can imagine in the 1960s and 1970s with Jimi Hendrix hanging out at his girlfriend’s house around the corner, Janis Joplin down the street, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead across the street and the Hells Angels on the other side, this was one fun place to party,” she said.
No matter where we travelled, our van attracted curious looks. Boudreaux frequently flashed peace signs to passersby doing the same, as her specially timed musical soundtrack blared from the van’s speakers.
It was almost comical listening to her choice of songs, from Madonna’s Material Girl outside luxury stores in Union Square to Kung Fu Fighting in Chinatown and the gay anthem Y.M.C.A. in the Castro, one of San Francisco’s first LGBTQ neighbourhoods.
San Francisco Love Tours brings its own unique vibe to a city tour, especially compared to your standard Hop On, Hop Off bus. I also seriously doubt a Hop On, Hop Off bus would tackle driving down Lombard Street, also known as “the crookedest street in San Francisco” with its eight steep hairpin turns in one picturesque city block.
To experience more of San Francisco’s steep hills, including one of the steepest called Russian Hill, I jumped aboard one of the electric cable cars just outside the Argonaut. The cable car, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, has many lines, but the most exciting is the Powell-Hyde Line for its unbelievable views (you can buy the $8 US ticket directly from the streetcar operator).
While there’s plenty to do in San Francisco, you have to eat and fortunately San Francisco ranks highly in foodie polls worldwide (Travel + Leisure named it the fourth best foodie town in the U.S.).
My first meal was at John’s Grill, the first restaurant to be rebuilt after the major 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed more than 80 per cent of the city.
There are 115 years of history at this old-school steak and seafood restaurant, known as the place where author Dashiell Hammett is said to have written The Maltese Falcon from a cozy velvet-clad booth at the back of the main-floor dining room.
“We are a literary landmark and a historic landmark,” said owner John Konstin, whose family has owned and operated John’s Grill since 1950, and while improving its menu over the years, has mostly kept the decor the same.
“History is so important — I made a point of not trying to fix something that’s not broken. I respect everyone who has ever been here,” he said.
Photographs of celebrities and politicians decorate the dark, wood-panelled walls, from former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton to actors Lauren Bacall and Olympia Dukakis, to name a few.
Another great place I’d recommend is Miller & Lux Restaurant, an upscale fine dining experience, where it seemed everyone around me was celebrating either a birthday or an anniversary.
And no wonder considering the top-notch service and food. The Dover sole I ordered was brought in from Brittany, France, and deboned at my table, while a caesar salad was made table-side using lettuce clipped directly from a potted plant.
For more casual dining, I enjoyed pizza at Flour + Water Pizzeria in San Francisco’s Little Italy neighbourhood. This full-service restaurant also has a glass-enclosed dough room so diners can watch the pizza-making process.
For dessert, it’s hard to beat the world-famous hot fudge sundae at the original Ghirardelli Chocolate & Ice Cream Shop, which reopened last summer in its recently renovated flagship store at Ghirardelli Square, near Fisherman’s Wharf.
Kim Pemberton was hosted by San Francisco Travel Association, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.