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Solo San Francisco Recap: Day 2

September 14, 2010

I’ve landed in San Francisco and spent my first day getting lost in the Tenderloin and heading down to California Academy of Science’s NightLife event. What’s in store for my first full day in San Francisco? Keep reading to find out…

Day 2

4:41 am – I wake on my first full day in San Francisco and spend the next hour planning my day. I take my first shower in the Mosser’s hall shared bathroom. It’s impeccable and I’m happy and impressed.

8:00 am – I’m heading down Market Street, walking toward the Ferry Building through the Financial District. It’s a workday, so as I approach I can see hoards of people dressed for work coming toward me. Once the throngs clear, the vendors appear behind them, selling their handmade wares. I cross over the Embarcadero and enter the Ferry Building.

9:00 am – Many of the stores aren’t open yet but I want breakfast. I stroll around for a few minutes and find Boulette’s Larder in one of the southern wings of the building. I decide to order one of the four items on the breakfast menu—toasted bread with chocolate hazelnut spread—and freshly squeezed orange juice. $13 seems like a lot for breakfast, but the atmosphere is delightful. I’m seated at a communal table situated in the midst of a working kitchen. Cooks and pastry chefs and waiters buzz around, complemented by the sound of banging pots and clanging dishes. A fresh floral arrangement graces the center of the table; brown paper placemats mark each table setting. The meal arrives after several minutes and it is massive. And it’s good. The toasted sourdough bread is as light as air yet substantial, and I leave full, happy, and ready to take on the rest of my day.

Breakfast at Boulette's Larder

9:30 am – I head out to the wharves and watch some of the ferries come in with the Bay Bridge in the backdrop before heading back out to Market Street. I grab the F line streetcar and it takes me down to Grant Avenue. I know where I’m going and I know Grant will get me there. I walk for roughly 10 minutes and soon enough it’s before me: the Chinatown Gate. A vacationing couple obliges my request for a photo in front of the gate and soon enough I enter San Francisco’s Chinatown.

10:20 am – As I walk around Chinatown, I can’t help feeling a little disappointed (I should have read this before heading out). Grant Street seems like it has been completely commercialized and fashioned with tourists in mind. I’d hoped for an authentic Chinatown experience. I stop in at the Far East Flea Market, one of the largest shopping emporiums in Chinatown and then at Eastern Bakery, one of the oldest establishments in the district, where I purchase a butterfly cookie. I stroll some more and encounter Vital Tea Leaf, fashioned after a wine bar but offering free tea tastings instead. I enter the store and am seated at a long bar and plied with many fortune cookies. For a long time, I’m alone, sampling teas, but soon I am joined by a large group of people—Scandinavian I think— and “Uncle”, a robust man of 78 years, begins his show telling us all about the teas and that tea should only be drunk for health. I enjoy the experience immensely, savoring the dusky flavor of the Siberian Rose tea but reviling the bright floral flavor of the jasmine. Uncle is divinely entertaining and well worth the almost $24 I spend for dried tea leaves to take home with me (for the record, I buy Blue Tea and some Apple Ginseng Oolong).

Tasting tea at Vital Tea Leaf in Chinatown

12:30 pm – At lunchtime, although my belly is full of tea and fortune cookies, part of why I came to San Francisco is to sample its various delicacies and I give myself  permission that while I’m traveling I may enjoy whatever I like. I consult my guidebook and head over to Utopia Café on Waverly Place, one of the Chinatown alleys. Seated at the back of the dining room, I have a fine view of the establishment’s patrons. They all appear to be Chinese (or Asian at the very least) and none of them appears to be a tourist—a good sign. I have come to a place where the locals themselves dine. It takes me a while to decide but finally I place an order for Chinese pan fried noodles.

My meal order takes a long time to be filled—it’s busy and the place is packed—but when it arrives it’s piping hot. The noodles are pan fried crispy which I didn’t expect but the meal was good. I can’t honestly say it was great, but it was cheap and enough to satiate my hunger and power me through the next part of my day.

1:00 pm – I leave Chinatown and go back to my hotel to drop off my purchases before walking down to the intersection of Market and Powell Streets. It’ll be my first ride on a cable car. The line is long and by the time I have to board, I’ve seen the grip and brake men turn the cable cars on the platform a few times, a ritual they have down to a science. Once aboard the cable car, it takes us up one of San Francisco’s many hills past the Cable Car Museum. I hop off and enter the building, greeted by four pulley wheels which power each of the four cable car lines. The museum is small so I don’t spend much time here, opting instead to head off in search of the next cable car to take me to my next stop.

The cable car doesn’t come quickly and when it does, it’s already full, so I set off up the hills on foot, through the Nob Hill district and into North Beach. The hills are steep but the neighborhoods are delightful with colorful buildings and I make a mental note to come back before my trip is done. I take a quick glance at my watch—it’s close to 5 pm and I really need to get down to Pier 33. But I must do one thing on my way down: Lombard Street. I make the turn and there it is. Houses spilling down the roadside in orderly fashion in spite of the zigzagged road that parts them down the middle. This particular stretch of Lombard is kept for the tourists: the shrubs are especially green and floral blooms burst with energy from among them. It’s really quite beautiful and a definite must-see in San Francisco. I take some photos for posterity and hurry along. Alcatraz is waiting.

5:30 pm – On my arrival at Pier 33, a queue has already begun to form. I’m not worried though; I’d booked the 6:10 p.m. departure, the Alcatraz Night Tour, weeks in advance. On the waterfront it’s much cooler than inland, so I don my jacket and scarf and wait. They make each group take a picture in front of a fake Alcatraz backdrop (FAIL) and before long we are boarding the Alcatraz Flyer and begin pulling away from the dock.

As I watch from a distance, fog begins to envelop the city. On the water we aren’t safe from it either as the ferry heads into a huge embankment of fog, obscuring both Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge from vision. The fog is heavy and thick, like a suspended gray rain; the wind is cold and forceful and I’m thankful I brought a hat along, although I had to hold it on my head lest the wind whip it away. The ride to Alcatraz isn’t long—twenty minutes at most, and it isn’t until we are almost upon the island itself that it emerges from the fog and comes into view. The Flyer docks, and we are greeted by our guide for the evening.

I look up and see the words “Indian Land” scrawled in a dull red on the building above and I remember a documentary I’d once seen about Alcatraz. Yes, I’m really here. Our guide takes us up the same path prisoners would have taken over 50 years ago, through the shower room where we collect the equipment for the self-guided audio tour, and then up to the cell blocks.

Entering Alcatraz

It’s night; it’s dark and foggy outside with the wind, hollow and cruel, whipping relentlessly. I’m actually a little scared. The Alcatraz motto is: “Break the rules you go to prison, break the prison rules you go to Alcatraz.” Regaled with stories about the violence of the inmates and how syphilis made Al Capone’s brain go soft, about attempted (and failed) escapes, and about sieges on the facility all the while going by rows and rows of jail cells, two hours later, by the time I get down to the cafeteria where the inmates had dined, I’ve had enough. When I return the audio tour equipment to the attendant she asks me if I enjoyed myself. I tell her honestly: “I don’t think this is something you enjoy; it’s something you experience.” I go through the gift shop quickly but decide not to purchase anything.

I hurry down to the dock to catch the 8:40 ferry back to the mainland and I am relieved the moment I set foot on the boat. Although I enjoyed exploring learning about the history and culture of Alcatraz, I might have appreciated one of the day tours more. On the return, the boat is packed and I decide that I’m in need of some cheering up. I’d hoped to go to Enrico’s in North Beach that evening. With Italy-inspired cuisine and live jazz every night, I think it’s just the ticket. The boat returns to the docks at Pier 33 and we disembark.

9:15 pm – I attempt to find Enrico’s but the streets are empty and I decide that walking around in an unfamiliar place alone at night, no matter how safe the neighborhood seems, is a bad idea. I head back out to the Embarcadero and catch the F line streetcar back to my hotel.

10:00 pm – It’s been a long day and I’m tired but I’m also hungry, so I decide to go out in search of some dinner. I bypass Annabelle’s downstairs and walk over one block to 4th and Mission Streets where I unexpectedly find Mel’s Drive-In. Apparently Mel’s is a themed chain restaurant selling American-type diner food and decorated in the 1950s style. The bright red and blue neon lights are glowing and they beckon me in. I take a seat at the counter and the waitress takes my order. I have a jalapeno chicken sandwich, served with a pepper jack cheese, jalapeno mustard and some French fries. My meal arrives quickly.   The peppery bite of the sandwich awakens my tastebuds and soon the somberness of Alcatraz is forgotten. Apple pie a la mode, one of my favorite desserts, is on the menu so I order it throwing caution to the wind. When it arrives and its warm cinnamon and caramel aroma floods my nostrils, I know I’m in for a treat. And I am. I savor every last bit, pay for my meal and then head back to the hotel. My day ends on a high note so I enjoy the sleep of the content.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2010 3:53 am

    I have yet to go to Alcatraz… it’s one of those things that residents of the Bay Area often forget to do 😉 The night tour sounds interesting. Where Enrico’s is in North Beach is not necessarily a bad place to walk on your own, especially on weekends. But due to a certain type of club in abundance there, you’ll often get a rowdy male population roaming around nearby, ugh.

    • September 18, 2010 8:26 am

      Walking through North Beach at night certainly seemed quite safe…it’s just that the streets seemed deserted was my biggest concern. I’m more on my guard when there are people around. Oh, and I didn’t realize there were *those* types of clubs in the area….. 😉

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