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Another day another $

San Francisco, USA
Thursday, September 12, 2013

Another country, another currency, another dollar.

Back in the good Old US of A

We have both visited the USA a number of times before but it's been six years since our last visit. Having been before and feeling like seasoned travellers we expected to touch down and feel right at home, but it feels strange to be back in an 'old' country.

The UK has to be one of the strangest countries for measurements using both a mix of imperial and metric. Generally metric for small measurements but imperial for longer distances. Mostly metric for weighing things apart from ourselves and again generally metric for measuring liquid apart from milk and beer! Well the USA isn't so mixed and even though it is imperial all the way, it is easy to get by except for the rather weird Fl Oz? Nobody in the world but the States seems to measure liquid in Fl Oz's and to be honest we are totally lost, we have no idea what size draft beer to order! As the good old fashioned pint is imperial why can't we just order one?

Being from the UK and using miles and mph we didn't for a minute think it would be strange to revert to the measurement, but having been metricised and using km's since January imperial measurements seem very strange. We keep converting things back to metric as it seems to make more sense and easier to work out how long it will take to get from A-B on foot.

Also having been a 'lefty' again for the majority of the last 4.5 months going back to the right is just strange. It's easy to adapt to road traffic being on the right, if you don't you soon get run over but everything else is confusing. People walk on the right, cycle on the right, up escalators are on the right, entrances are on the right, queues (sorry lines) form on the right and everything is back to front again. Why can't everywhere be the same?

What day is it again?

We left Auckland at 19:30 bound for San Francisco. Having wanted to cross the date line for a long time we got to do it not once, not twice but three times! Yes, the invisible line is by no means straight and just north of Fiji it dives off to the right.

Initially we crossed the line around 22:00 on Sunday the 8th so we jumped back to late Saturday evening where we stayed until it was Sunday the 8th again. Passing over the date line for the second time we jumped into the early hours of Monday the 9th before finally going back to Sunday the 8th as we crossed it for the third time. We finally arrived just after midday on Sunday the 8th, around 7 hours earlier than when we departed. Sunday was around 45 hours long! There is no other way to describe it than plain crazy.

Even with all that crazy shenanigans we arrived feeling pretty refreshed and weren't feeling the proper effects of jet lag.

Jet Lag Rating: Low

Day 1 - On 'ya bike

We awoke at 5am after a terrible night's sleep and knowing we wouldn't get another minute sleep even though both of us felt like we had run a marathon, we decided the best thing was to go and do some exercise in the hope we would get a good night's sleep later. So we hired some bikes and set out to tour the sights of the city.

Jet Lag Rating: Moderate

We started in Golden Gate Park which has masses of things to see and do and even though the park is lined with cycle parks, many of the sights are difficult to access by bike so we didn't stop to look at much. After the park we decided to head for the Golden Gate Bridge using some of the flatter bike paths as it's not a myth San Fran is a very hilly city!

Unfortunately our efforts were a little wasted because as we approached the bridge we could hear it before we saw it. Yep that's right, we could hear the fog horns bellowing loud and clear for most of the bike ride, but as we were cycling in bright blue skies just the other side of the hill from the bay we didn't know where the sirens were coming from. We were told that the view from Fort Point is supposed to be one of the best views of the bridge from the city but when we got there we couldn't see a thing. It was even worse than the view we had from the top of the Petronas Towers and that's saying something!

Not to be deterred we pushed on and headed over the bridge to the north shore. Luckily our efforts were rewarded as the further we went over the bridge the more the fog thinned out, if only for a few seconds at a time just long enough to snap a few photos.

After having a bite to eat enjoying great, if short views of the bridge between the bouts of fog blowing over the hills, we headed back to the city to take in the Marina Blvd and Fisherman's Wharf. To our relief Marina Blvd is about as flat as you can get, unnaturally flat for San Fran because it was man made out of the rubble from properties destroyed during the devastating 1906 earthquake and the fires that followed.

Fisherman's Wharf is the hub of San Francisco's tourist area and what once was a thriving docks has now become an upmarket Blackpool with endless shops selling tourist tack, restaurants and bars complete with a fishy aroma. It is definitely a must see area of the city but you don't need long to visit the best bits.

Surprisingly still only feeling a bit of jet lag we dropped our bikes at the Ferry Building late afternoon and headed back to the hotel.

Jet Lag Rating: Moderate

However as the evening went on the jet lag really caught up with us and we barely made it through to 9pm. Both feeling like the living dead we decided to catch up on some well-deserved sleep.

Jet Lag Rating: Extreme

Day 2 - The Rock

It turns out that exercise is the best cure for jet lag because after our tiring bike ride yesterday we ended up getting a great night's sleep and we snoozy pipped for 13 hours solid and we woke up feeling relaxed and ready to explore some more of the sights that San Francisco has to offer.

Jet Lag Rating: Low

The Rock

Before we arrived in San Fran we made sure that we booked an Alcatraz tour because they are extremely popular and can sell out weeks in advance. Over the years we have read some great reviews about the Alcatraz tour and we felt that it would be a real shame not to see one of the most famous prisons in the world. After a lazy morning at the hotel we made our way over to the ferry building which was situated at pier 33 and we joined what seemed like an army of people who had the same idea as us.

After a spot of lunch it was soon time to join the long line of tourists that were already in the queue and before we knew it we were sailing across the waters with a fantastic view of the boats that were competing in the America's Cup. When we booked our flights to San Francisco we had no idea that we would be arriving right in the middle of the America's Cup finals. Strangely we managed to bag a great deal on the flight even though New Zealand is contesting America for the cup and the place is full of Kiwi's. We only found out when we struggled to find any accommodation at a reasonable price. Having found out we would be in the city for day 3 of the finals we had to try and see some of the action. As we had already purchased tickets to Alcatraz we hoped to catch sight of some of the racing from the island but couldn't believe our luck when both teams raced right in front of our ferry. We managed to capture some great front row action from an exclusive location which didn't cost us a penny/cent.

As we approached Alcatraz Island we felt excited about the prospect of seeing the inside of the prison and we also wanted to learn about the history of the island. The ferry journey whizzed by and as soon as we disembarked from the ferry we were greeted by a park ranger who gave a brief history of the island before pointing out an area where we could sit and watch a short DVD to give us a better understanding of Alcatraz.

After this we made our way up the steep hill to the prison where we were given our audio guides. The great thing about the audio guide is the fact that it gave us the opportunity to wander around the prison at our own pace on a self-guided tour. The audio guide was really impressive and it managed to capture our attention right from the start. As we walked along we heard stories from some of the prison guards and how they felt about working with some of the most wanted criminals in America. We also heard from the prisoners and they explained how mentally hard it was for them to be so close to a thriving city but at the same time it felt so far away.

The general population cells were absolutely tiny and contained an uncomfortable looking bed with a single chair and table and a toilet. All of the cells were exactly the same and when the prisoner arrived he was given a booklet with the prison rules printed inside. If the prisoners abided by these rules then they were allowed to stay in these cells, however if the prisoners decided to misbehave or cause trouble then they were sent over to D block also known as isolation. Isolation cells were similar to the general cells but prisoners would be keep in darkness for 24 hours a day. The prisoner would also be put on a restricted diet with just one meal a day and he would be allowed out just once a week to exercise. Prisoners would generally be kept in isolation for up to two weeks at a time before being moved back to their general cell. However there was one exception to this rule when Robert (The Bird Man) Stroud arrived at Alcatraz. Robert Stroud was a convicted murderer and psychopath and he was sent to Alcatraz after brutally murdering a prison guard in the federal prison where he was serving his sentence. It was decided that he was too violent to mix with fellow prisoners and so he spent no time in a general population cell and he was put into isolation for six years. It has to be said, he may have been a psychopath when he arrived at Alcatraz but after six years of sitting in the dark it turned him positively batty and he had to be transferred to a medical facility where he spent the rest of his life in a much larger cell that had a window.

There were several other well-known prisoners that were sent to Alcatraz over the years including Scarface Al Capone who was a notorious gangster in the 1920's and George (Machine Gun) Kelly who was another violent gangster that used machine guns to make several bank robberies before going on the run. He was eventually caught by FBI agents and he was sentenced to life in prison along with his partner in crime Katherine Thorne.

In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 36 prisoners tried to escape and all but five were recaptured or otherwise accounted for, in other words shot. Three of the men who were unaccounted for participated in the same break out in June 1962 which was later made into a film starring Clint Eastwood and was called Escape from Alcatraz. The three men spent a whole year chipping away at the stone wall at the back of their cells using spoons and they also spent time making dummy heads using a mixture of soap, toilet paper and real hair to make the head as realistic as possible. This was their way of fooling the prison guards into thinking that they were sound asleep in bed when in actual fact they were half way across the water to freedom. The three men that successfully managed to pull off this great escape were brothers John and Clarence Angling who were convicted of bank robbery and sent to Atlanta federal prison and it was only because they tried to escape on more than one occasion that they were sent to Alcatraz because it was deemed to be completely escape proof.

The third man was called Frank Morris who was convicted of armed robbery and first met the two brothers at the Atlanta federal prison along with another prisoner called Allen West who was also sent to Alcatraz after attempting to escape the Atlanta federal prison. Allen West was supposed to be part of the escape with the other three men but unfortunately for him he left some of the digging to the last minute and came across a metal bar that prevented him from crawling through the small space. He was left behind and it's because of his evidence that we know so much about what went on. It is widely believed that all of the men were studying Spanish in the library and that they would have headed across the border to Mexico City to hide out. There was a well-known saying amongst the prisons and it went something like this: "Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz" this was because many people were scared of Alcatraz because it was meant to be completely escape proof but that didn't stop these men from trying and succeeding.

The audio tour was really well put together and we both enjoyed our time on The Rock!

Coit Tower

After visiting Alcatraz we made our way up the many steps to Coit Tower which was built in 1933 to beautify San Francisco's skyline. It wasn't until we had bought our tickets however that we noticed how dated the building was and it was obvious that it hadn't been renovated since it was first built. When we got into the ancient lift we had to keep our fingers crossed that it didn't break down! However the views from the top of the tower more than made up for any shabby paint work and we enjoyed taking some photos of San Francisco and the bay area and we got a great view of Alcatraz Island.

The Wiggle Factor

San Francisco is well known for its many steep hills. A few of the hills have deemed to be too steep for people to safely drive up or down and these have been changed into parks, but one street has been 'wiggled'. Where 1 block of Lombard Street has been converted into a one way road that winds from side to side with gentle declines, broken up by colourful flower beds. A very novel idea compared to the dead straight roads that make up most of the city's grid system. To get to the wiggly part of Lombard Street we decided to walk up the road that runs parallel to it. As we walked up the road it gradually got steeper and steeper to the point where it had been converted into a park. Let's just say we are definitely getting enough exercise since arriving in the good old US of A! When we finally reached the top of the hill and made it across to the wiggly road we were surprised to see that it was a really popular tourist attraction and there was plenty of other people snapping away on their cameras. After getting our own photos we started to make our way down the hill, we soon found out it would have been far easier to walk up Lombard Street as it wasn't as steep as the monster hill we had just climbed and it even had small little steps that made it easier. D'oh!

Hard Rock 50!

Before planning our route home we had run out of café's to visit and it looked unlikely that we would break our big 50 milestone. However the moment we decided to return via the USA there was no such problem as we are inundated with restaurants along our route. With café's in San Fan, Denver, Chicago, Washington, New York, Boston, Lisbon and Madrid we will need to build another shelf to put them all on and we won't want to visit another café for a very long time!

Jet Lag Rating: Moderate

Day 3 - Muir Woods

On our final day in San Fran we decided to take a trip out to Muir Woods and Sausalito. Muir Woods is the remnants of a redwood forest that blanketed much of northern California before the 1800's. Most of the forests were cut down during the Gold Rush era for housing as San Francisco went through a tremendous expansion. Luckily a local businessman purchased part of the forest to protect it and later it was protected as a national monument.

Although the Redwoods trees do not grow in diameter as big as their famous relative the Giant Sequoia's which can be found in nearby Kings Canyon national park, they do grow taller. The Redwood is known to be up to 2,000 years old, and grow to an incredible height of 379ft with a trunk diameter of 22ft. In comparison the Giant Sequoia's trunk can grow to 40ft diameter! Muir Woods has many trees that are over 600 years old and many are estimated to be over 1,000 years. However as the only way to find out a tree age is to fell it, we will never know their true age until they naturally come down. The oldest example of a tree that did just this, fell in the 1930's and was calculated to be 1,021 years old.

Muir Woods is definitely worth a visit although you don't need long as after 10-15 minutes one tree looks like the next. Although the woods are only a short distance north of the CBD they are very hard to reach by public transport, they can be reached by bike if you are a budding competitor in the Tour De France otherwise the only sensible way is to either hire a car or take a tour.

After the woods our tour included a stop off at Sausalito for lunch before returning to the city. Sausalito is a very expensive suburb of San Francisco situated on the north shore in Marin County. With great views of the Bay and San Fran's skyline it is worth a visit. However it doesn't have much to see or do apart from boutique shops and restaurants. Although it was a nice add on to the Muir Woods tour we are glad we didn't make a special trip over the bridge to visit.

With just one last thing on our 'to do' list, we couldn't leave San Francisco without taking a ride on one of the city's historic cable cars. So we joined the long queue and patiently waited for our turn. To get the full experience we really wanted to hang off the side and luckily when we got to the front of the queue everybody else opted for inside leaving two spaces available at the front, we couldn't believe our luck and jumped aboard to enjoy the best two 'seats' in the house. In today's health and safety world and with America's suing culture which is as bad as everybody jokes about, for example whilst buying lunch in Subways we overheard that the residents above the sandwich shop sued them over the smell of fresh bread! Anyway back to the cable car.... it is amazing that passengers are still allowed to hang on the outside of the cable car, but we did and it was great value for money. It was the best thing we did in San Francisco and it was nice to be able to enjoy a piece of history at the same time.

Jet Lag Rating: Finally Gone!

That's all for San Fran. A short but action filled stopover, just what we both needed to take our minds off New Zealand.

Next stop Reno 'The smallest big city in the world'

Ta Ta for now

Team Chip

Hotel Review

We stayed at the Casa Loma hotel in a double private with shared bathroom. The hotel is slightly off the beaten track near Alamo Square but was within a 10 minute walk of the tram and light rail services, buses did serve the surrounding roads but we never used them. The hotel room was basic but was clean and was adequate for our needs. The bathroom areas were small but again clean. The staff let the hotel down with a pick from 'Miss Attitude', 'Mr I don't give a dam' and 'Mr I haven't got a clue' we just gave up asking and used the internet to find things out for ourselves. We really struggled to find a budget hotel in the city, especially as it was the America's Cup Final and overall the hotel was a great find. It's just a shame the staff were appalling as they could have made a great stay a fantastic stay.


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