The Final Countdown: Europe, North America travel blog

The Columbus Tower, Francis Ford Coppola owns Café Zoetrope, the Italian restaurant...

Union Square

Mel's Diner, it really exists, but it isn't a drive in

San Francisco City Hall

Cable car

Bay Bridge

A Street Car (does it have a name?)

Union Square

Union Square


The Hibernia Bank. robbed by Patty Hearst in 1974

City Hall

San Francisco war memorial

Transamerica Building and Columbus Tower

Saints Peter and Paul church (the street number of the address is...

Ferry Building

Fisherman's Wharf

Palace of Fine Arts

Palace of Fine Arts

San Francisco

Alcatraz and Bay Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Digby hangin' with the Teddy Boys

Just love these street cars

The Codmother - Best shark 'n tattie in town (the owner is...

Steep streets

Cable cars

Golden Gate Park

Japanese Gardens, Golden Gate Park

Seven Sisters of Postcard Row. Victorian houses, starring in the opening credits...

Town Hall


Saint Mary's Cathedral is known locally as Our Lady of Maytag, it...

Sunday 18th November

The alarm is set for an early start, we are up at 6am, and waiting at the front door by 7am. The shuttle was booked yesterday, and should be here by 7.15 at the latest. They don’t arrive. Tony checks the ticket, and mild panic sets in. There had been problems with the website when he booked, it had reset a couple of times while Tony was booking. A further check of the ticket shows all the information had defaulted to the start information, it was not our hostel on the booking form. Tony goes inside and explains to reception what happened, and they put a call through to the firm. Tony explains that he screwed up the booking, and they tell him they will be there in ten minutes. Phew! We could have made it with public transport or forked out a huge amount for a taxi, so we are thrilled they can still pick us up. The driver arrives and tells Tony he was standing at an abandoned building wondering where in the hell his passengers were. But they had our phone number and could have called us, we wonder if they would have?

We arrive at JFK in plenty of time to catch our 10.30 flight to San Francisco with Virgin America, US$168 ($211) each, and our bags are another US$25 ($31) each. We had checked in online, so we just had to drop our bags off. There are a few fast food places about, and we decide to give Maccas another go, they have a deal on a couple of egg muffins. They are ok, but nothing to rave about. At least it fills a gap. We pass through security without any problems, full body scanners are used and for the first time Cynthea does not set off an alarm with her hip.

The flight is a pleasant one, taking just under seven hours. We enjoy the casual, friendly and efficient way everything is handled. Boarding is simple and in groups starting from the back of the plane so those at the front of the plane are not holding everyone up. The safety message is a cartoon type, and quite amusing to listen to: “For the 0.000001% of you that have never flown before, this is how you fit your seatbelt.” It is a lot like Air New Zealand has been doing with their clever safety messages (no Hobbits though). They have an upmarket touch screen ordering system, swipe your credit card under the screen in front of you, and everything you buy is automatically charged, food, drinks, even wi-fi ($4 an hour). Tea and coffee are complimentary, and there are a few free programmes on the entertainment system. There are power sockets for charging laptops and phones, brilliant! We arrive in San Francisco just after 2pm, our clocks have gone back three hours.

At the airport we look for the shuttle service to the hostel, the hostel has a special price arrangement with Airport Express. We are directed to another company, but when Tony tells them he has a prepaid ticket, they soon decide they cannot take us after all. The shuttle service is called, and we have about a ten minute wait. The shuttles are not allowed to be on the bus stops for more than five minutes, so our driver moves on to the other terminals to see if he can pick up more passengers, without any luck. We pay the US$20 by travel Visa card, and give a tip in cash. The card payment is taken using a handwritten Visa voucher, so Tony puts a line through the tax and tip boxes, just in case someone tries to fiddle it later. The driver then rang through the payment for authorisation.

We get to the Adelaide not long after 3pm, the price is US$160 ($198) for three nights by the time they add on the sales and a local hotel tax. It really annoys us that these places don’t normally include this in the price when booking, what is with that!

The hostel is great though, even if it is down a dodgy looking alleyway, reeking of pot. There are one or two homeless people about, but we are left alone. Our room is on the second floor, in a four bed room with an American and an Englishman. The room reeks of pot because the windows are wide open to let “fresh” air in, Tony reckons we will wake up stoned, if we wake up! There is a large lounge on the same floor as reception, and downstairs is a laundry, well stocked kitchen and large dining room. Breakfast is provided in the room rate. In the lounge is a large blackboard with lots of activities available, all of them free. There is a quiz night tonight at their sister hotel, the Dakota, around the corner from here. It is free, with wine and snacks provided, also free.

We decide to use the hop-hop off bus here, and buy two 48 hour tickets for US$90 ($112). The information on the website conflicts with the brochure we have, so we are not sure what the story is. There is a night tour that we want to take. It is a short walk to Union Square from here. The neighbourhood goes from “a bit rough” to “a bit up market” when we get around the corner, but there is still nothing here to worry us. It hasn’t been dark for very long though…

In Union Square we cannot find the bus stop, even though we saw the bus pass us on the way. Tony finds the tourist information centre, and asks where we should be. They are not very helpful, telling us to just look for the people wearing the company jackets, and that they will be on the street behind the building. There are no signs about, and no bloody bus staff to be found despite walking both sides of the road, twice. We go back to the information centre and try and get some sense from them. They look at the brochure again, and tell us we have last years one, all the times are wrong. Not impressed would be an understatement. We see that there is one more bus doing the night tour tonight, but it leaves from Fisherman’s Wharf, not Union Square, and there are no pick up stops on the way. If we are lucky there is a bus due any minute to take us there. We get back to the street and have about a 15 minute wait. The bus (the last of the day trips) turns up and confirms we will be able to catch the last night tour.

We have to exchange our voucher for a proper ticket at the depot where we are also given a printed list of departure times for the different loops the tour buses will take. We have a bit of time before the bus leaves, and head along the wharf to watch the lighting of the Christmas tree at Pier 39. It is a bit further along than we thought, and in any case we have missed the ceremony, so we call at a crab shack for something to eat. Unfortunately it is going to take a while to get anything we order, so we have to give that a miss and head back to the bus.

We hop on board and head up to the open top deck, we are finally on our way. We had been wondering if we would make any of the trips tonight. Blankets are available for those who want them, it is a chilly night, but at least it is dry. We are told San Francisco weather is not always the best, cold and foggy in summer, and very wet. We were lucky with the weather today then. The other popular topic is earthquakes. Tony had been trying not to think about them. Someone asks when the next “big one” is due, and we are told “yesterday”. Thanks for that.

We enjoy the tour that takes us about 90 minutes to complete. Our tour includes a number of buildings that have “starred” in movies, as well as many other interesting buildings. Our route takes us through Chinatown and past the Bank of America Building that featured as the exterior entrance and lower lobby of the Glass Tower in Towering Inferno. The Columbus Tower is not in a film as far as we know, but it is a beautiful building, especially when lit up at night. On the ground floor is an Italian restaurant, Café Zoetrope, owned by Francis Ford Coppola. The Saints Peter and Paul church is very pretty, but the address is very interesting, number 666 Filbert St. The building featured in Dirty Harry and Sister Act II. After their civil ceremony in 1954, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio returned for photographs on the steps of this church (they could not marry here because DiMaggio was divorced).

We pass through Union Square, and actually have time to admire it now that we are not running about in flap looking for a bloody tour bus. Mel’s Drive In (American Graffiti) is not actually a drive in, despite the name. We continue through Japantown and on to Alamo Park to see the “Seven Sisters”, “painted ladies” of postcard row. No, it is not what you are thinking, they are a group of Victorian houses famously appearing in many of the city’s publicity shots, and featuring in many movies. They also feature in the opening credits of the TV series Full House, as does Alamo Square, the park across the road. The house from the series is on a film lot. The bus cannot stop for photos, nor is there a commentary around this area, as the local residences have objected to the constant stream of visitor traffic.

We drive past the wonderful City Hall, and as we head over to Nob Hill we see just how steep some as these streets are, our photos certainly don’t give the true perspective. The last leg of our tour takes us through the financial district, and then towards the waterfront. We see that the Ferry Building clock tower is on an angle to the rest of the building, after an earthquake rotated it on its’ foundations. Recently the area has undergone a revival, following a decline in the 1950’s, following the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, a double decker elevated road which passed right in front of the Ferry Building, greatly obscuring views from Market Street. Pedestrian access to the waterfront area was also cut off.

The 1989 earthquake extensively damaged the double-decker freeway, and it was demolished soon afterward. It was replaced with a pedestrian friendly ground-level boulevard, which reconnected a significant portion of San Francisco's historic waterfront and the rest of the city. This was the beginning of the revitalising of the area, there are a number of busy shops here, and a regular farmer’s market.

We travel the Embarcadero along the waterfront, ending back where we started. The driver tells us what streetcar to catch to get back to Union Square, but before we go Cynthea has a feed of crab from one of the many vendors on the pier, and Tony goes for a burger. The vintage streetcars are a surprise. They have been restored in all their glory, they are the real thing, not replicas, and run on regular schedule as part of the city transport.

By 10pm we are shattered (the bodies are thinking it is 1am), and we head back to our room for the night. The air around the hostel is thick with the smell of pot, as is our room from leaving the windows open. At least the room is a bit cooler since Tony turned the heating down, but it is still too hot to sleep with the windows closed. We can’t win, it is noisy with them open… people are talking in the alley, where did we put the earplugs?

Monday 19th

Breakfast this morning is one of the best yet at a hostel that we have had in the whole trip. We have a huge pot of porridge bubbling on the stove, flavoured with raisins and pieces of apple. Fresh fruit is being prepared for us too, and there is bread, bagels and english muffins, all in varieties of flavours, with a few different spreads. There is a huge urn of coffee for Tony to get his caffeine fix.

We head towards Union Square for the Hop on Hop off Golden Gate Park tour. That will take us around Japantown and Alamo Park, where we went last night, and over to Haight Ashbury, where the hippy movement started. There is a bus leaving at 10.30, but there is no sign of it when we get there. The next bus to arrive is on a different loop, we are told the Park bus left at 10am, and the next one is at Noon. If we wait for that we will late be getting the tour over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, and as it is we now have to choose between a trip to Muir Woods or Haight Ashbury.

We take the hop on hop off bus to Fisherman’s Wharf, via the Tenderloin district, the Civic Centre and Chinatown. We check at the office to see what time the trips to Sausalito leave. The slip of paper Tony was given last night mentions the bus leaves every twenty minutes, and we want to make sure we are back here in time to still catch the last trip to Haight Ashbury. Tony specifically asks about the times, and shows the guy behind the counter the timetable he has. We are assured that if we catch the 11.20 or 11.40 bus we will return in time to get to Union Square for that last Park trip. We spend a bit of time strolling around Fisherman’s Wharf, looking at the boats and shops. The prices are not too bad, even though this is a tourist area, the souvenirs on sale here will very likely be lots cheaper elsewhere, not that there is a lot of room for anything more. We decide to try and find something very quick for lunch, as the route to Sausalito is going to take a good couple of hours. There are long queues at all the fast food places, they are not going to be fast enough for us, so we will make do with the small tin of tuna and crackers (that we bought in New York), fruit and chocolate.

We walk back to get the bus to Sausalito, and as we round the corner we see a bus leave, we are ten minutes early for the 11.40 trip. We both look at each other and say “that better not be our (insert expletive) bus!” We ask staff outside the office where the Sausalito bus is leaving from, they tell us we just missed it. Tony is not impressed and goes into the office to complain. The woman behind the counter says “Oh, you have last year’s timetable”, and asks where he got it. “From here, last night” was the reply. “And that guy over there confirmed these times not half an hour ago!” To say Tony was rather annoyed was a bit of an understatement. The guy comes over to the counter and denies seeing the slip, but another staff member confirms Tony definitely showed it to him, and the guy tries to bullshit his way out of it.

The next bus is not until noon, but there will be time to get back to Union Square for the last tour. We just cannot stop in Sausalito as we had hoped. We are not game to leave the bus stop for anything, but Cynthea sees that a shop next door is selling Russian dolls. There are so many to choose from, Cynthea has long wanted one, but we never got to Russia, so this will have to do. The owner is Russian, and she imports them from there. There is a cute Christmas theme doll, Santa, Mrs Claus, a snowman, a gift and a tiny Christmas tree inside, US$30 ($38). Tony keeps and eye for the bus.

Our driver is a right laugh, her name is Betsy, but she tells us if we cannot remember her name when we write a review of her tour that is ok, just mention the fat old lady and everyone will know who we mean. She gives a quick run down of the rules, and we are off. We expected an open top double decker, this bus has the open top bit, but there is no shelter if the weather goes to custard (this is San Francisco, it will go to custard).

Our route takes us along Van Ness Ave, site of the world’s most expensive firebreak following the 1906 earthquake. Around 90% of the buildings at that time were wooden, and fire destroyed much of the city because the fire department could not effectively fight the flames. Fire stations were severely damaged, and those crews that managed to get their engines on the road had to contend with broken water mains restricting a decent water supply. The wide street was an ideal firebreak to prevent the spread of the fire to the west. The Victorian homes on one entire side of the street were evacuated and then dynamited to create the firebreak, leaving that area of the city to burn.

We drive through the Presidio, and just before we cross the Golden Gate bridge, Betsy stops to let off those people who want to walk across the bridge. We would have loved to have the time to do this, but we don’t have the time to wait an hour for the next bus. We stay on and on the other side there is a ten minute photo stop before heading into Sausalito. There is a young deer running down the road in front of us, Betsy says she has never seen a deer this close to the town centre before. We drive back to the Golden Gate Bridge, and are taken on a bit of a detour to another lookout. We are back at Fisherman’s Wharf around 2pm, more wrong information from the tour company. We have two hours until we get the next trip, so head off to find some food. Cynthea is keen for some more crab, or fish and chips. We have been told by a couple of people to go to the Codmother, it was closed when we first tried, but open today. The food was wonderful, reasonably priced, and tax was included in the prices. The owner is from the UK, she used to be a tour guide, but when she couldn’t find a decent chippie she opened up her own place.

We are back at Union Square in plenty of time for the tour bus, and Tony takes a stroll up those steep streets and then around Union Square. There is a huge Christmas Tree in the Square, and the ice rink is busy, there are a lot of people out enjoying the sunshine.

The tour takes us through the Tenderloin district, we are told there are many stories as to how the area got it’s name. Many refer to vice and corruption of the police force, and that those working the area could afford the nicer cuts of meat because of the bribes they received. It was a violent area, and others claim it was so named because the police working there were paid a hazard duty bonus, and so could afford better meat. The Hibernian Bank is in this district, famous for being robbed by Patty Hearst in 1974. The bank has been vacant and neglected for some twenty years, which a great shame because this is a beautiful building.

There is a big group of kiwis on the bus, they are all travel agents brought here to experience the city. One of them works for Dave Smith’s travel agency back home in Dunedin. The route takes us past the City Hall and into Golden Gate Park. This is a beautiful area, and we wish we had time to stay on and see more of the city. We ride back through Haight Ashbury, the home of the hippy movement and a counter culture lifestyle. Clinical drug trials at the nearby research facility had people on cannabis, LSD, and other psychotic drugs. The alternative lifestyle remains in the area, we would have liked more time to explore here too.

We pass by Alamo Square and the “painted ladies” of Postcard Row at 710–720 Steiner Street. We were here last night, and once again we cannot stop, nor should there be a commentary (our guide switches of his microphone and talks to us). These houses were built from kitsets, bought through a Sears Roebuck catalogue. It is getting near dark by the time we pass through Japantown. Saint Mary's Cathedral is known locally as Our Lady of Maytag, due to the roof resembling a washing machine agitator. The tour finishes back where we started at Union Square, and we walk the couple of blocks back to the hostel.

The big news item around town is that the local council today passed a law banning public nudity, or at least changed the definition. In the past you could walk down the street wearing but a hat, or socks, and you would be considered to be naked. Well all that has gone now, and you have to cover up. The hippies in Haight Ashbury are not going to be happy about that.

The notice board in the lounge tells us that tonight is chilli night, meet over at the Dakota, and there is no charge (what’s the catch?). We arrive there and are surprised not many people have turned up, maybe twenty in total by the time the meal is served. There is a huge pot of chilli on the stove, Tony asks how much we pay, and we are told there is no charge. He asks if any help is needed, but we are asked to just sit down, it will be ready soon. There is a raffle being drawn tonight. Write your name on $1 note, and drop it into the box. Winner takes all, and you have to be here to win it. We are up for that, but it is not our lucky night. It looks like the winner got about $30.

An Aussie at our table was booked in at the Adelaide, but it was over booked and she got bumped to the Dakota. She is here for a few days, and we give her one of our hop on, hop off tickets. We are going to Yosemite tomorrow so wont be able to use them, and they are valid until 6pm.

We have a wonderful meal and after doing the dishes we head back to the hostel. We have an early start in the morning.

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