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Riding the buses » Great cities, Memorable moments, Travel itinerary, United States » Underestimating San Francisco (and what lies beyond)

Underestimating San Francisco (and what lies beyond)

San Francisco is much more than a travel destination for someone who grew up in the 1960s as I did. Unfortunately I only realized that when I was on board the plane that was taking me there and reading one of those “Top Ten” city guides that I’d picked up at the airport.

San Francisco was once the “City of Love” and thousands of young people (aka hippies) descended on the city quite determined to change the world (or at least their corner of it). Today you can take a “hippie tour” through their infamous neighbourhood haunts.

John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas wrote the lyrics that summed up the times:

If you’re going to San Francisco,
be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…
It you’re going to San Francisco,
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there.

The 60s was not only a decade of love-ins (and lots of excessive behavior) but also a time of protest, particularly against the Vietnam War. The University of California at Berkeley—just north of San Francisco—was where much of it happened. It was the tear-gas campus!

This was also the Gay City, the place where homosexuals came in the 1970s when they realized their rights were worth fighting for too. I simply had to go see the huge rainbow flag that hangs in the Castro neighbourhood in honour of one that fought-the-good-fight.

The problem was that I only had three full days on the ground. And I wasn’t alone for sitting beside me on the airplane was my daughter, Jessica, who simply thought she was going to visit one of the great cities of the world and not to accompany her mother on some sort of journey down memory-lane.

I figured that if we went up to Berkeley then we could also take in at least a slice of the Napa Valley too and have a meal at one of their famed establishments. And Jessica would love the Big Sur—the scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway quite a ways south of the city. So what was supposed to be a ‘whatever comes’ trip was suddenly an exercise requiring military precision.

We spent the first day running up the posh ‘hills’ (Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights) and running down Lombard Street (the crookedest street in the world). We waved at the Golden Gate Bridge (third-largest single span bridge in the world) and Alcatraz (that island prison known as the Rock), and decided to give Fisherman’s Wharf a miss. We, of course, had to ride the legendary cable cars and spend whatever time we had left that day attending to my sentimental journey.
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I rented a car and we headed north on day two. Berkeley was a little disappointing for the yuppies had replaced the demonstrators. While we couldn’t get a seat at Chez Panisse of Alice Water fame, we did find a perch at a bar in the Napa Valley, ordered the table d’hôte that included just the right California wine, and wallowed in the extraordinary food, drink, service and atmosphere.

Day three we went south. The weather was hot and the ocean frothy. We stopped for lunch at Carmel-By-The-Sea, which was once an artist’s colony. The cottages are now way beyond “simple” but if I ever won a lottery I would return. We couldn’t pass up the scenic 17-mile toll drive that runs between Carmel and Pacific Grove along the Monterey Peninsula.

On to the Big Sur and here the driving is slow because there are endless curves. It doesn’t really matter because you keep pulling the car over to the side of the road to take in the splendid views. It’s the California coast at its rugged best. We were still driving south when the sun set over the Pacific. Then we turned around and made the rather tedious drive back to the city in the dark.

The trip was simply one of those spur-of-the-moment “the days are getting shorter, let’s find a cheap flight anywhere” kind of occasion that I probably do too frequently. We flew across continental USA and visited a great city on a whim. There was so much we didn’t see and I am plotting my return visit. But I came home humming Janis Joplin’s “Oh lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz…” and feeling pretty good about life.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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