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Posts Tagged ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’


In a little over a month my wife and I will be returning to the place we regard as our second home (financial considerations dictate that it will never be our first) – San Francisco. In fact, this will be our twentieth anniversary since we first laid eyes on the imperious Golden Gate Bridge, sampled clam chowder in a sourdough bowl or cracked open a fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant.

After our initial trip in 1995 ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/you-were-so-right-louis/ ), it would be another three and a half years, and a further three years after that, before we settled into what became a routine of bi-annual visits. We would combine our stay in the city with a skiing trip to Tahoe and a few days elsewhere, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Death Valley and Yosemite.

Invariably, after the eleven hour flight, we would stay the first night in a budget hotel, having dinner at Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue (but not without a visit to Tower Records first), followed by drinks at the Vesuvio Café nearby. Breakfast would be taken at the Eagle Café on Pier 39 the next morning, and I would buy my holiday reading at the Barnes and Noble bookstore (now long since closed) in Fisherman’s Wharf before driving over the Bay Bridge.

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On returning to the city we would stay in a hotel, making the small step up (or was it down) from the Tenderloin to the Civic Center on our second trip before heading to the Holiday Inn at the Wharf for three of the next four vacations.

With each passing visit, we became less inclined to rush around ticking off the guidebook highlights, and began to venture off the beaten path and discover those places, within the city and wider Bay Area, where the only (other) tourists we might encounter were getting wind burn from the top of a tour bus.

It didn’t concern us that we hadn’t jumped a cable car for five years, stepped foot in Nordstrom or Macy’s or taken the rough ride across the bay to Alcatraz. Of course, we didn’t avoid all of the more celebrated spots, always finding time, however short the vacation, to eat at the Cliff House, shop on Haight Street, drink in North Beach and ramble round Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon.

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San Francisco quickly became the place where we wanted to live. Without the riches required to buy our way into residency, we would have to content ourselves with alternating between staying in the city (spring and autumn) and the UK (winter and summer) for three months at a time – and only then when we had both retired.

For now, it was a matter of a week here and a fortnight, and, more recently a month, there.

We wanted to “live like locals”, and staying in someone’s (second) home was a good starting point. There would be no maids knocking at the door in the morning anxious to clean the room, no loud, drunken conversations outside the room at 3am and no lift bells ringing or washer / driers humming at all hours.

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So in 2010 we abandoned the lazy predictability of hotel living and rented an apartment in Hayes Valley, following that up a year later with similar accommodation in the Western Addition, a short stroll from Alamo Square. The migration west from downtown, however, took a sunny south easterly turn in 2012 when we chose Noe Valley for our base. It was during our second residence there that we discovered Bernal Heights ( http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/a-hike-up-bernal-heights-hill/ ).

Much as we had enjoyed living in the other neighborhoods, we immediately felt an affinity with the quirky, artsy, small town feel of Bernal and rented a cottage there last year. Our first impressions confirmed, we will be returning to that same cottage twice this year for a total of six weeks.

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It might not have gone unnoticed that our original bi-annual visit strategy has now become annual – and, at least for this year, twice a year!

Over the past two decades, our time in the city has taken on a different, more relaxed tenor. It has become a familiar and habitual part of our lives, somewhere we have now spent more of our time than anywhere else, other than our permanent UK address.

Moreover, we try, as befitting aspiring locals, to engage  more with the city and its residents on a regular, deeper level. During those interminable months in which we are incarcerated nearly six thousand miles away. we maintain a daily interest in the life of the city, and indeed, I comment on it in a number of online forums.

In addition to my Facebook presence, through which I now enjoy a number of personal as well as virtual friendships (even bumming (pun intended) prime seats at AT & T Park to see “our” Giants), I started a blog on the last day of 2010 which focuses on the history, culture and characters of San Francisco.

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And I plan to explore our experiences in more depth in my upcoming book Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco, scheduled to be published towards the end of this year.

In our temporary home in the city we neither have to pretend to be what we are not, nor do what we or others feel we ought to do. We can watch the Bay Area news on KRON4 while catching up on household chores in the morning, stroll out to a neighborhood café for brunch, swing by the local wholefoods store and return to the apartment for a bottle of wine on the patio.

All dining options are also possible. We might have dinner in the apartment or we might try out one of the local restaurants. Or we might brave Muni on a trip downtown and eat in Chinatown or North Beach – or even Union Square. We are under no pressure to conform to a set tourist pattern.

What has happened is that our version of San Francisco has shifted, not only geographically but also psychologically, from the waterfront to the southern neighborhoods. In a sense, our journey has mirrored the historical expansion of the earlier city residents from Yerba Buena Cove to the hills.

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But, of course, there is still room for those sights that first enthralled us as much as they have millions of others. They are still only a short drive, bus or taxi ride – or even walk – away. We still make a conscious effort to revisit those attractions we might have neglected on recent trips – for example we plan to explore Coit Tower and Grand View Park again after an absence of a few years – as well as sampling new locations altogether such as Glen Canyon, Dogpatch and Potrero Hill.

If that sounds as if living in San Francisco has become routine, less exciting, even a chore, that could not be further from the truth. We have become, in a modest way, San Franciscans, interested in its history, politics, culture and, undeniably, its sport (Go Giants!) – just as we do at home.

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I invariably turn to legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, for an authoritative, maybe definitive, view on such matters. Here he ruminates on what makes a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

Increasingly, our hosts  marvel at our knowledge of, and adoration for, the city. I doubt, however, that the more strident members of online forums would agree with Caen’s loose, but characteristically generous, sentiments here, but I like to feel that we have moved beyond being “sophisticated tourists” who are “charmed and fascinated” by the city to warrant that title of “honorary San Franciscans”.

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A First Time Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco (Updated and Expanded)


A little over six months ago I produced a potted guide for first time visitors to San Francisco. It was so well received that, following my recent visit, I thought it might be helpful to update and expand it to keep it fresh. I have also included a number of new photographs to supplement the text.

As before, it is arranged in  no particular order.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • The most iconic sight in a city where there are many attractions to compete with that title;
  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point (where the tour buses go), but for the killer photos, cross under Highway 101 at the end of the bridge to climb up the Marin Headlands (below) – you may need to wait for a parking space, and the walk up to the nearest point to the bridge can be challenging for some, but you would regret it if you did not attempt it;

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  • If driving, you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities – and for the health-giving properties, naturally;

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  • Approach it by walking from Aquatic Park at the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf, past Fort Mason and along Marina Green and Crissy Field – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz;
  • If time permits, take a side detour to the former army post of the Presidio with its fine, preserved military buildings, many converted for modern use such as the Walt Disney Family Museum, and hikes through the woods with yet more stunning views of Karl the Fog lurking over the bridge.

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Much to offer in a park that it is a fifth larger than New York’s Central Park;
  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences with its resident aquarium, planetarium  and rainforest and the modern art de Young Museum where the building is as interesting as the exhibits it contains;
  • Japanese Tea Garden: it may be twee and not the cheapest gig in town, but it is undeniably beautiful and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café;

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  • Walk round lovely Stow Lake and admire the Chinese Pagoda, the bridges and bird life, and climb Strawberry Hill for excellent northerly views;
  • Grab a hot dog or ice cream at the boat house and take  a pedal boat ride;

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  • Linger among the trees in the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and sweat a few pounds sauntering through the steamy Conservatory of Flowers (pictured below);

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  • The buffalo paddock (don’t expect the creatures to acknowledge you, they are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill (pictured below) are also worth exploring at the western end of the park;
  • If you crave refreshment when you reach the beach, grab a table in the Beach Chalet, ensuring you enjoy the murals depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties on the ground floor before you do so.

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3. Ferry Building

  • There is a gleaming new cruise terminal nearby but ferries still use it;
  • Its huge popularity, however, stems from the fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, including an attractive, independent bookstore and urbane wine bar;
  • Celebrated local restaurateurs demonstrate their skills at the Farmers’ Market, recently voted the best in the United States and the sixth best in the world, outside on certain days of the week;

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4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 Muni bus from downtown to Ocean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • Explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the endlessly fascinating display of sea birds on Seal Rock (via the fascinating camera obscura if it is open);

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park or, if you’re feeling energetic and haven’t forgotten your camera (to catch tantalising glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge en route), walk back to the city along the coastal trail that leads from Sutro Baths, descending to China and Baker beaches to get close to the Pacific lashing the shoreline;
  • If you have time, call in for coffee and pastries with Rodin at the Palace of the Legion of Honour.

5. Chinatown

  • Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about its daily business;
  • Grant Avenue, though touristy, is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the President and First Lady eat there when in town, and the R & G Lounge;

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  • Don’t forget to glance to your right as you walk along Grant for views of the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid;
  • Amble through Portsmouth Square, where Captain Montgomery raised the American flag for the first time in San Francisco in 1846, and watch the dozens of card and mahjong games being played by the elderly male residents in “Chinatown’s living room”;
  • Dip into Ross Alley and buy an inexpensive bag of the goodies produced in the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

6. North Beach

  • As befits its traditional status as the Italian quarter, it is full of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste with its powerful espresso and live opera the most famous but Greco and Puccini are recommended too;

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  • We have also had good meals at the North Beach Restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Rose Pistola, Firenze at Night;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the watchful eye of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and Coit Tower;

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  • If you’re looking for breakfast or brunch, join the line outside Mama’s on Washington Square, or if it’s a little later in the day, take your place in a similarly long queue for Tony’s Pizza Napoletana on Stockton and Union.

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  • Have a glass or two of Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada beer at the Vesuvio Café,  historic haunt of the Beats, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Pore over the framed newspaper cuttings and visit the state of the art gents restroom downstairs (I cannot vouch for the ladies, unfortunately);

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  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, a few steps across Jack Kerouac Alley;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is – or, arguably, was – home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots and the fascinating Beat Museum;
  • If you want to see a cheeky rather than bawdy show, you can do no better than take in long running revue Beach Blanket Babylon – best to book in advance.

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;

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  • It is a beautiful classical structure set alongside a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight Ashbury

  • Whether you’re an old hippie or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
  • Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without an excursion to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • In view of its popularity, it’s best to book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better, though perhaps not for those of a nervous disposition!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Sit back and rest those weary feet for an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, required as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, taking in those shimmering views from the original “dock of the bay”;
  • The Rocket Boat, with its raucous rock and roll soundtrack, juddering high-speed turns and close-up views of AT & T Park, is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, with rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Many eclectic and unique stores;
  • Beautifully restored Victorian houses rivalling those in Haight Ashbury and Pacific Heights;
  • Good cafes and bars, with an especially vibrant night secene;

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  • Perhaps its most famous building is the great movie house, the Castro Theatre, complete with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film, many of which come as double bills;

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  • You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz. Or if not, Frozen!

12. Alamo Square

  • Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.

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  • The recent ban on tourist buses should make the perennial wait for the photo unencumbered by human or vehicular traffic a less annoying one.

13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, traditionally Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood, increasingly subject to gentrification;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church, the oldest surviving building in the city;
  • Take a picnic to adjacent Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!;
  • Difficult enough on a warm day to find a spare square inch, the current re-modeling and upgrade to facilities means that half of the park is closed to the public.

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though you are just as likely to encounter them elsewhere in the city nowadays);
  • Don’t bypass the wonderful murals in the rush to the tiny escalator to the viewing stage.

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – Filbert and Greenwich are the best – past lovingly tended urban gardens.

15.  Twin Peaks

  • If you take an organised tour of the city, this is likely to be the first place you are taken for its splendid panoramic views of the city;
  • I will take this opportunity, however, to put the case for my adopted neighbourhood of Bernal Heights..

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16. Civic Center

  • Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
  • Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

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  • You should be aware that this area, along with the adjoining Mid-Market (rapidly being gentrified) and Tenderloin districts, is where you are most likely to be accosted by vagrants.

17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, where I, along with many thousands before me, fell in love with the city, bedazzled not only by the bay views but the fun and energy of the area;
  • For me, that love may have faded as I have gravitated towards the inland neighbourhoods, but I can rarely resist spending my last full day absorbing the atmosphere;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39, long since now migrated from Ocean Beach;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;

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  • The Hard Rock  Cafe is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships, pictured), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, and I am slowly warming to it, though I still prefer to use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;
  • The Westfield Shopping Center, Macy’s flagship branch, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more designer stores account for its huge popularity;
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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Daily Grill and the daddy of them all, the Tadich Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of whom may approach you for money, or at least to persuade you to buy a copy of Street Sheet, or they may just open the door at Starbuck’s on Powell for you.

19. Bay Bridge

  • Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;

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  • The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
  • It is spectacularly lit up at night.

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated in equal measure by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars, one of only two moving National Historic Landmarks, are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines on the Powell and Hyde and Powell and Mason routes may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill, especially if you nab the lead rail, is a thrilling experience;
  • If you’re averse to waiting in line, take the less busy California Line which starts in the Financial District and runs up Nob Hill before descending to Van Ness
  • The historic F Streetcar, with its colourful fleet transplanted not only from other American cities but from around the globe, runs from the Castro along Market and the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf, is a charming if uncomfortable ride. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • Very few bus rides on Muni are boring – you’re almost certain to be entertained, amused and horrified – or all three, on any journey – after all, all human life is there!

21. Sports

  • If you’re in town between April and October, get seats for a game at AT & T Park to watch the San Francisco Giants baseball team, twice World Champions in the past four years and currently leading the Majors by a distance;
  • Even off-season, a tour of the ballpark, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in the country, is a treat;

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  • The San Francisco 49ers football team have vacated windswept Candlestick Park, bound for their new home in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley!
  • You can also get your (ice) hockey fix too between the months of October and April by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

This is not an exhaustive list – I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to the wine country (Napa and Sonoma), Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!

I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.

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All things must pass

All things must pass away

And so, little more than a week ago, we had to leave our temporary residence in Bernal Heights for “home” in the UK.

But I do not want to put that experience to one side just yet (and we will be returning next year), without paying one final tribute to the neighborhood.

So here, in this fifth and final article in the series, are this visiting Englishman’s ten reasons for loving Bernal Heights.

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A cautionary note for residents before I start.

In a little under a fortnight we could neither cover every blade of grass, trip over every upturned pavement slab, nor eat at every café or restaurant, so this will be no more nor less than a personal account of those people and places we actually encountered.

Where I have written on a subject in one of the previous posts in this series, I have tried to keep it short.

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For ease of reference they are listed in alphabetical order.

1. Accessibility

A few years ago, the thought of staying so far from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square would have been unthinkable. After all, many of the maps produced by the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau do not stretch as far as Bernal Heights. And few guide books even make passing reference to the neighborhood (the Alemany Farmer’s Market might just get a mention).

But once we had swapped hotel for apartment living, we have moved progressively further out. Hayes Valley begat the Western Addition begat Noe Valley begat Noe Valley again. The gentle hike up to Bernal Heights Hill from Precita Park last year, followed by lunch in Progressive Grounds, was enough to convince us that this is where we wanted to base ourselves next time.

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Accessibility was not the problem it might have seemed. The 101 and 280 freeways were barely three minutes drive from our cottage, the 24 Divisadero Muni bus ran along the bottom of our street and there were several other lines operating through the adjacent Mission district. Having become attached to the J Church Muni Metro line during our stays in Noe Valley, we often walked over to 29th Street to catch a direct line downtown.

 

2. Architecture 

One of the things that most charmed us about Bernal was the sheer variety of housing. No long rows of Queen Annes, Bay Windowed Italianates or Sticks here, but a real diversity of property. Their relative smallness and, in many cases, quirkiness, made wandering around the area a fascinating and often surprising adventure.

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The fact that Bernal Heights featured as low as nineteenth in a recent survey of the number of single millionaires living in each San Francisco neighborhood (Noe Valley next door came third, and even the Mission, evidence of its growing gentrification, was sixth), reinforced this impression of the relative modesty and affordability of the area.

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Though it would still be out of our price bracket!

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3. Cafés

Having seduced us to stay in Bernal Heights in the first place, Progressive Grounds was first on our list of watering (and feeding) holes on our arrival.

And it was also the last!

Our final meal in the city – scrumptious grilled lavash wraps and coffee – was bought there and carried ceremoniously up to the hill where we consumed it whilst continuing the perennial debate about the identity of each downtown building – now you see Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, now you don’t.

We had encountered Martha’s, or Martha and Brothers to give it its official name, on both 24th Street and Church Street during our stays in Noe Valley, and were delighted to find that there was a branch on Cortland. Strong coffee, excellent pastries and outstanding service were on offer, and the tables outside were perfect spots for watching Bernal go about its business (and counting the number of 24 buses that passed by in each direction).

It would be a real shame if Starbuck’s was to take over the Badger Books site or any other vacant lot in the neighborhood in the future.

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We ate good, wholesome breakfasts at both the Liberty Café and Moonlight Café (the interior of which is pictured above). Although the former enjoys a stronger, city-wide reputation, we were particularly impressed with the latter. Perhaps our expectations had been lower (you order at the counter rather than be served at your table), but we were pleasantly surprised.

And last, but by no means, least, we called in at the Precita Park Café for Mitchell’s ice cream during a Sunday afternoon walk around the northern slope. This is undoubtedly somewhere to explore further on our next visit – the food looked delicious.

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4. Diversity

The traditional equation of a single ethnic grouping with many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods has been diluted in recent times. I have already mentioned the influx of affluent white tech workers in the historically Hispanic and Latino dominated Mission. And the edges of the boundary between North Beach and Chinatown have become increasingly blurred.

In the past three hundred years, Bernal Heights has been inhabited by Native Americans (the Ohlone), Latin Americans, Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, African Americans, Filipinos and other Asian nationalities, so it is hardly surprising that there is a refreshing ethnic mix in the community, one that hasn’t been quite so evident to us anywhere else in the city.

And this diversity was not only about ethnicity.  Young families, the elderly and lesbian and gay couples were all in evidence.

The visible contrast in the demographic between Bernal and neighboring Noe (“Stroller”) Valley, was especially dramatic.

 

5. Dogs

I wrote about the apparent “dogs rule” phenomenon on Bernal Heights Park in my article last year, and we were able to enjoy it at close hand on this trip. The top of the hill must sometimes seem like the canine community center for all of San Francisco.

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But it was the excitement of those tied up outside the Good Life Grocery every time I called in that provided the most entertainment and could not pass without stroking them. I can report that I still have all my fingers.

The absence of a doggie companion was the only thing that prevented us from feeling truly at home during our stay. In fact, at one point I feared we might be contravening some by-law by not owning one of our own, at least, walking half a dozen of somebody else’s.

 

6. Friendliness

I referred to the warm greeting we received everywhere we went in one of my earlier articles, and I’m pleased to report that we continued to be treated well throughout the remainder of our stay. The only establishment that we didn’t feel entirely welcome was the Wild Side West, though we liked the quirky back garden.   

I should add that we had been a little apprehensive about staying in the neighborhood before arriving in the light of the shooting of Alex Nieto only a few days before we left the UK. However, we detected none of the tension (perhaps we were too far away), and felt completely safe at all times, including late at night when we often walked back from Mission Street.

 

7. Hill

We could while away hours on the hill, picking out landmarks in all directions, having a picnic and watching the dogs at play. For us, it is a far superior viewing point than Twin Peaks, which most of our compatriots, and many residents for that matter, will only have visited.

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Our only regret is that we omitted, as we had planned, to go up onto the hill at night – another reason for returning as soon as possible!

 

8.Library 

Again, I have already recounted the story of my visit to the library to print some documents. This is somewhere else I would want to spend more time in the future.

 

9. Restaurants

We only ate out twice in the evening in the neighborhood, but both were outstanding experiences.

On the recommendation of Emperor Norton himself, who lives in the neighborhood, we dined at Piqueo’s Peruvian restaurant on Cortland on our second night. It was fortunate we had made a reservation as it was packed, even though it was Wednesday. Granted that it is small and intimate (and just, perhaps, a little too dark), but we were, nonetheless, impressed by its popularity.

And rightly so.

Service was attentive and professional and our food was excellent. It took a lot of convincing to persuade my wife that we shouldn’t return there rather than try somewhere else.

But we did eat somewhere else.

Acting on another local resident’s recommendation, we had our last meal at Vega, a family-run Italian, again on Cortland. We had made a reservation for 8pm. On arrival, we were told that we might have to wait a few minutes while previous diners finished off. We were offered the small table by the front desk (and the open front door!) which we politely declined, preferring to wait for a table in the main dining room.

For that we received a free glass of wine each!

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After we had finished our starters, we were asked by the waiter if we would mind moving to another table for two for the remainder of the meal in order to accommodate a larger party that would necessitate putting tables together. We were happy to do so.

Our reward this time – a free glass of sparkling wine each!

Sadly, we weren’t inconvenienced any further and so had to pay for the bottle of wine – and food – we had actually ordered.

The meal was excellent, though the short walk back up the hill to the cottage was somewhat less enjoyable in the circumstances.

 

10. Stairways

Again, I have already written about these in a previous post. Suffice to say that this was another charming feature of the neighborhood, offering stunning views and keeping us fit (if I keep saying/writing that I might just believe it).

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The only thing we don’t miss?

Climbing up from Mission Street via the Eugenia Stairway late at night to get back to the cottage.

No, I lied.

We do miss it!

Au revoir, Bernal.

A bientôt.

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Today I stand, or rather sit (I find it easier to type that way), accused of a series of offences that, taken together, amount to an even more grievous crime – that of being a bad tourist in San Francisco.

With what appears now to have become an annual pilgrimage to The City approaching, I plead guilty on all counts as outlined below.

1. Failure to take a single cable car ride during the past three vacations, amounting to a total of 52 days.

This is all the more remarkable given my affection for the cute little blighters, but long lines at the turnarounds and a preference for both walking and other forms of transportation (even Muni!), have conspired to keep me away from the lead rail in recent times. But I promise that this is one omission that I intend to rectify very soon.

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2. Failure to visit Alcatraz during the past five vacations, amounting to a total of 73 days. 

Alcatraz is unquestionably one of the city’s greatest draws and any new visitor must include it in his/her itinerary if time permits (be sure to book in advance). And, to be fair, I have taken that short ride across the bay several times in the past, including the night tour, which has an atmosphere all of its own. But not recently. There will come a time when I wish to be reminded of that atmosphere, but living in the now in the city is a greater priority at present.

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3. Failure to make a single purchase in either Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom or any other large store in the vicinity of Union Square at any time.

I have less compunction about flagrantly contravening this obligation. The late lamented Border’s bookstore and Rasputin’s dark, quirky music store have been the limit of my Union Square shopping experiences. Though I have eaten in the area on many occasions!

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4. Failure to purchase a cheap San Francisco fleece or waterproof jacket at Fisherman’s Wharf or Pier 39 at any time.

Another “crime” to which I can offer little defence. I learned the hard way, as many visitors do, that clear days on the bay often go hand in hand with bitingly cold temperatures and an uncomfortable wind (it was probably the crab). But, never being one to follow the herd, I have resisted the lure of this ubiquitous top seller, ensuring that I always carry sufficient layers with me, whatever the weather. And leave the shorts behind altogether (though I do compensate by wearing trousers in case you wondered)!

I have no doubt that I could ask for many other violations to be taken into consideration, notably a failure to ride the tourist buses often enough (only once – on my wife’s birthday), stay in a hotel (rather than renting apartments in outlying neighbourhoods like Noe Valley and Bernal Heights) or fill up on clam chowder.

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But in mitigation I would argue that, at least in part, I served my tourist apprencticeship during the final years of the last, and early years of the new, century, including dutifully riding the cable cars and visiting Alcatraz regularly.

Equally, I have always found time to hang out in Chinatown, North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, however short the stay might have been.

So, whilst I may have gone a little off the rails – or rather cables – I am not completely a lost cause. Going straight – a precarious pursuit in this of all cities – may be beyond me as I journey to a new apartment and contemplate hiking the Presidio and Glen Canyon, but the need to research for my next book will also encourage me to reacquaint myself with those sights that so enchanted me in the early years.

Before sentence is passed, I would offer the following plea bargain – keep letting me back in to San Francisco and I will promise to play the tourist at least for some of the time.

But I draw the line at the fleece.

Dangle me from the Golden Gate Bridge if you ever see me wearing one.

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One of the pleasures of renting an apartment in San Francisco is that, should friends or family be in the vicinity, they can call in – just like at home. However, on the first occasion that we “entertained” another couple from the UK, things did not quite go as smoothly as planned.

We were renting an apartment in the increasingly hip neighbourhood of Hayes Valley. Our friends had been based at a hotel on the Wharf for four nights before moving on to Las Vegas for the remainder of their two week vacation. We had hired a car for the week to enable us to chauffeur them around many of the unashamedly tourist sights they had not been able to enjoy on their only previous visit, on shore leave from a cruise ship.

We had already crammed in brunch at the Cliff House, driving over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands and Sausalito, taking Highway 1 to Monterey and Carmel, Golden Gate Park and a typically uproarious performance of Beach Blanket Babylon. We had also eaten at the Crab House at Pier 39 and the Stinking Rose – I did say it was touristy didn’t I?

On Sunday, their final full day, we had arranged that they would come to the apartment in the evening for a traditional English roast dinner.

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We had prepared this meal dozens of times at home without any mishaps. However, there was a new dimension which had potential to derail the event.

We were cooking it in an American oven.

Many readers will now be thinking – “so what was the problem”?

The problem was that we didn’t have a great track record when navigating our way around an American oven. Despite half a dozen holidays spent at my cousin’s house near Orlando, we had never quite been able to master it. I would not recommend a pizza “cooked” in the microwave – that’s about the level of expertise we had acquired over the years.

It all boils down – no pun intended – to the difference between broiling and baking food, the timing mechanism and our inability to read the cooking instructions on the packaging properly. It seems (fairly) simple now (broiling cooks from the top and baking from the bottom), but we got ourselves into terrible difficulties in the past with this. It would have been sensible, of course, to have researched it beforehand or just asked somebody.

But we didn’t.

The upshot was that this particular chicken resisted our attempts to cook it at the required speed and consistency. The prospects for crisp roast potatoes later on were looking equally bleak.

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Meanwhile, back at the Sheraton Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, our friends were anticipating a culinary treat a few miles to the south west. Little did they know that they were likely to be feasting on a plate of boiled carrots, broccoli and potatoes – or a pizza (delivered, not microwaved).

But we set aside our embarrassment and sought help from our landlord, who had the good sense to live in the apartment above with his partner and two adorable labradoodles, Taylor and Cooper (named after two all-American movie stars). Taking the back steps, with a passing nod (and perhaps prayer) to the Buddha sat among the bushes, I found the whole family in the kitchen preparing their own dinner.

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Awkward?

Not at all. They were only too happy to explain the workings of the oven to us.

And the dogs saw it as a great opportunity to hoover up any scraps from previous meals.

There followed ten minutes of frantic switch turning, knob pressing, opening and shutting of doors and perusal of instructions, accompanied by a series of exasperated but elegant expletives, before they concluded that:

a) they had no more idea of how the oven worked than we did; but

b) it was, in fact, broken.

Huge relief on our part in one sense, but………

Our friends’ taxi would be calling at the hotel reception shortly and the odds on them eating this meal before being served lunch on the plane were shortening by the minute.

Our landlord promised to call their handyman immediately, and it was duly fixed whilst we were out the next day, but tonight’s plans were looking shattered.

Until…………

In a gesture of generosity beyond his landlord responsibilities, especially with his own evening meal in an advanced state of preparedness, he offered to cook the chicken and potatoes for us in his own oven. He was anxious too to prepare it exactly as we would have done it. This included parboiling the potatoes which we managed triumphantly on the hob of our own cooker – before handing them over for roasting along with the chicken.

There would be an inevitable delay in dishing up, but the Beringer White Zinfandel softened the blow whilst we waited.

Eventually, about an hour later than originally planned, the back door swung open to reveal our heroes, wearing aprons that left little to the imagination, striding across the floor as if waiting on a banquet with, respectively, a gloriously cooked chicken on a silver platter, surrounded by a generous mound of crisp, steaming roast potatoes.

They had been cooked to perfection, which is more than could be said for the carrots and broccoli that we had vainly striven not to overcook whilst awaiting the main event.

Sensibly, Taylor and Cooper had been confined to quarters for this ceremony.

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The evening passed off well, nobody was poisoned, and despite the inconvenience to which we had put our landlord, we still got our deposit back!

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A First Time Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco


I am regularly asked by friends, personally and on social media sites, for advice on what are the best things to see and do on their upcoming,  and invariably first, trip to San Francisco. Rather than continue to respond on a one to one basis, I have listed below my current recommendations so that anyone can refer to them when they need to.

I should stress that the selections below reflect my personal views, though I have still included other celebrated attractions that would not necessarily be on my list if I only had a few days in the city. But the focus is on the first time visitor.

I must put my prejudices aside for this exercise! They are arranged in  no particular order.

1. Golden Gate Bridge

  • Drive it and take in the views from Vista Point, but much more spectacularly, the Marin Headlands (below), which you access by going under the road just after the end of the bridge;

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  • Note that you have to register in advance for the toll (credit card is charged when you return to city);
  • While you’re there, pop into Sausalito only a few miles away for lunch or coffee and fine views of the city;
  • Walk it or bike it too for more wonderful photo opportunities;
  • If you can, approach it by walking along the Marina, past Fort Mason, from Fisherman’s Wharf – it’s quite a trek and usually very bracing, but it affords great views of the bridge and Alcatraz.

2.  Golden Gate Park

  • Two splendid museums: the California Academy of Sciences and the modern art de Young Museum;
  • Japanese Tea Garden (it may be twee but it is set in lovely grounds and provides tasty oriental teas and snacks in the café);

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  • Stow Lake (lovely to walk round, grab a hot dog at the boat house or book a pedal boat);

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  • Visit the moving National AIDS Memorial Grove and the steamy Conservatory of Flowers;
  • The buffalo paddock (the creatures are rather shy) and the Dutch Windmill are also worth exploring at the other end of the park.

3. Ferry Building

  • Fantastic selection of indoor food and gift stores, and the sixth best Farmers’ Market in the world (according to a recent survey) outside on certain days;

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  • Nice bookshop and great wine bar.

4. Cliff House

  • Drive or take the 38 bus from downtown to cean Beach for two fine restaurants with stunning views over the Pacific;
  • Stroll along the beach for miles;
  • explore the remains of Adolph Sutro’s great public baths and watch the sea birds on Seal Rock;

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  • Take the short walk to the western end of Golden Gate Park.

5. Chinatown

  • Witness the largest Chinese community outside Asia going about their daily business;
  • Grant Avenue is best for gifts whilst Stockton contains the markets at which the Chinese women shop for produce not seen anywhere else!;

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  • You must eat here at least once during your stay – I recommend the Great Eastern, after all the Obamas eat there, and the R & G Lounge;
  • Don’t forget the side streets too with their views of the Bay Bridge and Financial District – and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory!

6. North Beach

  • Traditionally the Italian quarter adjacent to Chinatown;
  • Plenty of excellent cafés and restaurants – Trieste the most famous but Tosca, Greco and Puccini are really good too;
  • We have enjoyed meals at the North Beach restaurant, Calzone, Sotto Mare, Firenze at Night and others;
  • Rest awhile at Washington Square Park watching the dogs and their humans at play under the shadow of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul;

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  • Have a glass or two at the Vesuvio Café, our favourite bar – historic haunt of the Beats, e.g. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, in the fifties and sixties;
  • Peruse the unique shelves of the City Lights Bookstore, one of the most famous in the world, opposite Vesuvio;

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  • On the opposite corner on Columbus, Broadway is the home to many of San Francisco’s more famous fleshpots;
  • Reserve seats in advance for Beach Blanket Babylon, another thing you really should do – but best to book in advance

7. Palace of Fine Arts

  • The only remaining building from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the resurrection of San Francisco from the Earthquake and Fire of nine years before;
  • Beautiful classical structure with a tranquil swan-filed lagoon attached;

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8. Haight-Ashbury

  • Whether you’re an old hippie (like me) or not, it’s a fascinating place with lots of “head” shops, stores selling retro clothes, good cafés, a massive record shop (Amoeba) and not a few “characters”;
  • Close to Golden Gate Park, it is possible to visit both on the same day.

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9. Alcatraz

  • It may be touristy but no visit to the city is complete without a visit to the most feared federal penitentiary of them all;
  • It is very popular so you should book in advance, preferably before you travel;
  • The day tour is good but the evening (sunset) one is even better!

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10. Bay Cruise

  • Enjoy an hour or two on the bay, remembering to take suncream, as much for the wind as the sun;
  • Stop off at Sausalito for a drink and a promenade, or even go on to Angel Island and Tuburon;
  • The Rocket Boat is tremendous fun, though not for the faint- hearted!

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11. Castro

  • Ground zero for San Francisco’s large gay and lesbian community, rainbow flags are fluttering everywhere;
  • Good shops and bars;

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  • It boasts a great movie house, the Castro Theatre, with its own wurlitzer;  if you can, book tickets for a film. You might even get lucky and be able to participate in a sing-a-long version of either The Sound of Music, Grease or The Wizard of Oz.

12. Alamo Square

  • Position yourself to take the perfect picture of the famous Painted Ladies Victorian houses with the modern city looming behind.

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13.  Mission

  • Boisterous, funky, and, at night, edgy Latino and Hispanic neighbourhood;
  • Great for cheap clothing and inexpensive Central and South American food;
  • Take the pilgrimage to the original Mission Dolores church where it all started;
  • But a picnic for Dolores Park and savour the great views, not only of the city but also of your fellow humans (some of which may be naked – you have been warned!).

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14. Coit Tower

  • Fire nozzle shaped monument provided for the city by Lillian Hitchcock Coit in honour of the brave firefighters of the Earthquake and Fire of 1906;
  • Take in the wonderful views over the bay, including Alcatraz;
  • See and hear the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill (though they do frequent other parts of the city too now);

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  • Climb up at least one set of steps – there are several to choose from, including those that run past beautiful urban gardens.

15.  Twin Peaks

  • The most visited spot for panoramic views of the city, though there are others e.g. Bernal Heights just as good in my opinion.

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16. Civic Center

  • Home to magnificent City Hall and several other public buildings, including the symphony/opera and library;
  • Good, cheap farmer’s market on Wednesdays.

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17. Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39

  • The most popular tourist spots on the bay, not my favourite but you cannot deny that it is a place of fun and energy;
  • See,  listen and laugh at the crazy sea lions on Pier 39;

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  • Wander round the myriad of gift shops for presents for those back home;
  • Sample seafood at the many restaurants and wharfside stalls – we have eaten well at the Franciscan, Neptune’s Palace and McKormick & Kuleto’s;    
  • The Hard Rock is here too if that is more your scene;
  • The Gold Dust Lounge, relocated from Union Square, is a good watering hole with live music;
  • The Musée Mecanique (vintage amusement arcade) and Hyde Street Pier (collection of classic ships), are two of the best deals, not only on the waterfront, but in the whole of the city; 

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  • Beware the World Famous Bushman!

18. Union Square

  • San Francisco’s “modern” shopping heart is very popular with tourists and locals alike, though I use it more as a thoroughfare from Market to Chinatown and North Beach;

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  • There are a number of good diners and grills in the vicinity, including John’s Grill, Tadich Grill and Daily Grill;
  • It borders both the Tenderloin and Civic Center, so don’t be surprised by the number of homeless people, some of which may approach you for money.

19. Bay Bridge

  • Many, including my wife, prefer this to the Golden Gate Bridge and love driving on both its upper and lower decks;

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  • The new span that replaced the old one destroyed by 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake has recently opened and is stunning;
  • It is spectacularly lit up at night.

20. MUNI

  • San Francisco’s public transit system is loved and hated at the same time by both locals and visitors;
  • The cable cars are not merely tourist toys, many locals use them too, and you must ride them;

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  • The lines may be long but it’s well worth the wait – hurtling down Nob or Russian Hill is a thrilling experience;
  • The historic F Streetcar that runs along Market and the Embarcadero from the Castro is charming if uncomfortable. Don’t expect, however, to get anywhere quickly;

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  • All human life is there on the buses!

21. Sports

  • Candlestick Park, home of the 49ers, is one of the most famous football stadia in America, and the 49ers won’t be there much longer, so get there quick!
  • Even if it is baseball close season, take the tour of the Giant’s home, AT & T Park, dubbed the most beautiful sports stadium in America with wonderful views over the bay;

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  • You can get your (ice) hockey fix too by taking the train from the Caltrain station at 4th and King to San Jose where the Sharks will be waiting to entertain you.

This is not an exhaustive list and I have not even mentioned the many day trips out of the city that can be made, for example to Napa, Muir Woods, Berkeley, Monterey and Carmel. But I think what I have included will keep any first time visitor occupied for a couple of weeks at least!

I would be happy to answer any questions arising from this post.

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For fifteen years I believed unquestioningly the received wisdom that San Francisco Zoo was to be avoided at all costs. Underfunded, rundown and more concerned about entertaining its dwindling number of human visitors than caring for its residents, the its reputation had plunged to an all-time low. And then, on Christmas Day 2007, a member of the public was savaged to death by an escaped tiger, the same animal that had bitten a keeper just twelve months before. Among locals, confessing to liking it became nearly as criminal an act as admitting to paying a visit to Pier 39. And it was too far removed from the tourist bus trail to lure outsiders to its Ocean Beach location.

But today, on reading that the zoo was making a comeback, we set aside any such prejudice and took the combined J and L Muni lines to Sloat and 47th to join the young families and school parties that appeared, understandably, to represent the main customer base.

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The first thing that strikes you is the beautifully lush setting. And there has, and continues to be, a tremendous amount of work being done in recent years to rebrand and remodel the Zoo around different habitats and focusing on conservation. As someone who has two world class wildlife parks on his doorstep – the John Aspinall Foundation zoos at Howlett’s and Port Lympne in Kent in England – I wish them well and applaud the passion that was evident in the friendly, welcoming staff.

To recommend a zoo as the perfect place to take the kids is like proposing that an aquarium is the best spot to encounter tropical fish. But the children’s zoo here is a delight. It is a spacious and clean where the children are encouraged to learn about, and engage physically, with the inhabitants, all of whom are only too willing to be petted – and fed. A steam train that picks up a thrilling speed on its short route and an indoor carousel provide added excitement.

Photographed below are just a few of the adorable characters that live at the Zoo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many animals actually out on display, particularly in the afternoon, than I did on our visit. Generally, they are taking a siesta or just merely playing hard to get. Some, for example the snow leopard and beaver, made themselves unavailable, but the vast majority were clearly visible and untroubled, even stimulated, by the interest shown in them by the public.

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Now Singapore it is not. Nor Toronto. Nor even San Diego.

But it is a zoo that is trying hard to heal a reputation that had been seriously harmed in a market where the alternative “big beasts” like Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, hold all the aces. And it is doing so in the right way by concentrating on conservation.

TripAdvisor places it 87th out of 520 attractions in San Francisco which, on my limited mathematical analysis, means it is in the top sixteen percent, which, in one sense, is not too shabby. But a city zoo, especially one in such a lovely setting, should be doing better. It deserves greater support from prospective benefactors, San Francisco residents and out of town visitors alike.

And yes, we did see both the baby sumatran tiger and giraffe!

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