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story Alex Eberspaecher photographs Judy Eberspaecher
When Jon DeBeer left his native South Africa to go on a holiday to Turkey, he had no idea that he would end up in San Francisco instead.
We first met Jon in the lobby at the Tuscan Inn, – a few steps from Fisherman’s Wharf – at the daily mingle session in the lobby, where we enjoyed snacks and all the free wine one could drink. Now wine is a good preservative for almost everything, except secrets, and when Jon was on his fifth glass, he opened up and talked a great deal.
As it turned out, he had booked a trip to Ankara in Turkey but had to fly first to Amsterdam. From there it would have been a relatively short trip to Turkey, except he was directed to the wrong flight and ended up in Anchorage, Alaska. Jon’s last name isn’t DeBeer, I have changed this for the benefit of the Homeland Security Office, but the fact is his story turned out to be correct.
Jon eventually ended up drinking all the free wine he could with us in San Francisco on his way home from Alaska and after a few more Zinfandels, we all agreed that this was the greatest city he had ever visited.
From the towering redwood forests and the Sierra Mountains to the east, the Napa and Sonoma wine country to the north, and the breathtaking countryside with its hidden Pacific beaches to the south and west, San Francisco is the heart of an area that is unrivaled in its natural beauty.
San Francisco is a clean and welcoming, fascinating and vibrant destination. It is also a city safe for everyone and most hospitable to its visitors.
It hasn’t always been this way. There have been earthquakes and fires in the city’s short history, and of course there is Alcatraz, just a mile off the famous Fisherman’s Wharf. Built in the 1850s to house the prisoners of the Spanish/Mexican war, Alcatraz was converted in 1934 to a maximum-security prison. It was active until about 1963 and then layed derelict until 1969 when it became occupied in defiance by Native Americans until 1971. The stories abound and legends have been created, but Alcatraz was not as colourful as depicted in the movies. It was not a place for the macho, but a place of tears and loneliness, at times ending in suicide. Today the former prison is a park and the daily visits by curious tourists have made the Rock a profitable institution.
San Francisco is a new city as far as history is concerned, but its start was unlike any other. It truly had a golden start. Forty thousand people arrived in the bay area, mostly by ship, during the 1840s, seeking a fortune in gold. Although a few found it, only to lose it quickly again, the city remained and has grown into one of the most diverse and tolerant cities on the continent.
Today the prisoners from the Rock are long gone, the gold miners have become legends and saloons have been replaced by some of the best dining establishments in the US. From the predominantly gay Castro district, with its rainbow coloured flags, to Chinatown and the Haight Ashbury district – the cradle of the Hippy movement – the once lawless San Franciscans have become some of the most tolerant people we can find anywhere.
A visit probably would start somewhere near Pier 39, the Fisherman’s Wharf area. This is a popular spot to stroll in the evenings to watch the Sea Lions that have taken over one of the marinas, or to dine at one of the many fine seafood restaurants or just hang out and watch the artists and musicians within short walking distance of many good hotels.
Not far from the Golden Gate Bridge is Golden Gate Park, home of the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It includes the magnificent Japanese Tea Garden, a place that can easily take a day to explore during the flower season, which incidentally seems to last in San Francisco from March to November.
To get there we should take a cable car across the lower part of the city. With twelve kilometres of track, the tram is probably San Francisco’s best-known tourist attraction, as it climbs its way over the notoriously steep streets that afford an incredible panoramic view over most of San Francisco and the deep turquoise waters of the Bay.
Union Square with its exclusive department stores, may be somewhat dangerous if you have a passion for shopping, but don’t spend all your money there as the many small shops along the waterfront always hide some unexpected bargains. Lunch uptown, perhaps in one of the great oriental restaurants will be a pleasant experience but no visit to San Francisco would ever be complete without a dinner at the Stinking Rose, the greatest garlic restaurant in North America. Make sure your hotel arranges reservations. Otherwise, especially on weekends, you may starve to death waiting in line.
An evening stroll along the waterfront near the Fisherman’s Wharf is most certainly a rewarding finish to a full day. Street performers will set the mood while you wander from the seafood restaurant to an Irish pub for a nightcap. Pause a few moments to look out at the infamous yet mysterious Alcatraz Island and you will surely understand why only fifteen prisoners dared to escape by plunging into the cold and shark-infested, fast-flowing current. History has recorded that seven were shot, six drowned in the water and one eluded the bullets and the sharks only to be recaptured immediately upon reaching the mainland.
San Francisco is not as hot as areas further to the south and although the summer days can be quite warm, as the sun disappears below the legendary Golden Gate Bridge, a sweater or light jacket will be much appreciated. Early spring and late fall weather may be cool, perhaps in the low teens but it will never be extreme, not even in mid winter. In summer you may awake to find the city shrouded in fog, but don’t despair, this is normal. You can be assured that by noon the fog will return out to sea, through the Golden Gate Bridge. As mysteriously as it appeared during the night, it will disappear again just like the hordes of 49ers, the gold miners, who failed to find a fortune a hundred fifty years ago. Those were the unlucky ones, the ones who did not to stay on to become part of a city that undoubtedly is one of the most interesting places to visit in the USA. GL
|ABOVE Golden Gate Bridge
ABOVE Alex gains perspective up close and personal with a giant redwood in Muir Woods - about 25km north of San Francisco and most certainly worth a visit if you like nature. The 560-acre plot of giant virgin Redwoods, some over 1000 years old, has hiking trails and a Visitors’ Centre.
ABOVE a cable car negotiates one of San Francisco's
many steep grades.