I’m pretty happy living in Brisbane. The weather is good, we have a good football team and there are nice people here. Having said that, if I was to move to anywhere else in the world, it would probably be San Francisco. It is a gorgeous, picturesque city that is absolutely full of character. The Golden Gate Bridge, the famous San Fran cable cars, the amazing seafood, the friendly locals…San Francisco has it all.
Even better, when we arrived for a four day stint, we were greeted by some old friends from high school: Majid (who is a local), James and Pat.
The Napa Valley Wine Tour
We spent our first day doing a wine tour of the Napa Valley. We picked up the tickets online for pretty cheap and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting San Francisco. It’s a great way to tour the countryside and even in December, the weather is nice and warm. We went on a tour bus with about 11 other people and as you’d expect, it’s a great way to meet some new people. Our bus included holidaymakers from the UK, South Africa, Europe and the rest of America. We befriended a Texan couple, Wes & Kristen, who were of a similar age to us. They were fascinating to Jen and I, defying all our stereotypes of what Southerners were like. They didn’t own guns, they preferred wine over beer and they enjoyed San Francisco so much they traveled there annually and considered moving interstate. Wes was an avid 49ers fan. He was part of a greater trend I observed in America. Plenty of the sports fans I spoke to didn’t necessarily support the team from their home state. I’m not really sure why that is though.
Our wine tour took us to three different vineyards dotted across Napa and Sonoma. The region is home to the Skywalker ranch where George Lucas resides and in nearby Yontville, there is also the world famous French Landry, one of the greatest restaurants in the world. The wine tastings themselves are probably more or less the same as what you’d get back home but since we’re not particularly familiar with American wines, it still felt like something new and the vineyards themselves were stunning; the staff very accommodating.
After touring the Californian wine region we wrapped up with a tour of the Domain Chandon champagne distillery. It was a very thorough and engaging tour and wrapped up with a leisurely final hour where you could go to a bar and sample a range of different bottles. My recollection of the events after that get a little hazy.
One of the most ominous conversations Jen and I had in America was on the bus ride home where the topic of gun control came up. For frame of reference this was about a week before the Sandy Hook school shooting. The Texans were firm advocates of not touching the gun laws but the most vociferous supporter of guns was the South African guy who was a business owner. He explained that in South Africa, he carried a gun with him where ever he went. He was a big advocate of lethal self defense. “If someone tries to break into my house I will kill them. If someone tries to rob in me the street, I will kill them. If someone tries to break into my car, I will kill them.”
The debate became a little heated.
It was pretty clear to me that the biggest cause of difference in our perspectives was the countries we lived in. If some guy tries to break into my house, I seriously doubt he intends to kill me or even harm me. He just wants to steal my telly. Whereas in parts of South Africa, I guess it’s potentially life or death in any of those situations. Wes, one of the Texans, was of the firm belief that Obama would ‘come for the guns.’
Since that conversation, the Sandy Hook school shooting took place where a lone disturbed gunman went to a primary school and shot dead over twenty kids. President Obama is now looking to introduce the most dramatic change to federal gun laws in decades. Last week, the famed South African Olympian Oscar Pistorious shot dead his girlfriend. Although it is not entirely clear what happened, Pistorious is claiming his innocence based on his right to administer lethal self defense.
Both these incidents made me think about our Texan friends and the South African businessman. Did either event cause them to change their minds? Have they felt more vindicated than ever about their position on gun laws in America and South Africa or did it cause some doubt?
A quick word on accommodation in San Francisco. We stayed at the Hilton in Market Square and it was hands down the worst place we stayed at in the entire trip. The room had tissue thin walls so we would hear all the traffic outside despite being eight levels up. Even worse was the service we got from the bus boys who didn’t lift a finger to help you unless you tipped first. They were the only hotel that didn’t offer assistance with bags when we got out of the cab and we learned from a local cabbie that they get a cut of the fares from limo companies so they ignore hailing taxis for you and try to bundle you into premium-charged limos instead. The rooms had extortionate fees for wifi too. Just all round terrible. Never stay at the Hilton in San Francisco. It was a small blight in an otherwise amazing trip.
The Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito
After we got back from our day trip at the winery, we headed down to The Thirsty Bear in Union Square to meet up with Pat, Majid and James. The Thirsty Bear is the place to go if you’re after some craft beers in the city. The venue is bustling without being overly crowded and the drink selection is diverse and the prices reasonable.
Catching up with the guys was just like old times. Majid is still a fast talking, party loving gentleman – ever torn between his inner wild child and his conservative heritage. He doesn’t drink but he likes to make monthly trips to Las Vegas. We caught James who was in the middle of making a big move from London back to New Zealand. He didn’t really seem to have specific plans but was pretty upbeat about this seachange in his life. Pat was in a similar boat, having just scored a new job after relocating from London to Vancouver.
The next day we headed out to Pier 49 where we had a ginormous breakfast in preparation for a day of cycling.
There are few highlights from my trip that matched the simple pleasure of cycling around San Francisco’s water front and across the Golden Gate Bridge. The weather was perfect and the sights to be seen on a clear day across the Bay are something else.
Once you complete the 3 mile cycle across the bridge, you have a (mostly) downhill ride to Sausalito, a charming seaside town that is a colourful mix of cafes and art galleries.
Jen and I aren’t the fittest couple by any stretch of the imagination but we both found the experience to be exhilarating and some of the best memories of our trip. If you ever visit San Francisco, it is well worth doing this ride.
After working up a thirst cycling all day, we headed back into town. We stumbled across a watering hole on the waterfront called Jack’s Cafe. It was a hole in the wall that didn’t look like anything special out front but when I went inside I discovered a bar that had SIXTY EIGHT different beers on tap. It was glorious. We have nothing, nothing, approaching this sort of range in Brisbane. I don’t remember even reading anything special about Jack’s Cafe in travel guides or on Yelp.com. It’s apparently just one of many bars in San Francisco. I loved it though. The staff were friendly, there was a great atmosphere and the drinks were cheap.
I think America gets a bum rap when it comes to beer. I’d wager that people knocking it have only had a Budweiser or one of its squillion spin-off labels. The craft beer industry is alive and well in America and it offers a range of awesome flavours and it is easy to come across. Another time, I would love to holiday around America and make a more concerted effort to visit famous bars or distilleries.
Seafood is a pretty big deal in San Francisco and the waterfront is famous for its dungeness crab. After having some drinks at Jack’s Cafe we hit up Joe’s Crab Shack on the waterfront and gorged ourselves on pots of fresh seafood. It was pretty amazing and a lovely callback to those weekends in Malaysia in the Nineties where we would go to Labuan and feast at the Seafood Restaurant. Joe’s Crab Shack is a little bit touristy so its not the cheapest place to get San Fran seafood and the walls are adorned with tacky shirts and posters with puns about having crabs. Still, there was no faulting the food itself. Absolutely delicious and very fresh.
If you come to San Francisco, you gotta have the dungeness crab.
For breakfast, we met up with Pat and Majid at Majid’s local diner, The Golden Coffee. It’s a Chinese family run business with Pa doing the cooking, Ma doing the serving and the daughter taking the orders. I loved this place. It had plenty of character and like the best diners, it was improbably cheap. The food was served quickly and this fry-up was just the pick up we needed after a night of drinking. The bacon, eggs and hash pictured above cost $5 and the coffee was 75 cents with unlimited refills. Glorious. If only we had this back home.
If there was ever an incident that told us just how serious the business of tipping in America is, it happened on the last night in San Francisco. Jen and I were having dinner with Majid and James at a Japanese restaurant. We had a lovely meal, tipped the server, paid our way and left the joint. As we stood outside and pondered our next move, the server came out and approached us rather directly.
“Did I do something to offend you?”
It turns out we made a miscalculation with our tipping and only tipped 8% instead of the minimum of 10%. We apologized and dug up some extra notes to give to the server.
Tipping isn’t technically mandatory in America but socially, it really is. Shortly after we left America, a news story broke where a lady working at an Apple Bees franchise posted a receipt on Reddit from someone who declared ‘I give God 10%, why should I tip you more?’
It caused a big uproar and the server was tracked down and fired but not before plenty of negative comments were cast at the stingy customer who didn’t want to cough up the tip. The server subsequently wrote an article in the Guardian about the standard of living for servers in America which gives you a pretty good idea of how vital tips are.
With every holiday, there is always going to be some small regret or something that doesn’t quite go to plan. For me, both of things were in San Francisco. I wish I had the time to make it to the San Francisco 49ers game that was on that weekend (the 49ers would go on to reach the Super Bowl that year). I also wish we had more time when we visited Alcatraz, the famous island prison.
We didn’t anticipate tickets to the island would sell out during off peak season so the only available time to see the place was the morning of our flight out to Washington D.C. We made it to Alcatraz but only had an hour to see the place. Ideally, you’d probably need about three hours. The place was fantastic for what little time we saw of it. I’ve never visited any kind of prison before and I found Alcatraz to be downright eery and full of character. Despite being on the island with a bunch of other tourists, it wasn’t hard for me to immerse myself in the prison blocks, reading about its famous residents, the infamous wardens and the remarkable attempts at escape.
If you visit San Francisco, make time to visit Alcatraz and make sure you get tickets early.
Jen and I had an amazing time in San Francisco. It was a beautiful city and catching up with Majid, James and Pat was fantastic. The timing of the trip was interesting as we were all seemingly at a crossroads in our lives. We were about to switch jobs, move countries, buy a first home and take the next big step. I know we’ll cross paths again in the future and I look forward to finding out what everybody ended up doing.
Over the past decade, I’ve bumped into Pat in three different continents. As we left San Francisco, I wondered when and where we’d meet next and what our lives would be like then.
Our next stop after the four day visit to San Francisco was a two day stop over in Washington D.C, the nation’s capital and home to some of the most powerful men and women in the world.