Friday, 6 January 2012

The Londoner's Guide to San Francisco

After a lengthy blog-cation I am now returning to nurture poor Novateur out of neglect. My new job at a women’s magazine has made life super busy and rightly so; all energy has been directed into my humble attempt at crafting a small mark on the world of lifestyle press.

So, what better way to dive back in than with tales of my latest adventure. Hopefully you will gather some useful tips that will come in handy on your own first visit to this wonderful city.

Tip 1: Be sure to wear flowers in your hair (and take the Bart)...

We flew out of Heathrow at 9.30 on a damp Thursday morning, only a hop, skip, and err 5.30am tube ride away. The Virgin Atlantic lounge was luxe and the flight even better. We took the initiative to pre-book seats and ended up in a secluded part of economy on a two seat row; practically premium! I watched Midnight in Paris, scoffed croissants, scones and every slice of the three courses the red-heeled glamazons delivered. No point dieting in America, might as well start gorging on the plane. Good plan!
 11 hours later, after a scenic journey overlooking the frozen peaks of Greenland and the dusty lakes of Canada, we flew down Northern California and landed in San Francisco International. Yee har! After slipping through US customs (I use the term loosely - fingers printed, bodies scanned) we took the Bart to our hotel in the city centre. Other arrivees chose cabs as their mode of transport but the Bart is less expensive and much simpler. The entrance is directly inside Arrivals and is the Californian answer to the Tube. A ticket, at just $8, takes you to the heart of San Francisco in 15 minutes flat.

Tip 2: Start as you mean to go on...

After little sleep and an 11 hour time rewind, we decided the only way to kick off was to drink...anywhere...anything. Thursday eve went something like this; Margarita's in the Hard Rock, a private bar tour of Fisherman's Wharf with fellow Hard Rock diner, a gig, and finally, a lift to the hotel in said band's tour bus (whilst sitting atop an amp drinking Jack Daniels no less). Welcome to San Francisco!*

*Photos of this night will NOT be surfacing on any of my social network platforms and are getting destroyed *pours all alcohol down the sink*

Tip 3: Take a tour bus ...

The next morning we woke up, hit the Starbucks in the hotel lobby, and decided a good plan of action would be to ride a tour bus to take in our new surroundings. SF is super compact and after a few spins and some local insight we were able to sensibly plan the next few days.

Tip 4: Hire a Mustang and head to the Golden Gate Bridge...

For awe-inspiring views, head straight to the Golden Gate Bridge. This shining coral masterpiece breaks the mist and links San Francisco to Marin County. The Golden Gate represents the opening of the bay into the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. We hired a car and drove over (free to go over, $7 to return) but you can choose to walk or cycle on the pedestrian runways.
Before you journey across, stop-off on the bank below the entrance road, access the viewing spot and get camera ready. On a clear day, catch breathtaking views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and Angel Island.
I highly recommend you go all-out cliché when you drive over. I’m talking; roof down and Classic Rock FM on LOUD! An entirely memorable experience I will never forget!

We stopped in Sausalito, a small picturesque harbour town, then spun through the cliff top lanes of the Californian valleys. Definitely remember to request a sat-nav as the lanes can become deserted and parts of the roads are carved deep into dark forests. Frequent deer and bear signs mark the way, not an ideal area to get lost in!

Tip 5: SHOP...

Union Square is the only place to head if you want to drop some serious cash and take in city life. Think chain coffee shops, luxury hotels, American department stores and designer emporiums. We travelled in December so caught their epic holiday celebrations. In classic American style, the department store festivities were larger than life. We saw kittens and puppies in Macy’s window, full scale Motown choirs and enough baubles and lights to possibly illuminate this small Californian peninsular from Space! The glitter went a little to my head and I picked up a black Michael Kors chain handbag, a Michael Kors neon pink tote, a salmon Madewell scarf, a Barney’s Lady Gaga shopper, a J Crew vanity bag and Saks headbands. 
Once in Union Square do remember to check out Tony Bennett’s heart, located on the corner between Saks and The Weston Hotel. Yes you read right, Tony really did leave his heart in San Francisco, albeit a wooden one he painted himself!

Post-haul, head to Pete’s; a small coffee shop situated outside Macy’s Mens. It’s a nice swap from your regular Starbucks and comes personally recommended from a SF local. 
If you’re feeling a little more glamorous; head to one of the city's many designer hotel bars. However, drop off the bags and make a quick change - dress code is strict and you’re lucky if you make it as far as the lobby. 

Tip 6: Pretend you’re Julia Roberts ...

*smug face*

Decked out in our holiday finest, we headed to the Four Seasons on Market Street. Throughout my short career I've been lucky enough to visit London's top hotels, however, this one really made a splash. The lobby is located on the fifth floor, keeping it extra exclusive. Once you’re 'in' a suited bell boy escorts you to the luxury land above. The lounge bar is all honeycomb marble, creamy lighting, slick Wall Street types and, if you’re lucky, the odd famous person or two. The pianist played as we drank champagne and ‘San Francisco Fashions’; a dreamy rum based mix of magic.

The Westin St Francis Hotel offers a similar experience, although the bar is less exclusive which could be of benefit for those looking for luxury, but with an alternative livelier atmosphere. I was also more than excited to find out The Westin was home to Pretty Woman's famous restaurant scene! If you’re less than shy when it comes to heights, or if the bubbly has gone to your head, go all Towering Inferno and take a ride in the outdoor glass lifts.

After all this finery we ended up in the Goldust Lounge off Union Square. We danced to an Elvis impersonator, drank more Margaritas (only this time for twenty 'bucks' less) and chatted to cheerful cowboys. San Francisco is definitely the city where you can mix it up.

Tip 7: Invest in tie-dye...

Haight-Ashbury was the area we were most excited to visit due to its pop culture infamy and central role in the hippy movements of the 60s. Throughout this decade, the neighbourhood became infamous for its drug culture and the rock n roll lifestyle of those who inhabited its hilly streets. During the spring of 1967 the scene exploded after flocks of high school and college kids, enticed by the free lifestyle, swarmed the streets. The soundtrack was psychedelia and rock and John Phillips captured the vibe when writing hit song 'San Francisco (Be sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair'.

Today the Haight is all tie-dye selling boutiques, grungy coffee shops and dusty chill out bars. I bought a floppy white hat, a neon scarf and a vintage coat. A relaxed mood hangs in the air and the streets are peppered with guitar playing dudes and pretty young things wearing long skirts and rainbow hair. The Haight's history is evident all over, from Leonard Cohen's comments on the wall of a small pizza shop, to the ban-the-bomb necklace dangling from a street sign. Even the local Ben & Jerry’s is customised! It felt amazing to hang in an environment where such powerful peoples movements and expressions were born. Flower power.

 Tip 8: DO be a tourist...

For more Bay action, head to Fisherman’s Wharf. The Wharf lies between Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square, and offers seafood restaurants, tourist attractions and souvenir shops. Here you can meet the local celebrities; the sea lions! You’ll find them residing in the waters by the Pier, that’s if you don’t hear them first. Our tour bus guide informed us that these impressive mammals were, at first, a terrible nuisance. Tactics to rid of them included, blasting rock n roll music in their direction (really) and spraying them with fire hoses. Thankfully, neither worked and they’ve become a beloved part of the scenery. Speaking of which, Fisherman’s Wharf  is amazing for enthusiastic photographers. Here, on a mist free day, Alcatraz seems within touching distance and the Golden Gate Bridge acts as a magnificent backdrop. Whilst your here, drop into the Hard Rock Cafe and Joe DiMaggio’s (he used to take Marilyn in).

 Tip 9: Don’t forget the Ray-Bans...

After three years residing in East London, we were super excited to come across what we entitled; ‘Shoreditch-on-Sea’! The Mission District is a hive for fashion, art and music types – sound familiar? Pretension hangs in the air and you will NEVER be the best dressed. Still, creativity is a powerful magnet and the bars and shops scream cool. As in East London, Ray Ban’s monopolize, jeans are skinny, haircuts asymmetrical, and colours blocked. Don’t smile, smoke a cig, and forget worrying about understanding the wizardry of your new Apple Mac, having it casually perched beside you is quite enough here. 
Oh yeah, don’t go to the Mission without heading to Delores Park! It’s the London Fields of San Francisco, just swop your Frisbee for a baseball glove! 

As well as being the hip spot to park your picnic, Delores Park allows fantastical views of the San Franciscan skyline; perfect for when your pretending to type up your blog :D And remember, being a dickhead is COOL.

Tip 10: Visit Alcatraz. Who doesn't want to hang in a prison when holidaying?!  

Since watching Clint Eastwood convey the 1962 break-out in Escape from Alcatraz, I have been dying to visit. Over the past year, I have been geeking out on Alcatraz enormously so imagine my excitement when we booked our trip! It would be a crime (sorry) to visit San Francisco and not take an Alcatraz tour. At one time or another, all the notorious American criminals were placed at Alcatraz. Including the biggy; Al Capone. Alcatraz is the Holy Grail for anyone interested in criminal history. 
Firstly, make sure you book before you travel. Our tour was completely full and many were turned away. Secondly, for extra eeriness, go for the night tour.

The trip begins near Fisherman’s Wharf where you depart from Pier 33. The boat leaves at 4.30 prompt, setting sail to towards the murky island. The crossing lasts no more than 20 minutes but San Franciscan climate means darkness will already have fallen by the time your boat arrives – spooky! Upon arrival, you are greeted by an Alcatraz warden who leads the tour up the steep road towards the prison. Ferocious waves circle the island and the air is heavy with gloom as you trace the prisoners first steps as Alcatraz inmates. After an introduction, you are led into the prison and from there are free to wander. Each visitor is given an audio headset and previous wardens and prisoners narrate as you explore.
I headed straight to Morris’ cell!

The prison tour guide busted a few myths on the 1962 escape, but for those who are interested he delved further. He believed that Morris and the Anglin brothers did leave Alcatraz, no questions about it. The mystery lies in whether they made it to shore. My instincts and theories say they did. The tour guide explained the waves and water temperature on that cold May night would have made swimming difficult for even the most gifted Olympians. But hey, these men were swimming for their lives right? What kind of adrenaline must that pump around? And they had been planning the escape for almost a year. You decide. I’m trying to.

Click here to book your Alcatraz tickets.

If you’ve reached this far then thank you for reading this lengthy post. I have enjoyed writing it. Hopefully I have littered this holiday diary with useful and practical information to those planning a visit.

Images: Novateur Blog