When my husband, Louie, decided to hold off competing in this year’s Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim, the famous 1.5 mile race from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco shore, I was relieved that he had decided to save the race for next year. He gifted this challenge to himself to celebrate his 70th birthday – his first attempt at racing in open waters. He trains at the Pasadena Aquatic Center in Southern California. But swimming the notoriously cold and strong currents of San Francisco Bay is no joke. Ask anyone who has done the swim. That’s why a prison was built on Alcatraz, I gently reminded my hubby.
But we didn’t cancel the trip. Flights and hotel were already booked not to mention family members who were also making the trek to Frisco, northern California’s most cosmopolitan city. With more time and no wetsuit to pack, a drive up the coast was suddenly enticing. We banked our flight tickets to use another time then hit the road.
Having our own car gave us freedom on the road, but when construction along the route slowed traffic to a one-lane crawl, we happily surrendered to soothing scenes of the Pacific Ocean splashing onto miles of sandy beaches and in the Central Coast romantic vineyards and agriculture as far as the eye could see. At Pismo Beach, the half-way point, we fortified ourselves for the rest of the ride with homemade vegetable soup at Honeymoon Cafe.
Hours later, we left Highway 101 in the rear view mirror as panoramic landscapes segued to a bird’s eye view of the density and diversity of the country’s second richest and most populous large city (after New York City) with over 815,200 inhabitants in the city proper.
The Civic Center’s fantastic landscape of monumental buildings – City Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, and Symphony Hall to name a few – reminded me of the magnificent architecture of Europe’s big cities.
Checking into our not-so-typical hotel in San Francisco – the private Metropolitan Club on lower Nob Hill – was a rare peek into the women’s club movement during the early 20th century. Established in 1915 as the Woman’s Athletic Club of San Francisco, it was the first of its kind on the West Coast. With eighteen guest rooms, the discreet six-story structure near Union Square models the opulence of an early Renaissance palazzo and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Met Club” is among many such private clubs born at the time when today’s major cities were in their infancy. They brought together forward-thinking citizens and public figures to socialize, intellectualize and to share ideas. Most clubs included athletic facilities because the philosophy of those pioneering days was -- and still is today -- the importance of fitness of body and mind. Through our membership with the Los Angeles Athletic Club, a reciprocal program allows us to book guest rooms at similar clubs around the country. And while lodging at most of these clubs are for members only, some -- like ours in Los Angeles -- welcome non-members, too.
For the first timers in our group, seeing iconic attractions of the city was a must. In the Russian Hill neighborhood (San Francisco has thirty-six neighborhoods), we held our breath as we inched our way up a steep hill behind a line of cars before taking a vertical dip down the eight hairpin turns of famous Lombard Street known as the world’s crookedest street.
And hopping the cable car at the Market Street turnaround in the Financial District was worth the hour wait. We were entertained by street performers, people-watching and witnessing the crew manually push the heavy carriage around on a huge wooden turntable before it could chug its way up and down hilly streets to the wharf. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the country’s last hand-operated cable cars have been part of the city’s transportation system since 1873 and run seven days a week.
Fog City is yet another name for San Fran because it’s usually covered by the cloudy gloom. But blue skies were with us when we caught the tail end of the Alcatraz swim race. With Alcatraz Island looming in the distance, kayakers guided the last of the elite swimmers to the beach at Aquatic Park.
“I’m inspired!” Louie shouted, grinning ear to ear.
A local man happened upon the race while walking his dog. Surprised to see the event, he shared that this is the reason he loves living in San Francisco. “Every day of the week there is something going on!”
We slowed the pace and left the city bustle for the quiet village atmosphere of Sausalito across Golden Gate Bridge. This historic whale-fishing village turned World War II shipyard turned tourist spot is a relaxed and friendly houseboat community. Bridgeway Street, the main drag, was lined with shops and restaurants, and a dramatic view of San Francisco’s skyline beckons from across the waters.
Back in the city we walked The Embarcadero, the famous street on the waterfront where colorful food stalls, countless shops and glorious aromas floating through the Ferry Building Marketplace woke all our senses. And like the cable cars, it was worth waiting in line for San Francisco’s quintessential clam chowder soup poured into sourdough bowls.
Then we discovered what might be the only “cragel” in the world. The deliciously ingenious invention that rhymes with bagel is a divine cross between a croissant and a bagel created at House of Bagels, where authentic New York “beigels” have been baked on stone since 1962. The heavenly hybrid, airy on the inside and crispy on the outside, is as good as it gets – and another San Francisco must.
IF YOU GO:
PUBLISHED STORY ON CREATORS.COM: https://www.creators.com/read/travel-and-adventure/10/22/san-francisco-is-calling