What I did on Summer Vacation

You probably weren’t aware that I spent most of the last week in San Francisco. Something that few people will mention to you is that takeoffs and landings from McCarran in 110+ degree heat can be a little, um, bumpy. When we arrived at SFO it was substantially cooler. I do have to give Virgin America points for having really nice seats on their planes and a nifty in-flight entertainment system. Oh, and just a little word about air travel in general: if it’s big and heavy enough that it needs wheels, it is by definition not a “carry on“.

We rode the subway from the airport into downtown and from there walked to our hotel, the Westin St. Francis. It’s a great hotel on Union Square that actually survived the Great Earthquake. The Clock Bar in the lobby is a very nice place to have a drink, but it does fill up in the evenings. Pro-tip: you don’t have to leave the building to get to Victoria’s Secret but you do have to go outside to get to the Pink boutique.

I know this sounds dumb, but riding BART gave me a new appreciation for 20th Century music.

After settling in, walked to Chinatown, wandered through some shops, and ate at Sam Wo’s. This place has been there over a hundred years now, and there’s just no way it would ever open today. Here. Let Conan explain it to you:

In any event, we recommend the pork rolls and the chow fun. And try not to look like a tourist. Just go up the stairs, find a place to sit down, and pretend you’ve been there a million times.

In the morning, it was back to Chinatown for the kind of treat you just can’t get in most neighborhoods, dim sum for breakfast! Ask about where to get dim sum in San Francisco, and a lot of people are going to start telling you about Yank Sing, a wonderful little place that you have to know exactly where it is to have any hope of finding it. It’s always packed and frankly, kinda pricey. We bagged that in favor of the Hang Ah Tea Room, off one of Chinatown’s historic alleys. The food was just almost as good, but a third the price.

Then it was back onto BART towards Daly City, where friends picked us up at the station to go to a little place called Montara. Last time we were out there, we got to see whales breaching, but no such luck this time. It’s still just gorgeous out there. A great time was had by all, even their dog.

The next day was a bit of a hike. After some yoga in the morning, we walked to the Ferry Building, had coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee, and a late breakfast of sandwiches at Il Cane Rosso. From there, we walked down the waterfront, occasionally distracted by interesting things, until we arrived at Pier 39, or as we like to call it, Admiral Ackbar’s Pier. It’s a tourist trap! The smell of sugar and fried stuff is overwhelming, and you’re on the ocean! Just about the only thing you can do for free is see these guys, the famous sea lions of Pier 39:

A bit further down the waterfront is Fisherman’s Wharf, from which you can easily see Alcatraz:

But wait… what’s this?? A World War 2 Liberty Ship and a submarine! We went ahead and toured the sub, the USS Pampanito. By chance, there happened to be a gentleman touring with his grandkids who had actually served on such a vessel. Nothing exists on a sub that doesn’t have a purpose. Oh, and there’s no way Tony Curtis’s character on Operation Petticoat had private quarters.

Now, I haven’t the faintest idea why I decided to put a couple bucks worth of quarters in my wallet before leaving town. Perhaps I was thinking of vending machines? In any event, I was happy to have them when we arrived at the Musee Mechanique. Free admission, and an amazing array of picture viewers, player pianos, mechanical plays, pinball machines, music boxes, and even old video games, all operational and taking quarters.

Once we got down to the Cannery, we started back towards Little Italy. Not as famous as Chinatown by any means, but it has a special place in American History. Specifically, the history of banking in America. By this time it was mid-afternoon, and a great time for a snack! We stopped for pizza (and a bit of the house Chianti) at Panta Rei Restaurant. We wandered back through Chinatown to the hotel to chill out.

Dinner was at John’s Grill, home of the Maltese Falcon. The original. Honest. It’s one of those places that people have told us we just have to try. I don’t think the menu has changed much during my lifetime — seriously, you can still get the lamb chops with baked potato and sliced tomatoes that Sam Spade ordered in the book — and under normal circumstances that makes for an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. However, they pull it off perfectly. And don’t be afraid to order a cocktail; they serve all the classics in that department too.

Now, for those keeping track, that was all on foot. No rent car, taxis, buses, streetcars, trolleys, bikes, or boats. Over 5 miles of hilly sidewalks.

After our workout the next morning, we headed back to the Ferry Building. Moar Coffee! The farmer’s market was open and that meant plenty of tasty little food vendors. Pastrami burger for the win! Fresh organic peaches for dessert.

Again we went down the waterfront, but not too far. Next to the famous Fog City Diner is a peaceful spot called Levi Park:

Back behind the park, there’s this stairway. It’s a big, big stairway. And if you turn around at the landings, you get to see some spectacular views. Keep going all the way to the top — as if there’s anyplace else to go — and you end up on Telegraph Hill at Coit Tower. For $5 you can take the elevator to the top and get a truly spectacular view of the whole city.

Getting down from Telegraph Hill is almost as fun as getting up there in the first place. Remember that although pedestrians may have the right of way there are certain laws of physics that can’t be changed: cars are heavy and hills are steep. On the way back to Union Square, we stopped at Sam Wo’s for an afternoon snack. We’ve got to get our Chinese food when the getting is good. And so that’s why we ended up walking back to Chinatown for dinner at the Far East. Somehow we had trouble making our waitstaff understand that yes, we understand that certain dishes are spicy, and moreover we like it that way!

Another 5+ mile day. In the immortal words of Tony Horton, “It’s fun to be fit!”

Unfortunately, in the morning we had to start getting ready for the trip home: pack up, get breakfast on the go, walk to the train station (realize that yes you can get into the mall from the subway station), back to SFO, figure out what terminal we need (the international terminal? Really?), get through security, go home, do laundry.

More of the usual stuff later this week.