Friday, 18 September 2015


Well, actually, it was more like 72 hours in San Fran, but one day was spent out of town, taking my ten year old daughter to Palo Alto, near Stanford University, so that she could go to American Girl (a well-known US shop who's San Fran branch is in the Stanford Shopping Center) which sells over-sized and over-priced dolls that she loves!! Expensive though they are, I kind of don't mind it, because she plays with them endlessly, really good, constructive play (making them clothes, role-playing, fixing their hair etc) and it beats being on an electronic device! Here are two of her dolls (see photo below): Julie and Hannah.

Right, back to San Fran itself. We booked an Alaska Cruise with Princess Cruises which left from San Fran and had a few days to kill before we set sail. We had an absolute blast. It's a great city, with a great vibe, which the kids all adored. It's not quite the San Fran of 20 years ago (it felt much more touristy than I remember and there was a noticeable problem with homeless people on the streets) but it was still a lot of fun and feels very European for an American city.

We stayed at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel (a Kimpton hotel) on Powell Street - brilliantly and centrally located near Union Square, with Beefeaters welcoming us on a red carpet (see pic of a jet-lagged me with a Beefeater below). The property oozed with character and was very olde worlde - with sweeping staircases and huge chandeliers inside. Better still, they had complimentary tea and coffee in the morning at reception as well as a drinks reception with nibbles at 5.30pm daily. You could drink unlimited wine which was a lovely touch. A great way to start your evening.

A GREAT HOTEL TIP FOR IN AMERICA: We are a family of five, but there are rarely rooms which sleep five. Instead we booked what's called a 'double double'  (from £170.00 / $265.00) a night. It sleeps four, but we brought a cheap blow-up mattress with us and the hotel was happy to provide the bed-linen. I would absolutely do this again in an American hotel. It's so much cheaper than paying for two rooms and for a few nights we were fine all squeezing into one.

We arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon and to keep ourselves awake we walked to Chinatown (only ten minutes by foot) and mooched around its fabulous shops before finding a very cheap restaurant on the main strip (a huge plate of ribs, rice and vegetables only cost us $16 and was enough to feed a small army!)

We started our day (we were awake very early thanks to jet lag) by taking a trip on San Fran's famous trolley cars (we call them 'trams' in the UK). The stop was right outside our hotel and because it was so early in the morning, there was nobody about and we got on to the trolley just fine. Wait until 10 am and there's a huge queue to get onto one.

We rode the trolley to Fisherman's Wharf and showed the children the sea lions lounging in the harbor and saw the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. We walked along the seafront, checking out the different piers and watched San Fran wake up. It was a lot of fun. From there we walked to Lombard Street (the crookedest street in the world!) famous for being the scene for a car chase in the movie Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. It was then the children realized quite how hilly a city San Fran is! All the walking did our jet lag and thigh muscles a lot of good. We walked all the way to the Japan Center from there (again, to stay awake) and bought some incredible, cheap sushi from the Japanese supermarket which we ate al fresco in the Japan Center's park, complete with pagoda. That afternoon I wanted to do something my husband and I hadn't done on our previous trip to San Fran. So we took the train to the Golden Gate Park and chilled out there for a few hours. My children had brought their tennis rackets with and they played on the courts for free. Golden Gate Park is fantastic - a bit like London's Hyde Park - a vast yawning space for walking and lazing. We took a picnic dinner with (bought from Bristol Farm - an organic supermarket in Westfield Shopping Centre, a five minute walk from out hotel). Perfect. Talking about Westfield Shopping Centre - that's pretty perfect too, with an Abercrombie & Fitch and a host of other great shops everyone in the family will want to go to! Everything in the US costs a lot less than in the UK. At least that was the case at the time of writing this!

It was the morning of day two that I took my daughter to American Girl (we took the Caltrain commuter train - the station was a 20 minute walk from our hotel) whilst my husband took the other two children to go shopping in Abercrombie & Fitch and also found a fun doughnut place! That afternoon we found another spot we'd never been to before. It was a lovely little beach very close to the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a secret haunt of locals and we were the only tourists there. It was heavenly. Lovely white sand, hot sun and an amazing view of 'that' bridge! That evening we ate at Westfield Shopping Centre. The basement is full of concessions offering different food and loads of tables to eat at. Some of my family picked take-out deli food from Bristol Farm. I got a gorgeous bowl of steaming hot noodle soup with vegetables from a Japanese stand.  

Lots of people kept telling us about the Exploratorium Museum and that we really should go. It's a hands-on sort of Science Museum with lots of exhibits that you can interact with, from magic demonstrations to being part of a hologram. It was just amazing. We only had two hours to spend there, but we could have spent all day. The highlight was the Blind Maze. You have to pay extra to do it, but it is so worth it. Basically, what the maze consists of is a space you enter where you can't see anything. It's completely dark. You have to climb through tubes and across mesh and work together as a team whilst doing it 'blind'. It's about sensory deprivation and scary and claustrophobic though it felt at first (these were very cramped spaces and sometimes you had to duck as an adult so that your head wouldn't hit the ceiling), it was a unique experience which I'll never forget. Second time round it feels much easier, because you know what you're doing. 
After the Exploratorium Museum we had tickets to visit Alcatraz.  
This was the view of Alcatraz from the ferry which took us there.  

And this was what we saw whilst we were enjoying the inspired new audio-tour. 
My son Gabriel, 12, thought Alcatraz was one of the best things he had ever seen. He was captivated from beginning to end, learning about the history of the prison island, about the prisoners themselves and about the attempted escapes. Be warned, there is no food which can be bought on the island, so you have to take anything you might want to eat with you, but food can only be eaten by the dock. It's to control the problems they have with gulls. 
After Alcatraz we mooched to the Ferry Building which is along the esplanade, about a twenty minute walk from the Alcatraz pier. Here there's a whole lot of food stands and restaurants, some inside, some outside. We ended up in 'Gotts' which is a burger bar. We had a table out front in the sunshine and for a bargain $4.99 the kids each had a burger, fries and unlimited refills of their drinks. I sneaked out and treated myself to a clam chowder from a seafood stand within the building. Delicious. 
It was an amazing three days in San Fran and the next morning we took a hire car and went to Napa............more on that in another post!

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