San Francisco 2018 diary, day 1

Friday, 26 January, 2018. 21:29

We are at the Pickwick Hotel on Fifth Street in San Francisco, after a long day that began back in Sydney. Our flight left at 17:55, so we caught a taxi to the airport about 14:30 to give ourselves plenty of time. However traffic was very light on Australia Day, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare.

The airport was not busy at all. There were only departures leaving about every half hour or so, rather than every five or ten minutes like usual. So it felt very empty, and the check in lines for Qantas flights were virtually non-existent. Since I have silver frequent flyer benefits, we went into the premium economy check in line anyway, to bypass the three or four people in the economy line. I could have used the business class check in, but that was on the other side of the line of counters and we didn’t see it until too late. Never mind, we were checked in within about two minutes of arriving at the airport anyway.

We couldn’t find any of the green departure cards that we’re used to having to fill out each time we leave the country. I realised I’d heard that they were getting rid of them, and it looks like they’ve already implemented that, which is a change from the last time I flew out of Australia. Given that, we were through immigration and security quickly too, and through to the duty free shops and waiting lounges.

We walked around a bit to look briefly at all the shops, then found a seat near the large windows overlooking the runways to eat a late lunch that we’d brought with us: some bread rolls with Vegemite for M. and cheese and tomato for me. We figured an afternoon snack would be useful since dinner on the plane wouldn’t be until around 20:00. After eating, we got some drinks. M. got a coffee and then we sat in a small bar and restaurant place and I had a beer. Then we wandered around some more and sat some more, and M. decided to get a spinach and feta quiche from the same restaurant since she was getting hungry, but I decided to wait until the plane meal.

We headed to the gate, and sat near some guys who looked like rock musicians, and then we realised they were rock musicians! They had gear labelled with the name Papa Roach, which I looked up and determined was a fairly successful band from California, and they’d just toured Australia. So we assumed they must be on our flight heading home. But as it happened, there was a flight to Los Angeles leaving at almost the same time as ours from the adjacent gate, and that’s the one they got on.

On our own flight, we had exit row seats right near the front of economy, which is ideal really. And the flight wasn’t very full, with several empty seats in each row, including some centre sections of four vacant seats. Of course people nabbed these to lie across as soon as we’d taken off and the seat belt sign went off. For dinner I chose a smoked salmon salad, which was pretty nice, with crunchy coleslaw. M. got a couscous with soybeans and cranberries, which was also quite nice, but she only felt like eating about half of it. We tried to sleep, but it was difficult in the seats.

Eventually we were roused for the breakfast service. M. got eggs in a tomato sauce with vegetables and potatoes, but swapped me for the regular fruit platter.

We landed slightly ahead of time, around 12:20. The gate was right next to the immigration portal, so we didn’t have to walk far at all, and we were very close to the first off the plane after business and premium economy, and there was only a very short queue at immigration, so we were out of there very quickly. Then we found the information desk near the BART station, where I bought a Clipper card loaded with some credit for M. while she used the loo. There was a train waiting on the platform as we went into the station, but I had to add some money o to my Clipper card, and by the time I’d done that the train was just pulling out. I thought we’d have a long wait for the next train but it turned out to be only 4 minutes, so that was okay.

We rode the train to Powell Street, got off, and walked the half block to our hotel, where we checked into a nice room on the 7th floor, looking out over Fifth Street and the Old San Francisco Mint building and across the intersection to the San Francisco Chronicle building, with its Art Deco clock tower. After freshening up quickly, we went for a walk up through Chinatown to Pier 39 to get our soup in a sourdough bowl, as is the tradition on arrival in San Francisco. But first we walked over to the Blue Bottle coffee shop behind the Mint building so M. could get a take away coffee.

Blue Bottle Coffee
Blue Bottle coffee

In Chinatown, I made sure to find the plaque commemorating and marking the spot of William A. Richardson’s first dwelling, the first building in what would become the town of San Francisco. I’ve walked past this spot on Grant Avenue dozens of times and never noticed it before, only learning about it from Gary Kamiya’s book Cool Gray City of Love, which I read just before this trip. The plaque is at once impressive for its historical significance, and also depressingly sad in its state of neglect and anonymity, wedged between a dark apartment building door and a hole-in-the-wall souvenir shop, and with part of its surface carelessly slopped with stray paint.

William A. Richardson plaque
William A. Richardson plaque marking first dwelling in San Francisco

We also took the half block detour east to see Portsmouth Square, today a nondescript space filled with dozens of elderly Chinese all playing cards. But this was once the main square of San Francisco, back in the days just before and after the gold rush of 1848.

Portsmouth Square
William A. Richardson plaque marking first dwelling in San Francisco

We soaked in the fleeting historical ambience briefly, then returned to Grant Avenue, where a few blocks down we found the famous Golden Gate Bakery, where people queue to buy moon cakes and other treats. The queue was only maybe a dozen people long, so we joined it, but it turned out most people were buying complicated orders of dozens of things and leaving with large pink boxes tied with ribbon, so it took quite some time to get served, maybe 15 or 20 minutes. I bought a white lotus paste moon cake, a large sesame seed covered ball which apparently has bean paste in it, and a custard tart, since they seemed to be the hot ticket item that people were getting today. They kept bringing out trays of them and they were disappearing as people bought then. The custard tart I got was still hot from the oven, and delicious: light and eggy and with a crumbly flaky pastry. I had it straight away to savour it while hot, and tide me over for the rest of our walk to Pier 39.

The woman with the fairy floss
Merry-go-round on Pier 39

We stopped on the way at Goorin Brothers hat shop, where M. browsed to see if she could find another hat she liked enough to buy, but the one she liked best wasn’t available in her size, so we left empty handed. Soon we were at Pier 39 and we grabbed a table at Boudin Bakery and ordered some soup, clam chowder for me and tomato for M. The soup and the sourdough bread bowls they are served in really hit the spot, nice and warm on a quite chilly day. Then we walked down to the end of Pier 39 in the sunset twilight, seeing a beautiful sky over the Bay and the Golden Gate from the end.

Golden Gate sunset
Sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge

We walked back and checked out the Hard Rock Cafe shop. M. found a shirt she liked, but it wasn’t available in her size. Then we walked along Fisherman’s Wharf towards Ghirardelli Square. On the way we stopped in The Pepper Palace hot sauce shop and I bought two bottles of different habanero sauces for my mother, who likes complaining that hot and spicy sauces are never hot enough for her. If she says these aren’t hot enough, next time I’ll get something with ghost pepper or something like that in it.

At Ghirardelli Square we stopped in at the shop for a dessert. M. had a hot chocolate, while I had the “Muir Woods” sundae, which has cherry ice cream and chocolate fudge sauce. It’s good, but very rich.

Ghirardelli sundae
Sundae and hot chocolate at Ghirardelli Square

After that we headed back towards our hotel. Being after dark and now very cold, we elected to grab a cablecar back instead of walking. There was no queue at the Hyde Street terminus, so we got right on. They said they would scan our Clipper cards on the cablecar, but the conductor got on and couldn’t find his scanning machine, so gave us a free ride! We got off at Union Square, so we could go to the Walgreens there and buy some supplies: toothbrushes, breakfast cereal, milk, and some paper plates and plastic spoons to eat it with.

Monkey riding the cable car
Monkey on the cablecar

Then we went to the Levi’s store on Market Street where M. checked out the sale items. She said she’d take some time, so I went to drop our purchases at the hotel room and come back. When I got back it took me some time to find her, since she was in the change rooms with a stack of jeans. But then she didn’t find the length she needed and so didn’t buy any.

Finally back in our hotel, we showered off, split the moon cake, and turned in for the night.

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