Zipping along on a perfect San Francisco weekend
Summers spent in San Francisco visiting my grandparents were always a highlight of my childhood: the mouthwatering tang of sourdough bread, the crack of the bat watching Willie Mays hit a homer in nippy Candlestick Park, and the unforgettable excursions out to Alcatraz to see where Al Capone was held.
Okay, I’m dating myself terribly with the Willie Mays reference, but visitors to San Francisco can still enjoy the bread, watch the Giants in renovated Candlestick Park, and take trips to Alcatraz. Plus, it’s still one of my favorite cities to visit. I’m not alone: U.S. News & World Report not only ranked San Francisco the top summer destination, it rated the City by the Bay as the top vacation spot in America, and fourth best in the world.
But if I started anywhere in San Francisco for a perfect weekend, it would be taking a Segway-powered, guided tour along Fisherman’s Wharf. City Segway Tours provides a sampling of San Francisco’s famous vistas: Telegraph Hill, the Embarcadero, the Pyramid building, Ghirardelli Square, Palace of Fine Arts, the cable car turnaround, and panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the Bay. It’s perfect for people who don’t want to hoof it everywhere, but don’t want to sit on a bus. Plus, it’s a heck of a lot of fun for $70. To ride, you need to be at least 12 years old and weigh less than 260 pounds.
Segways are surprisingly easy to balance and operate. Within a minute, I learned to simply step aboard and subtly shift my weight from toe to heel, making the machine go softly forward or backward. Its motion isn’t jerky and a quick crouch will stop it on a dime. An easy lean of the handle can turn the machine as gradually or as sharply as you wish.
“The only thing you have to remember is to leave plenty of space around you,” said Kristian Ruggieri, who also performs locally as a standup comedienne. “The only time people get into trouble is if they bump against curbs or into other riders.” For the first portion of the journey, the machines are set to go no higher than a barely tolerable 5 mph. Once everyone has the hang of it, Kristian adjusts the machines to top out at 12 mph.
Soon visitors are zipping off toward Coit Tower, surfing the asphalt, whizzing by pointing fingers and smiling faces. Out at Aquatic Park, riders have plenty of time and freedom to practice. The journey continues by the SS Jeremiah O'Brien merchant ship, the Pampanito Submarine (which sank six Japanese ships during World War II) and up some famous city hills. The tour takes the helmeted parade of riders by the cable car turnaround near Ghirardelli Square, goes by the Palace of Fine Arts, and there are stops at the Marina Green for some great photos of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A Segway tour is a great way to scope out places to which you want to return. On my last trip, my son, Jacob, and I took a long walk through Chinatown, the largest outside of Asia, which is a visual feast of markets, colors and clothes. Naturally, we had to ride the cable car, using our 7-day Muni and cable car passport in San Francisco CityPASS. Founded in 1912, the cable cars are the only moving national landmark in the nation. We clung to a coveted spot on the outside as it clattered up and over Russian and Nob hills.
The evenings were feasting. San Francisco is one of the finest dining cities in the world, so it was incumbent upon us to try something new, something old, something unexpected and something way out of control!
The culinary highlight of the city for me is Lark Creek Steakhouse, located in the Westfield San Francisco Centre. Chef Bradley Ogden will remind you of why you fell in love with steaks in the first place with their 32-ounce prime porterhouse for two. With BART mass transit in the basement, and shops and theatres nearby, it’s a great way to polish off a day of strenuous Segway-ing.
On the south end of the Embarcadero, the year-old Waterbar is a newer splash in the fine-dining pool with an impressive bayfront view and four massive cylindrical fish tanks; one holding a wolf eel so large it looked like it could topple a boat. My son was wide-eyed when the fish and chips arrived – an entire cod with mouth agape, deboned and stuffed with tasty dipping sauce. However, the unexpected hit of the evening was the sea scallop ceviche.
For a traditional haunt, John’s Grill entertains a crowd as thick as its steaks. The smell of grilling fills the air as guests look up at the high, wood-paneled walls cluttered with photos of famous patrons. The 100-year-old establishment had a scene in the film, The Maltese Falcon.
Or, totally switch gears and check out Asia SF, which features fine dining and a gender-bending show of jaw-dropping female impersonators strutting through a lip-synched parade of hits. The performers had everyone wondering all night “does she or doesn’t she?” Plus, the food is terrific. One might expect little more than appetizers and chicken fingers, but it served some tasty Asian-inspired dishes.
You won’t want the weekend to get away from you without taking a trip to Alcatraz. Reservations are scheduled far in advance, since the trips regularly sell out. CityPASS has an Alcatraz Island Tour Option, which can be reserved by calling (415) 981-7625 or showing up at the Alcatraz Cruises box office on Pier 33.
For those who prefer exploring on their own, opt for the day excursion; while those who want a guided tour can take the evening boat. The National Park rangers provide an orientation and can even take visitors into the darkest abyss of the prison: A cold, metal cell with absolutely no light. In addition, there are videos and exhibits on the island, as well as the cellhouse audio tour, which is included in the price of the ferry ticket. It’s well worth the time.
While the city is littered with fine, upscale hotels, the newly renovated Americania offered the best value – spotless, modern and centrally located, it’s a perfect respite for budget-conscious travelers. It has a tasty café floor offering full breakfasts, lunch and dinner.
It may take you a few weekends to squeeze in all the fun San Francisco has to offer.