I still think the plan was a good one. We were to catch the 10.00 am train from Seattle and ride in comfortable sleeper rooms all the way down the US west coast, admiring the scenery and arriving refreshed and energised in San Francisco 22 hours later. Sounds good – right? Sadly the travel gods had other plans for us. Firstly, an unfortunate rockfall on the train tracks up the line from Seattle caused the train to be very late in and subsequently even later to leave and it was well on the way to 1.00pm before the train pulled out of the station. The weather was still quite bad so our views were restricted to similar bleak and grey images as the above, but only for a few hours as it darkened very quickly and I suspect most of the interesting scenery was passed after nightfall. Due to my unclear correspondence with my travel agent, the comfy sleeper rooms with our own bathroom turned out to be ‘roomettes’ – seats in tiny boxes that become bunks in the evening, with the use of shared facilities – a situation not appreciated by my two
princesses daughters. And, while the first impressions of the stylish dining car were good, there was no follow-through at all in that department and the food was simply atrocious. Amtrak should be very proud of it’s staff who were unfailingly cheerful, helpful and polite, but they seriously need to lift their game at the food end of things.
Nevertheless, we arrived in sunny San Francisco more or less intact and couldn’t wait to check out one of the most famous cities of these United States – and it didn’t disappoint. Our hotel was perfectly situated right on Union Square, giving us a well centralised base from which to shop, eat and sight-see from – all of which we did with gusto. One of the first things we did was to visit that notoriously famous prison, Alcatraz. We caught a cab to the pier and had one of those pleasantly chatty and informative drivers (as opposed to the incessantly opinionated & talkative ones, or the grumpy, churlish ones) who took us literally up hill and down dale through streets that were familiar to me from 70’s movies and tv shows like “Bullit” and “The Streets of San Francisco”. The island is a short ferry trip from the pier and is very forbidding. It is surrounded by waters that have strong currents and are extremely cold all year round with only one safe place to dock – perfect for an inescapable prison. Alcatraz was for many years a Federal military base established to protect the harbour and was turned over to the Federal prison authorities in the late 1930’s when they needed someplace absolutely secure to house the most intractable prisoners in the system. It is a cold and formidable place even on a bright sunny day, but deeply interesting and has a fascinating audio tour featuring the voices of both past prisoners and prison guards, making the tourist experience just that little bit more personal.
San Francisco is also noted for it’s foodie culture and is home to one of the most famous restaurants in the United States, Alice Waters‘ Chez Panisse. There was no way I was travelling that far and not going there for a meal and had duly booked into the restaurant a month before we left Australia. Our meal was one of splendid simplicity, featuring the very freshest of the local produce including fresh battered & fried herring and pickled local herring, baked cod in a sublime bouillabaisse and perhaps one of the best char-grilled lamb meals I have ever eaten – a massive statement coming from an Australian! Unfortunately for you, my dearest reader, I did not really feel comfortable whipping out the camera in such hallowed surroundings so I cannot share the images, but rest assured – it was worth the trip. More unfortunately for us, my youngest daughter was unwell that night. The nagging headache she had endured all day blossomed into a migraine and we had to bolt the dessert (a seasonal citrus creme caramel) and make a dash for the hotel room, getting her in close, but private, proximity to porcelain just in time.
However, there was ample opportunity elsewhere to snap delectable images of desirous dishes for there is no shortage of fabulous food in this town. We tried the crab cakes on our first evening in town and came away feeling very full, but failing to finish the very generous serving.
We soon discovered that this was a situation we had to come to terms with – the serving sizes in this country are very, very generous.
Serious burgers –
and lovingly prepared chocolate shakes at Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar.
One spot no foodie worth his/her salt can possibly miss in San Francisco is the Ferry Plaza Marketplace which houses scores of artisan food producers and retailers as well as restaurants, cafes, specialty stores and a huge kitchenwares store called Sur la Table ( referred to as “the mother ship” by writer Dianne Jacobs when she was impressing upon me the need to visit the Ferry Plaza Marketplace). Needless to say, the credit card had a significant airing here. The Ferry Building is also home to the acclaimed Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Operated by the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), the market is visited by over 25,000 shoppers each week, including some of San Francisco’s top chefs and most famous farmers. Unfortunately the large farmers market was not operating the day we visited, but there were still a good assortment of farmers market stalls with some brilliant produce on display.
All in all, a pretty good selection for the middle of winter, isn’t it?