SFO v2.0

I knew I’d be back there someday but never thought it would be this soon. And this trip would be somewhat different to. For starters, I no longer had an over ambitious ‘experience all modes of transit in one day’ agenda and more importantly, I would be in the city for a lot longer than 12 hours! Two nights and two full days in this case. So without further ado, I present to you the second installment!

Staying with the Great Ganesha in ‘The Mission‘, and only a few blocks away from Castro, meant that I would get to see a lot of the Mission-Castro District by night and day. From an ethnic and cultural standpoint, two of the most diverse and exciting neighbourhoods in San Francisco – Castro with its thriving gay community and Mission, steeped in a rich Latin American heritage.

Mission San Francisco de Asís is without doubt the centrepiece of the area and dating back to the 18th century, this basilica also happens to be the oldest surviving building in SF! Its Baroque like architecture reminded me of a fairly similar structure in India – the Basilica De Bom Jesus in old Goa!

As in true SF weekend style, day 1 started of on a healthy note – 45 minutes of swimming, followed by a dip in the Jacuzzi and finally some minutes in the steam room – all this in a plush gymnasium, a far cry from the city run recreation centres I’m used to using in NYC! 😉

On the drive back to Mission from there, we stopped at Alamo Square – a tiny neighbourhood of beautiful row houses surrounding a park on one of the highest hills in SF, offering fabulous views of the downtown skyline below. Alamo is best known for its ‘Painted Ladies‘ – a row of picture perfect Victorian homes that sit on the edge of the park, forming an interesting contrast with the modern skyline behind. But there are other, equally good, if not better looking houses in the neighbourhood and one such home caught my eye on the corner of Scott and Fulton St.

It was close to 3 pm by the time we headed out to lunch and all that exercise had only served one purpose – building a huge appetite! The west coast of America, I had been told, offered much better Mexican food than the Big Apple could ever hope to even boast of. While I can’t vouch for their Tacos, Enchiladas and Quesadillas, the Burrito I had at Pancho Villa Taqueria on 16th St in Mission was definitively the best I’ve had in my life!

Next up was a drive through the Uni of SF‘s campus – where a close friend had once studied. The big attraction on campus was the church of St.Ignatius – a Jesuit Parish dating to the early 20th century and also serving as the University’s chapel. It was a strange feeling of deja vu – my friend and I had together attended a Jesuit run school in Bombay; our school had a house (non performing!) named after Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and here I was, visiting his campus and the church – years after he had moved from SF!

Nestled close to the Golden Gate Bridge and SF Bay, spanning almost 1500 acres of undulating land and over two centuries of military use, Presidio Park today is a mix of public recreation areas and commercial space (including George Lucas’s famed ILM) – all housed in beautifully restored colonial style buildings surrounded by lush lawns and dense woods. Driving through it, I was instantly reminded of the older and more storied army cantonments in India.

After an amazingly clear day – by SF standards – the dreaded fog had begun to move in and by the time we reached the water’s edge, this was all that remained to be seen of the mighty Golden Gate Bridge!

Miraculously, all it took was a short drive over the bridge – to meet the sun again – shining bright over Sausalito!

Sausalito or ‘little willow’ in Spanish, often considered a suburb of San Francisco, is a picturesque residential community of a few thousand people and an equal number of boats! Located in scenic Marin County – itself a huge tourist destination in the Bay area, Sausalito boasts some of the prettiest houses I have seen in America – located along the shoreline and atop the hills – both of which abound in this town.

While private yachts, marinas and sailing clubs are a dime and dozen in these parts, Sausalito is also home to a fair number of houseboats or floating home communities as they are better known. Not quite a part of the tourist beat or the swish set that Sausalito prides itself in, these communities are set apart from the main thoroughfares and offer an interesting study in contrast.

Our last port of call for the day was the Marin Headlands. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or GGNRA, the headlands are best known for their abundant varieties of flora and fauna including a large population of birds. A drive through the headlands at any part of the day is highly enjoyable but a much better way of exploring the area is by foot or bike on the innumerable trails that exist there. The headlands are also known for the spectacular views they offer but by the time we got to any of those viewing areas, the fog had already caught up with us!

If day 1 had been a healthy start, day 2 had in it the makings of a triathlon! A spur-of-the-moment decision to run 2 steep miles with my hosts (in shoes fit for anything but that!) was followed by almost 10 miles of biking around the Golden Gate Park! My ride would end at Cliff House – a neo classic, early 20th century house in its third reincarnation and today, a historic landmark. Cliff house, as the name suggests, stands on a cliff overlooking the western edge of SF and the somewhat unimaginatively named, Ocean Beach!

The Golden Gate Park, as with most things in SF, is a part of the larger GGNRA and has oft been compared to Manhattan’s Central Park. Much like its rival on the east coast, the park boasts beautiful gardens, woods, lakes, a conservatory and endless miles of walking and biking trails. But the one thing that it doesn’t do as well as Central Park is keeping the park car free on weekends! Very surprising given the city’s penchant for outdoors and relentless rants on saving the environment!

The real highlight in the park for me was the North Windmill – a 105 year old Dutch style windmill built, along with another which didn’t survive, to pump water throughout the park. The windmill was restored some years ago to its original glory and sits today amongst a garden full of tulips (not seen in pic).

The two plus mile walk back to Mission was undertaken via The Haight District or Haight-Ashbury – famous as the birthplace of hippie culture in the 60s. You’re more likely to find tourists than hippies there today but remnants of the era remain and can be seen everywhere along Haight St ranging from the world famous Amoeba Music store to head shops to tattoo parlours and if nothing else, just colourful store fronts full of kitsch!

Another late lunch ensued but a memorable one nonetheless – finger licking good Burmese food at Mandalay on California St in Richmond District! After leaving very little on our plates for the dish washer to work on, we made our way to the Twin Peaks. Measuring in at just under a thousand feet above sea level, the Peaks are only the second highest point in SF but offer arguably the best views of the city. And I couldn’t have asked for a clearer day than that!

The ‘Great’ in Ganesha does in fact hold some worth! 😉 Being faculty member at UC Berkeley‘s Economics Dept. meant that a campus tour was certainly in the offing, so without further delay, we headed across the Bay towards Alameda County, where the town of Berkeley is located.

Expectedly so, the UCB campus is humongous. But never mind the short time I had there or the speed tour I was forced to take, it didn’t take much to convince me that it was one of the prettiest I had seen in the US and suffice to say, I have seen plenty!

It was getting uncomfortably close to my flights departure time so we made a dash for the airport. There are a couple of theories as to why the Golden Gate (the strait which the bridge spans) was named so. The more official one suggests that it was named after the California gold rush of 1848. Another theory suggests that the people who discovered it, did so during magic hour. As we drove across the Oakland Bay Bridge for one last time, I was more inclined to believe the latter!

PS: A full set of pics can be found here.

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