For over twenty years now, my husband had been saying, “Sometime we need to go out to California.” As a near-penniless grad student, he had given a talk at a conference in Monterey. He had flown to San Francisco, where he managed to find an affordable motel (read seedy, verging on squalid) for the two days before his university per diem kicked in. He became smitten with the city and the dramatic rocky west coast. He’s been wanting to return ever since. Yet the time was never quite right, and I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. Despite glowing reviews from him and several native and transplanted California friends, my stubborn, wrong-headed vision of the state persisted: thousands of miles of disaster-prone L.A. sprawl and superficiality. My bias was no doubt influenced by my mother’s attitude. In her opinion, California (unlike Europe, somehow), was simply too far away to merit serious consideration. While I was growing up, she harbored a vague dread that one day, school, a job, or a boy would lure me to the opposite end of the country. Now that my daughter is in high school, I can even more fully appreciate this concern.
One thing led to another, though, and we reached a family decision to head to the bay area this past winter break. And I have to admit, I should have paid attention earlier to all those fans of northern California. I understand now. It’s every bit as good as they say. Maybe even a little bit better, because the weather was so gorgeous. We had prepared for fog, drizzle, gray skies and a damp chill in the air. Instead, we found sunshine, bright blue skies and afternoon temperatures in the mid-60s. With its palm trees, live oaks, cypresses, huge eucalyptus trees and lush flowers, the city has a tropical feel that, for me, at least, was completely unexpected. It was a welcome break from the icy Virginia December we had left behind.
The 19th-century Italianate tower of the Ferry Building sits sentinel on the beautifully reconfigured Embarcadero, (former site of the 1960s-era Embarcadero Freeway that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.)
A row of Victorian homes, delicately decorated and painted.
Portico of the James C. Flood mansion in Nob Hill. Built in 1886,
it’s one of few buildings to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire.
A peaceful view along the waterfront, somewhere between
Fisherman’s Wharf & Ghirardelli Square.
The Marina, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Nearby is Crissy Field, a must-see spot for my husband. It’s where windsurfers gather when weather permits.
On my list of sights was the monumental Palace of Fine Arts,
designed by Bernard Maybeck for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1915. It was rebuilt of permanent materials in the 1960s.
A close-up view of the Palace of Fine Arts.
A towering Victorian mansion on Alamo Square.
Perhaps the most familiar row of Victorians in San Francisco, the
six “Painted Ladies” on Steiner Street across from Alamo Square.
The less familiar, but just as beautifully painted sisters in the lower block of Steiner Street.
Hibiscus adorns the entry of an Alamo Square home.
I loved the city’s tropical plantings.
With Muni passes, we sampled the city’s many forms of public transportation. Vintage streetcars, like this one on Market Street, are better enjoyed from the outside, as they spend most of their time stopped. Best to catch a bus if you’re in a hurry.
Cable cars offer a lively ride. We learned to avoid the long tourist lines and hop on in the middle of the intersection. Our daughter was thrilled when she was assigned an outside perch as we sailed down one of the city’s steep, signature hills.