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Delightful Madness in San Francisco

Delightful Madness in San Francisco

Mar 2015

Words & pics Franki Black

No place embodies America’s creative drive and entrepreneurial spirit quite as well as San Francisco does. This northern Californian city was born thanks to the discovery of gold in 1848. Young men from around the world descended upon San Francisco (and surrounds) with high hopes of realizing the American dream.  It quickly became a melting pot of cultures, food and attitudes and as you wander through its streets, it becomes clear that not much has changed in this regard. “If you’re worried about not fitting in, move to San Francisco,” says my friend as we walk down another street filled with eccentric characters. The San Francisco experience is a bit like unintended street theatre: musicians busk, graffiti artists paint, foodies embrace farmer’s markets and gay men flaunt hot-pants.  This is a city that bristles with delightful madness.  

Food Heaven

Kori Goff, our Trafalgar Travel Director warns us, “Don’t eat a big breakfast tomorrow; we have a full day of food ahead.” After an irresistibly big breakfast, we walk to the Old Ferry Building for a Trafalgar Local Speciality. Constructed in 1898, the Ferry Building was once the focal point of San Francisco’s transportation. Today it houses a lively farmer’s market filled with artisans selling cheeses, breads, desserts, olives and more. We join our guide, Joshua Clever from Edible Excursions, for a tasting tour of the market’s best. As a trained chef, it’s obvious that Joshua loves to share local cuisine with visitors.  He tells us about the six years he spent working in France and to him the ferry building market rivals top French food markets. We move through a crowd of trendy visitors and start with dessert at Farmer Al’s Pastry Shop. Apple tartlets, certifiably-humane beef chili, salted caramel, triple-cream brie, sourdough bread and coconut macaroons are some of the delicacies we nibble on. To end, we nurse a steaming cup of Blue Bottle coffee, allegedly the best brew in the city, and my friend buys a T-shirt that says, Praise the Lard

Neighbourhood Explorations

San Francisco’s neighbourhoods can be categorized by nationality (or sexual orientation). Among others, The Mission is the city’s Spanish neighbourhood; North Beach is its Italian neighbourhood and Castro is its rainbow neighbourhood known for being the gayest place on earth. Perhaps above all, Chinatown is most notable, as it is the oldest and largest Chinese community located outside of Asia. 

For starters, Kori leads the way to the Mission to show us her personal favourite sight. This eclectic neighbourhood has been home to Latino residents for decades, but in recent years the so-called dot-com professionals have moved in. Today its quirky streets are filled with taquerias, Mexican cafes, hipsters and antique shops. What makes The Mission particularly special is its street art.  Kori’s hidden treasure turns out to be one of the most beautiful alleyways in the neighbourhood, Balmy Alley. From top to bottom, Balmy Alley is filled with painted depictions of Spanish guitar players, mamas carrying baskets and protestors from the sixties. Besides the odd stray dog, we have the alley all to ourselves. 

The next neighbourhood we visit is a densely-populated and lively one, Chinatown. Kori points out an old pub en-route and shares her insider knowledge.  “Have you ever heard the phrase: 'you’ve been shanghaied?'” she asks. Responding to our blank stares, she continues. “Well, it all started at this bar - Shanghai Kelly’s - in the 1800s. New Chinese immigrants were pleased to be in America and the last thing on their minds was returning to China. The boat captains however, needed crew for their ships, but with a lack of sailors signing up for the arduous voyage, they were in a pickle. Captains quickly discovered that Shanghai Kelly’s was a favoured watering hole for Chinese immigrants, so they struck a deal with the compliant bar owner. He spiked select drinks with opium in exchange for bribes, and the unsuspecting patriots would wake up on a ship Shanghai-bound!”

We enter through the Chinatown Gate. This grand entrance is flanked by two stone lions believed to bring wealth and prosperity to the district. We are instantly transported to Beijing. Red lanterns dangle across streets, pagoda roofs cover the skyline and dragon lamp-posts light the way. Kori explains that almost everything in San Francisco is somehow related to the 1906 earthquake. It wreaked havoc across the city and subsequent fires were even more devastating. An estimated 3000 people died and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed.  According to Kori, Chinatown had to be completely rebuilt. 

We duck into a narrow avenue (Rose Alley) and sniff out the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory for another Trafalgar Local Speciality. Inside, an old Chinese man puffs a cigar, while his workmate curls the edges of fresh cookies delivered from a machine. Carefully he fills each cookie with strips of fortunes, soon to be delivered to thousands of hopeful people around the world. Instead of tempting fate, we make our way to the Empress of China, Chinatown’s most sought-after restaurant, to feast on platters of walnut prawns, sweet and sour pork and curry chicken Chow Mein. 

Our next stop is Haight Ashbury, a quirky neighbourhood dotted with Victorian houses, buskers and wafts of marijuana. “The Haight” was the hub of the 1960’s hippie movement and few songs depict its 1967 Summer of Love better than Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco.  We make our way to the Haight, and McKenzie’s lyrics, be sure to wear flowers in your hair, play from the loudspeaker. One of Trafalgar’s most appealing offerings is its Insider Experiences where local people share local activities with travellers. Kori is beaming, “You’re gonna love her,” she says as we step off the coach to meet Izu, our guide. She and her leashed sausage dog, Bennie, form a striking pair. Izu, about 70-years old, wears a tie-dyed coat, Converse shoes, a cross around her neck and John Lennon sunglasses. She arrived in Haight Ashbury during the summer of 1967 as an impressionable teenager and the flower power movement became such an important part of her life that she decided to relive it every day as a guide.

In a raspy New York accent, she describes the scene, “70 000 backpackers from around the world descended upon Haight Ashbury. We lived in compounds, there was no homelessness, strangers invited you to stay, music filled the streets and weed was the drug of choice,” she explains.  “People came here to be accepted.” We follow Izu and Bennie to houses that once belonged to Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Hell’s Angels. As we bid Izu and Haight Ashbury farewell, I hear Izu praise Bennie, “You did good, boy, you did good.” 

Around the Bay

Much like Cape Town, San Francisco centres on the ocean. Runners frequent its promenade, tourists flock to Fisherman’s Wharf to shop and everyone finds delight in the screeches of seals gathered on Pier 39. The best view of the city is arguably from the deck of the Sausalito-bound ferry that transports tourists across the bay on a daily basis. Kori rounds us up in time for departure. On the one side is a view of Alcatraz - San Francisco’s version of Robben Island - and on the other side, lies the city’s most spectacular landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. 

We approach Sausalito - the town that inspired Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay - and I’m surprised to see that it resembles a high-end Italian island. Sail boats bob in marinas, mansions rise from the hillside and boutique shops abound. For lunch we go to Scoma’s, a maritime-themed restaurant perched over water. I order my favourite American dish – Clam Chowder. According to Kori, there’s a lot of old money in Sausalito and property prices are exceptionally high. 

We conclude our time in San Francisco with the most epic of crossings, a walk over the Golden Gate Bridge starting on the Sausalito end. Our coach driver drops us at the starting point. It’s windy, but the bridge is the most spectacular manmade structure I’ve ever seen.  227 metres of orange steel tower into the sky, a wild Pacific Ocean lies far beneath my feet and cars whizz past at dizzying speeds. The views of sea and city are spectacular. Built between 1933 and 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge ticks all the boxes: engineering genius, foresight in design, an extraordinary construction feat and aesthetic consideration. On the other side of the bridge, we gather for a Trafalgar group photo and climb back onto the coach for a journey along California’s coastline. I bid farewell to San Francisco, city of delightful madness, and it occurs to me that the world seems a little bit too ordinary beyond San Francisco.  

Make it Happen 

San Francisco & Wine Country Delights: Priced from R30 225 per person twin share, enjoy 8 days on this At Leisure Trafalgar guided holiday. This includes fantastic hotel accommodation with a full breakfast daily, a picnic lunch with drinks at a winery, three evening meals including a special Be My Guest dinner at a Sonoma Valley winery, private cooking class, wonderful sightseeing including an expert guided tour of Haight Ashbury and the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market and so much more.  Guests will also enjoy the opportunity to create and sample their own wine at a private blending and learn how to make fortune cookies. Flights are extra. Departures from September 2014 through to October 2015. Travellers who wish to depart on any itinerary after 31 October 2014 into 2015 can enjoy a 10% early payment discount if they book and pay in full before 27 November 2014.For more information contact your ASATA travel agent or Trafalgar on (011) 280 8400. Visit and follow #TrafalagarInsider to learn more.

About Trafalgar: Trafalgar is the world’s leading guided holiday company offering exceptional quality and value itineraries to a range of exciting destinations. With over 67 years of experience and unrivalled local expertise, Trafalgar provides an authentic insider’s view to create truly unique travel experiences in Europe, Britain and Eastern Mediterranean, Australia and New Zealand, China, Mexico, Central and South America, USA and Canada. 

About The TreadRight Foundation: Trafalgar is a part of a joint initiative with The TreadRight Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation established by The Travel Corporation to encourage sustainable tourism within their own family of brands and in the places they visit. To date, TreadRight has donated more than US$2 million to sustainable tourism projects around the world. To find out more about Trafalgar's work with TreadRight visit:

Get Going!

Fly South African Airways: SAA operates two daily flights from South Africa to the United States as well as operating the only direct flight from Johannesburg to New York City on the Airbus A340-300. In addition to direct flights to New York, you can get daily SAA flights direct to Washington's Dulles Airport from Johannesburg on the Airbus A340-600. This long haul flight has a brief stop in Dakar, Senegal. 

Recommended American Airline: United Airlines, 

Source: Travel Ideas

Travel Ideas