Mother Nature kicked up her heels, big time. Yee Haa! We had mountainous seas and gale force winds the night before arriving in San Francisco. I really think the “Pacific” needs a name change after this last episode. The ocean must still be miffed that Ferdinand Magellan gave it such a sissy name back in 1520. It’s fitful temper tantrums are clearly in protest!
After an interminable 12 hours, we were thrilled to get off the ship for our second “overnight” opportunity during this voyage. We have both been to San Francisco many times and have experienced most of the major sites. This time, we decided to rent a car, and head North.
But, before I launch into our adventure, here’s a bit of history….
It’s mind boggling to think about how young California is, compared to the East Coast of the US. It was not settled by Spanish missionaries until June 29, 1776… 5 days before the American Revolution ended and independence from England was declared on the other side of the continent.
In 1821, this region was granted independence from Spain, and then became part of Mexico. Under Mexican rule, the “mission system” gradually ended. The first private homestead was not established until 1835. California was then claimed by the United States in 1847, at the end of the Mexican-American War.
Gold was discovered in 1848, less then one year after Mexico relinquished this region. Ouch. I’m sure they still haven’t gotten over it. A flood of treasure hunters, known as the 49’ers (as in 1849) arrived and the population grew from 1,000 to 25,000 in one year.
The lure of unthinkable riches was so compelling that crews on arriving vessels went awol and rushed off to the gold fields; leaving behind a forest of over 500 abandoned ships. Some were used as storehouses, saloons, whorehouses, and hotels. Most were left to rot or were sunken. By 1851, wharves were built to extend the harbor and buildings were erected on pilings among the ships. Buried ships are still occasionally exposed when foundations are dug for new buildings.
California was quickly granted statehood in 1850 and military forts near the future site of the Golden Gate Bridge and on Alcatraz Island were built to secure the bay. In 1859, silver was discovered in nearby Nevada, and the population exploded again. With the swarm of fortune seekers streaming through the city, lawlessness was rampant, and the city gained notoriety as a haven for criminals, prostitution, and gambling. The epitome of the “wild west”.
Entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on the wealth generated by the Gold Rush. Levi Strauss opened a dry goods business, that is now a worldwide enterprise and still going strong. How many pairs of Levi jeans do you own? Domingo Ghirardelli began making very expensive artisan chocolates, and the company is still based here. Wells Fargo bank was born. By 1869, the Pacific Railroad linked with the eastern US rail system to make comfortable travel from coast to coast possible.
The first North American Plague Epidemic hit here from 1900-1904. In 1906 a massive earthquake and fire destroyed most of the city. Thousands of people were killed, and half of the city’s 400,000 residents were left homeless.
In 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was built. The color, called “International Orange” was chosen because it enhances the bridge’s visibility in the habitual fog. The project cost $35 million, and the bridge is held together with 1.2 million steel rivets. The structure trembled violently during the last moderate earthquake in 1998, and shook off some bolts, which is not a good sign. A $392 million retrofit was recently completed that “should” improve it’s chances of staying in the air. Let’s hope so. Earthquake experts say that the “big one” could hit any day, due to the closeness of the cranky San Andreas Fault. The next one might make California an island. We passed under this majestic icon just before dawn.
Alcatraz Island came into view as the sun breached the horizon. After it’s life as a fort, it became a military prison in 1910. In 1934, it was upgraded to a maximum high security federal prison. Due to it’s location in the cold waters and strong currents of San Francisco Bay, the prison operators believed Alcatraz to be escape-proof and America’s strongest prison. It was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. Al Capone was one of them.
The prison closed in 1963. During its 29 years of operation, the claim is that no inmates successfully escaped. A total of 36 men made 14 escape attempts. Two men tried twice. 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during the escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. Or, maybe they are drinking tequila on a Mexican beach.
The ship docked at Pier 35, near Fisherman’s Wharf, and the rental car place was a wobbly 15 minute walk. We got some strange looks as we careened across the pavement. Our brains were advising our legs to compensate for phantom movement. I have never appreciated being on a hard, inert surface as much as this morning.
We zipped over the Golden Gate Bridge, and marveled at the hundreds of people who were already trekking across the span. The bridge was designed with a pedestrian walkway on both sides. It’s one mile across and the views are captivating in all directions.
Our first stop was only a half hour north of the city. The target was Muir Woods National Monument to stroll amongst the ancient redwood trees. This would be the first time for Steve, and one of my all-time favorite nature spots. I was excited to share it with him, but when we got there, the place was jammed. I mean, every single parking lot was bulging with haphazardly ditched cars. More people abandoned their vehicles in gullies on both sides of the road over 3 miles away. The best part about this place is communing with the giant trees in peace, and that would be impossible today. We allotted 5 minutes for sulking before moving on. We learned later that it’s spring break time for local schools. That explains it, although the sheer number of people flocking here was still shocking.
We continued further north, winding along the high seaside cliffs, and making periodic stops at picturesque hamlets along the way. Lunch was country store ham and cheese sandwiches on slightly stale bread accompanied by tangy sea-salt and vinegar chips. We will keep this meal a secret from the head waiter back on The Queen. He would shutter at the thought of such an uncouth meal.
Our next stop was Point Reyes National Seashore. We were here about 20 years ago, and remembered the dramatic Lighthouse built in 1870 and reached by descending 326 steep steps. Unlike many lighthouses, that are built high up for maximum visibility, this one was built low, so it could be seen beneath the prevalent fog. On our last visit, visibility was zero. Today, it was crystal clear, but the 50 mph winds made us appreciate the sturdy metal railings that corralled our whiplashing bodies. Not much has changed, although the hike back up from the tower was slower this time, and my middle aged calves were screaming for a few days. We spent the rest of the day hiking in the park.
We spent the night at the Lodge at Point Reyes in Olema. We were upgraded to a private cottage on the creek from the basic room I had booked. Why us? The office manager said she picked us, because she assumed we would appreciate the extra space after living on a ship. She was right. It was pure bliss. The best part was the inanimate bed and waking up to a symphony of song birds, instead of the hiss of air-conditioning.
After a quick breakfast we continued north a bit further and made a quick stop in Dillon Beach. The “yard art” below is thoughtfully composed of found objects on the shoreline. Check out the colorful string of beach shovels.
After leaving the coast, we headed east towards the Somona Valley. There are over a hundred wineries here, and we made a quick stop at Ledson because it is such a majestic structure. We didn’t hang out long, because we still wanted to enjoy the city a bit before the ship left.
After dumping our rental car, we hustled back to the waterfront. My most favorite San Francisco phenomenon was waiting for us. Shortly after the 1989 earthquake, a few California sea lions began “hauling out’ on on Pier 39’s K-Dock. Within 4 months, the boisterous barking gang grew to 300 members and completely took over, totally exasperating the marina tenants. The staff asked the Marine Mammal Center for advice about the freeloading newcomers. After much debate and research, the experts recommended that the sea lions stay in their newfound home. They have been there ever since. Their life span is the wild is about 25 years. Males can reach 7 feet long and weigh up to 850 pounds. Females, 6 feet long and 220 pounds.
There are 20 floating platforms for them to choose from, but they like to pile on top of each other. It was fascinating to watch the jockeying for position. There is a plentiful supply of food in the bay, and complete protection from predators. The living situation is considered ideal, and they bring so much joy to spectators. It’s a win win.
We picked the scruffiest eatery we could find for dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, to counterbalance 75 nights of fine dining. It felt like an outrageous act of rebellion against Queen Victoria. We didn’t even fold our napkins properly, as a further act of defiance. We ate huge Dungeness Crabs (another “must” in this city), that splattered our clothes as we ripped off the claws like medieval barbarians. Coupled with an ice cold microbrew and a local band playing 70’s rock and roll, we were in heaven. Ice cream cones from Ben and Jerry’s topped off the perfect meal. We waddled up the gangway, brushing bits of crab from our tee shirts with 5 minutes to spare before the final “all aboard”.
Next stop, Los Angles, CA (aka City of Angels) Angels? Really?