Saturday, October 17, 2009

San Francisco – cable cars and stuff

Our last three nights were in San Francisco.  We had booked two nights at famous restaurants but had not planned anything else.  Curiously, we had also not looked at our (by now) trusty Lonely Planet guide and consequently, the last three days felt a little flat.


We arrived in SF with the rental car, due back at the airport by 1 pm.  We made our way there with no issues, aided by our (by now) trusty GPS.  We found the place at the airport where all the hotel shuttles congregated and asked where was the shuttle for the Vintage Court hotel.  This hotel had been recommend to us by someone Peter knew, as being in a great location (it was), reasonably priced (it was), and with good staff (they were).  We had to wait a little while (say, 30 minutes) for the shuttle and people came and went with other shuttles and a small line formed for ours.  Finally it arrived and we were driven into the city.


It’s nice to be driven, as opposed to doing the driving because then you see more.  Once we got out of the boonies where the airport was and into the old city proper, we started to see familiar things, especially street names.  We passed through the Mission District which is a bit notorious for drugs and street people and dropped people off here and there and so we got a little lost.


Our hotel was on the edge of the financial district (where the streets roll up at night – sort of) and also only a block from the Chinatown Gate.  There are quite a few one way streets in the old city and only the intersections are flat.  Everything is either going uphill or downhill.  So getting anywhere in a vehicle requires some forethought.


We dropped our stuff off at the hotel and set out to have a look at the cable cars.   There is a cable car museum which we didn’t go to – it turns out we could have/should have gone to lots of places like this museum.  But we seemed to have lapsed into a strange sort of ennui and mostly just walked around in circles.  It was fine but as this is a travelogue, I would recommend to future visitors to San Francisco, that they do a little more planning than we did.  For example, we thought we would just go get tickets to visit Alcatraz when we got there but they were sold out for at least a week in advance.


Anyway.  The brief history of cable cars really is interesting.  A manufacturer of steel cable witnessed a horrible accident involving horses and carriages on the steep hills and invented a means of getting up and down the hills that wouldn’t have those consequences.  The cables run under the street surface and the cable cars have a mechanical gizmo that grabs onto the cables as they constantly move up the hills.  They travel down hills using gravity and they have multiple brakes for safety.  And they are on tracks, like trains.  Because the cables run in grooves under the street, you can hear them "singing" when they are moving.  We found it fascinating.

Our hotel was on Bush, between Powell and Stockton.  There are only three remaining cable car routes and two of them run up and down Powell (they branch off onto other streets at Washington), so it was totally easy to see cable cars any time you wanted.  It was not however, easy to catch them, especially the one running up or stretch of Powell, as the cars are mostly crammed with tourists.  Later at night or in other areas, we discovered that the cable cars would have fewer people on them and you could catch them as they rested on the level intersections. 


If you want to ride a cable car like a pro, here is how you do it.  Scope out spot on a route that is not filled with tourists.  The California Line doesn't seem so crowded as the other two, maybe because it doesn't have the fancy/fun turntables at the ends.  On both Powell lines, tourists are lined up to get on at the terminus (where, it is fair to say, it is fun stuff to watch the operators manually turn the car on a giant wooden turntable) so the car will be full until they start getting off at other touristy sites like the cable car museum in the middle.  Position yourself prudently along the route and wait for the cable car to come along.

There are designated stops at the curb but when you see a car coming, move yourself into a readiness position and be prepared to run a little into the intersection when the light is red for the cross traffic.  The car will stop on the level intersection while the light is green for the direction it is travelling in and that’s when you jump on board.  Keep your wits about you because there may still be car traffic travelling in the same direction as the cable car and there may also be a cable car coming in the opposite direction.  There is not much space between the cars and when two pass each other, passengers hanging on the outside are warned to keep their heads in if they want to keep them.

If you’ve had the presence of mind to buy a “Muni Pass”, you need only flash that at the ticket-taker and you can go sit down (if there are seats available).  You can get Municipal Transportation Passes at drug stores and we got ones that lasted three days.  They cost $18 but they allowed us to ride on any bus, cable car, or tram in the city, as many times as we liked.  Those hills are some steep and when you have a pass like that, it is so simple to just wait for the next bus and go a few blocks, to save your legs.  Of course, with a name like “Muni Pass”, I started flashing it at Peter and saying “Leeloo Dallas, MultiPass!” which cracked us up.  Maybe you had to be there.

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