Take A Boater's Stroll Through San Francisco

By Kimball Livingston

Read more about why San Francisco is so hot. An insider's guide to the bay, to river hideaways and wine country.

Photo of the San Francisco Yacht ClubView of the San Francisco Yacht Club. (Photo: Kimball Livingston)

One of the joys of San Francisco is a cable-car ride. One of the miseries is lining up at the Powell Street turntable tourist ghetto and waiting an hour — could be more — on hard concrete while being assaulted by alleged musicians and professional panhandlers and meanwhile trying to amuse the kids. Boaters, avoid it. Go very early or very late. Or take a taxi to Fisherman's Wharf and, if there's a wait to board the cable car back downtown, you'll have vistas of water and mountains and a better class of street artists. (The alternative California Street Line at the foot of Market is a nice ride across Nob Hill; not as colorful, but rather fine.)

Me, I hope that's not you over yonder, because I'm walking with blinders past the turntable up three blocks to Union Square where I’m surrounded by opportunities to spend a fortune on designer threads. Soaring above all, reproduced in bronze, art patron Alma de Bretteville gazes down from her perch atop the Admiral Dewey Memorial. Alma had a long career in the arts and created the fine Legion of Honor museum sited high above the Golden Gate Strait. Earlier, in her moment as an (um, er) artist's model, she caught the eye of the heir to the Spreckels Sugar fortune. After eventually marrying — they had to wait for the old man to kick the bucket — Alma had clout.

A stroll down Post leads me past fashion boutiques including our local hot spot, Levi's, to Grant Street, where a hard left brings on the "Gate to Chinatown," as bogus as any display at Disneyland, but then, people like Disneyland. Ahead on the narrow, crowded street are the pagoda-style roofs that define Chinatown, San Francisco — offering trinkets galore, heaps of mediocre jade (some good jade, if you know your stuff), and hubbub.

Photo of San Francisco's Chinatown Shopping in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Photo: Kimball Livingston)

Two blocks on and I'm crossing the California Street Line, hearing the whine of the cables below the street pulling the cars, and I'm looking downhill along the cable car tracks to the bay. Uphill, the tracks draw my eye to an earthquake survivor, the grand Fairmont Hotel and its penthouse, host to presidents and rock stars who do not use the front door. Left and right, more trinkets. I pick a side street, dodge uphill, then right on Mason past shop windows where unlucky ducks hang head down and the scents of boiling rice and dough roll out. I pass warrens that once held genuine opium dens, probably a few even now.

Oops, I'm all the way to Broadway. A mile or so to my left is Pacific Heights, where the tycoons of tech are buying up mansions built long ago by money from railroads and mining. I turn right, and in a couple of blocks I'm at the corner of Broadway and Columbus, a different world. A half-right, angling south, has me gazing down Columbus to an old flatiron building with heaps of weathered copper, Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, with his restaurant at the bottom. Rising behind is the Transamerica Pyramid. Locals hated it at first. Now it is a landmark.

Photo of City Lights Bookstore in San FranciscoA literary destination for three generations. (Photo: Kimball Livingston)

At every hand is some icon of pop culture or real culture. City Lights Booksellers and Publishers features books you can?t find everywhere. Founder/poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — a WWII Naval officer and Sorbonne Ph.D. — altered the conversation in the 1950s by publishing Allen Ginsberg's deliberately outrageous poem "Howl," and defending it in court against obscenity charges. Next door is the favored bar of the Beats, Vesuvio's, and diagonally across, neon lights announce the Condor, where Carol Doda in the 1970s debuted silicone-enhanced toplessness to a '70s decade that decided it was pretty cool. Down Broadway is a business selling itself as the Beat Museum, the ultimate irony for the original bop-kabbalah dharmists of counterculture.

Visually, North Beach is a treat (and the energy, the caffeine) and any northbound street leads to Fisherman's Wharf, which locals avoid, but they shouldn't. Yes, it is overrun. It also has good restaurants (Fog Harbor on Pier 39 is dedicated to sustainable seafood). Passing Pier 45, I pause to admire the Liberty Ship, Jeremiah O'Brien. Restored, maintained, and sailed by volunteers, with a colossal, walk-around-inside-it steam engine that stands in for every movie ("Titanic") that needs one, the O'Brien steamed to France under her own power in 1994 to the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. Open for tours, frequently underway with paying passengers, she's a treasure. The best-preserved of America's diesel-generation submarines, the Pampanito is tied up off her bow.

Photo of ships of San Francisco's National Maritime MuseumThe ships of the maritime museum are docked alongside Aquatic Park, where it's possible to anchor and come ashore. (Photo: Kimball Livingston)

Trying to ignore the century-old arcade games of the Musee Mechanique, I'm walking deliberately past the vendors — well, maybe just one crab cocktail — to the Hyde Street Pier, the National Maritime Park, where admission to the pier is free. I'm not telling you not to pay to board the ships, but I'm going to simply sit somewhere and breathe in the salt air and take in the view. Tall ships. Tall masts. The Balclutha, 17 times around the Horn. And I'm in a national park? I own this? You own this. Welcome to San Francisco. The cable cars are a block away. Maybe you beat me, maybe not? 

Kimball Livingston is an international sailor and journalist often called upon to explain the strange goings-on of the America's Cup. He also wrote the book on his home waters, Sailing The Bay.

— Published: June/July 2013

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