Whether Mark Twain ever really claimed that "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" is up for discussion, but there's no doubt that the statement could truthfully be applied to our Sunday excursion. Summer it may not be, but cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge on a San Francisco morning proved a - how shall we put it - refreshing experience!
Like millions of tourists, Lloyd and I were caught off guard by our September 2000 visit to San Francisco, when - having expected glorious days of California sunshine - we found ourselves shivering in our t-shirts under the city's fog and brisks ocean breezes. You'd think, after more than seven years in the area, and umpteen excursions to the city, we'd know better, but we still found ourselves shivering in the iciest winds San Francisco could throw at us as we practically begged for the sun to break through.
The blue-grey sky promised that the sun would break through... eventually!
Nonetheless, we collected our rental bikes (for the grand sum of $25 each) just off tourist-central, aka Fisherman's Wharf, and headed off to find the Golden Gate Promenade that would scenically guide us the four miles or so to the Golden Gate Bridge. With our hands threatening to freeze onto our handlebars, we rode among joggers deafened by ipods, and weaved in and out of baby strollers pushed by gossip-distracted drivers. Literally hundreds of dogs were enjoying their early morning frolicks on the beach as their owners clutched Starbucks and searched longingly for meaning out in the Bay. Meanwhile, young Dads threw baseballs at their three year olds hoping to reveal Babe Ruth type talent. Ah! San Franciscans at play! If you've ever wondered why millions of people choose to live in the shadow of the next 'Big One', come visit the city on a Sunday morning.
A little over half way from the Wharf to the Golden Gate, we took a quick detour to the Palace of Fine Arts, a sight which - we're ashamed to admit - we've admired from afar for many years but never visited. Though inspired by Roman and Greek architecture, the Palace dates only from 1915 when it was built as part of San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exhibition. The Exhibition was ostensibly to celebrate the opening of the Pacific canal, but in reality was intended to showcase the city's recovery following the massive 1906 earthquake. As part of a temporary exhibition, the Palace was never intended to withstand the test of time, but it quickly became a much-loved feature of the city's landscape and so multiple restorations - including the current phase - seem intent on ensuring this building survives well beyond its first centennial.
The gardens and private houses surrounding the Palace are well worth a look, with blossom trees and a very pretty pond adorned with swans adding to the idyllic scene. We were pleased to have finally 'discovered' the Palace, and - resisting the urge to lose hours at the very well-regarded Exploratorium Museum - re-mounted our bikes and rolled on towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
Right at the base of the Golden Gate, we decided to check out Fort Point. Honestly, we'd never even noticed this before despite the fact that it was the turn around point for a 10-K we ran five years ago, so we were curious to see what was inside. Turns out that Fort Point is the only west coast example of a "Third System" coastal fortification system adopted after the 1812 War. The Third System followed hotly on the heels of the First System in 1794 and the Second System ten years later. The Third System was intended to be longer-lived than the first two, and no less than impenetrable: Fort Point's walls, for example, are seven feet thick! Designed to accommodate 141 cannon, the Fort was completed in 1861 and - though never tested in combat - has easily withstood the test of time and stands proud at the base of the Golden Gate. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1970.
On the left: The Golden Gate was redesigned to preserve Fort Point at its base. On the right: Fort Point's main courtyard.
It already felt like we'd had a very fulfilling day, but the 'feature presentation' still loomed above us. We've driven across the Golden Gate bridge dozens of times, but never crossed it by bike which would no doubt be a little noisier, but - on the bright side - would give us considerably longer to enjoy the vista in addition to saving us the $5 fee. And so, we headed over to the west side of the bridge (furthest away from the City) reserved for cyclists and started our 1.7 mile journey across the span.
The Golden Gate Bridge is, of course, a relatively new addition to the San Francisco Bay. Built between 1933 and 1937, the Golden Gate is more than a mere bridge linking the city with Marin county to the north. The Golden Gate has become synonymous with the city itself, and San Francisco without the Golden Gate is simply unimagineable.
The biggest frustration turned out to be the local, 'serious' cyclists who were - apparently - racing for their life across the bridge. Their visible and frequently audible irritation with us 'tourist' cyclists was more than a little disappointing. Lloyd and I try to be good ambassadors at home and abroad so it was interesting to be wearing 'tourist' clothing (in the form of our hire bikes) and experience how some tourists are treated in our own home state. But, it was a minor, minor aggravation and we didn't allow ourselves to be rushed, instead taking our time to enjoy the view as we headed north across the bridge into Marin.
With a grey sky overhead, we decided that rather than ride back across the bridge, we'd head into Sausalito (blue skies!) and catch a ferry back across the bay to the Wharf. This gave us the opportunity to ride underneath the bridge, which offered an interesting perspective and some great photo opportunities!
Photo of the day, though, belongs to Lloyd who took this shot:
Anyway, Sausalito itself was the least interesting part of the day, its few streets simply thronging with tourists killing a few hours before either driving, riding or taking the ferry back to the city. We're not sure we'd recommend Sausalito for anything other than a hop-on point for the ferry, and - if we'd had more time - would have continued on to Tiburon in the hope of a slightly more tranquil environment.
Having untangled ourselves from the tourist masses, we made it onto a ferry and braved the brisk breeze to enjoy the view on the top deck. It was fitting to admire the Golden Gate from afar once more, but we also enjoyed the very close sail-by of Alcatraz and the view of the Bay Bridge as we pulled into dock. Oh - don't forget cash for your ferry ticket.... we're so used to using our debit cards for everything that we're frequently caught without cash. As a result, we were supposed to be escorted to the ticket office on arrival to buy our tickets. In the event, we were considered more trouble than the $7 ticket merited (apparently) as we were urged to 'just go', but I had enjoyed the ferry ride and insisted Lloyd line up to pay for the tickets anyway. And people think he's the crazy one!
All in all, we'd heartily recommend hiring bikes and exploiting pedal-power for a simply fantastic day in San Francisco. We'll be back before long to enjoy another day exploring the Marin headlands or perhaps the Golden Gate Park on bikes. Just don't forget those extra layers and GLOVES (unless, like me, you want to spend the week typing using a pencil between the teeth)....