City by the bay

City by the bay

San francisco

City by the bay

Walking in the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood can throw up many surprises. This, I knew. What I didn’t know was how dramatic some of them could be. Gawking at the psychedelic wall art, smiling at some of the quirky shop names (Reincarnation, The Love of Ganesha) and wondering if that sweet smell in the air was indeed weed, I suddenly stopped short. 

A pair of shapely legs was dangling out of a window overhead. Fishnet stockings with broad checks and bold red stilettos adorned these legs. Right at the intersection of the Haight and Ashbury streets that lend their names to this bit of San Franciscan suburbia, this was the Piedmont Boutique, the model legs a hint of their merchandise (dancers and drag queens frequent it, enough said).

This neighbourhood of San Francisco was the epicentre of the Flower Power Movement a few decades ago, and strongly associated with the legendary Summer of Love of 1967. And although the hippies are long gone (except for the few whom I suspect dress up for the sake of tourists), and the drugs scene has been cleaned up (ok, so that sweet smell was incense), Haight today still has a distinctive buzz about it.

Even the houses neatly lined along the lanes branching off from the main road demanded my attention. These postcard pretty, multicoloured houses in the Victorian style of architecture are called ‘Painted Ladies’ and offered great photo-ops.

The hippie days

Back on the main street, vintage clothes shops, designer boutiques and cheery cafés serving everything from Ethiopian pancakes to tofu kebabs were doing brisk business. I stopped for a quick lunch at a hole in the wall called ‘Escape from New York Pizza’ — a slice of their heavenly potato, pesto and roasted garlic pizza. 

I am not stating this because I want to document every single meal I had on holiday (there are thousands on Instagram doing that), but just to highlight the unusual name and ingredients combination. Haight does not just think outside the box; it denies the very existence of a box.

Back at my hotel, located at the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, I decided to spend my evening exploring this waterfront district. The streets along the wharf were humming with the sounds of buskers performing to adoring audiences, and artists exhibiting their work to curious tourists. The crew from the boats offering harbour cruises and excursions stood at the piers, hoping to attract passersby into an impulsive ride on the water.

With its dozens of tacky souvenir stands and wax museums, I could see why tourists loved Fisherman’s Wharf and locals loved to hate it. But who was I to complain? I was headed to the most touristy spot in the area: the Pier 39.

This once-abandoned pier was repurposed a while ago into a spacious shopping, dining and entertainment complex. And not surprisingly, every year it finds a place at the top of surveys about the most popular attraction in San Francisco, beating even classics like the Golden Gate Bridge. I loved it at first sight. The large carousel with its twinkling lights, the al fresco cafés and coffee shops, magicians and makeshift spas; what was not to love?

The bay watch

Although I ignored the calls to go cruising then, I did end up on a dinner sailing with Hornblower Cruises a few days later. The city lights were twinkling by the time we sailed, including on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and its step-cousin, the Oakland Bay Bridge. The latter was in fact all decked up in the Bay Lights art installation (created by artist Leo Villareal in 2013 for the bridge’s 75th anniversary), which has become a permanent feature of the bridge.

It was also the 4th of July, a holiday that San Francisco celebrated with spectacular fireworks. I stood on the deck, shivering in the cold night air, champagne flute in hand, watching the fireworks set the skies aglow with flaming reds, oranges and yellows that feted the occasion.

I was back in the neighbouring Ferry Plaza, bright and early on Saturday morning, to see the weekend Farmers Market. Cheery sunflowers the size of compact discs; green, orange, yellow and red peppers waiting to go into salads; firm and juicy tomatoes that gleamed in the sunlight; delicate orchids in pinks and purples; artisanal cheeses both salty and sweet; fragrant and fresh breads that broke upon touch; plump peaches and plums meant to be eaten messily — that market was a feast for the senses. 

The aroma of strong coffee was wafting from the roastery stall, leading me by my nose. A dozen locals had queued up for their morning cuppa, some still in barely respectable nightwear. The stall owners in the market were unfailingly warm, many of them handing out free samples (including one who tried in vain to make me taste fried insects coated in chocolate). I left the market with a huge smile on my face, clutching at a brown paper bag filled with fruit.

Way back in the early 1950s, jazz vocalist Tony Bennett sang, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Oh yes, I did too.

Fact file

How to get there

Fly to San Francisco via Abu Dhabi on Etihad or via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific; return fares start from Rs 70,000.

What to see & do

Shop at Union Square, with its wide range of stores from the sprawling Macy’s to the more intimate boutiques.

Explore the Chinatown area for its murals and mansions, stopping for dimsum and noodles at any of the crowded eateries.

Visit the Golden Gate Bridge for photos, and then stop by at the lush Golden Gate Park which also houses the De Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

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