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SAN FRANCISCO—The official “number” of this city seems to be 49: from their football team, the 49’rs, to residents claiming the city is “49 square miles, surrounded by reality”, and, of course, the famous Gold Rush that happened here in 1849.
We started our visit where perhaps some wouldn’t: with the RocketBoat. Billed as a “roller coaster ride on water,” complete with a heavy-metal soundtrack, this rock-’em-soak-’em ride started our tour with a bang — if not a need for a towel. It combines amazing views of the city with a thrill ride.
There are 20,000 sea creatures in the aquarium, and a petting pool that lets visitors pat a shark, rays and sea stars. Floating iridescent jellyfish were beautiful and mesmerizing in their long tubular tanks. A walk through the 90 metres of tunnels, with fish swimming all around, the crystal clear walls punctuated by the seemingly suctioned-on starfish, is both calming and exciting.
Across the bay, Alcatraz Prison sits as a reminder of the days it housed many of America’s most infamous criminals: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and, of course, Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
The Alcatraz Gift Shop on Pier 39 features clothing, household items and souvenirs in a classic black-and-white striped motif — even a baby’s sleeper. The “Alcatraz Swimming Team” t-shirts were a big hit.
The 110 shops on the Pier are full of colour. We found a fun way to pick out our next stop by riding on the beautiful and imposing two-storey-tall San Francisco Carousel. Hand-crafted in Italy, 32 animals carry passengers past depictions of famous scenes and settings in San Francisco, lit by 1,800 LED lights, while listening to traditional roundabout organ music.
Stepping down from our lofty horses, we continued our shopping tour, including stops at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Gift Shop, Lefty’s (a shop featuring products for our left-handed friends), the surprisingly packed San Francisco Sock Market (yes, all socks!), Puppets on the Pier, and The Perfect Purse.
There’s no admission fee to the Pier, and eating at one of the restaurants will entitle you to some free parking. It is also easily accessible by public transit, including the historic F-Line street car, or bus numbers 8x, 39 or 47. The Blue & Gold Fleet Ferry Service goes to and from Alameda/Oakland, Vallejo, Sausalito and Tiburon, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) also travels to Pier 39.
As we left the Pier, loaded with shopping bags and substantially fuller stomachs and clearer minds, we stopped to watch a street performer entertain a highly appreciative audience.
Kathy Buckworth is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
JUST THE FACTS
SLEEPING The beautiful and historic Westin St. Francis is right downtown near shopping on Union Square, and less than a five-minute cab ride from Pier 39. Room rates start as low as $ 170 a night. 335 Powell St., 415-397-7000. westinstfrancis.com. On a budget? Try Radisson Hotel Fisherman’s Wharf, only a block from Pier 39. Room rates from $ 139. 250 Beach St., 1-855-665-1334. radisson.com
DINING Pier 39 has a variety of restaurants, including the upscale Fog Harbor Fishhouse, serving a variety of fresh seafood. 415-421-2442. fogharbor.com. Or go more casual at The Wipeout Bar & Grill. 415-986-5966. wipeoutbarandgrill.com