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Golden Gate To The US

Bohemian haven; gay capital; salad bowl of America; cradle of the hippie culture, forerunner of the IT revolution San Francisco is all this and more, discovers Pravin Sathe

Golden Gate Bridge

We have heard of cities that are the technology capital of a particular country. Some others may be bestowed with the title of cultural capital of an area. You may have a city for the bohemians; a gay capital; a salad bowl of the country; a city that was the cradle of the hippie culture of the 1960s etc, etc. But only a single city is all of this and much more - that too in a country that does not confer such charitable appellations so gratuitously. We are talking of San Francisco. Nestled in the sylvan surroundings of the northern part of California (arguably America's richest state), the city is in some ways looked at with awe and pride tinged with envy by the rest of the country due to its unique mix of the old and the new.

A swanky new airport welcomes you to the IT capital of the world - state of the art conveyor belts, swift immigration procedures and a futuristic architectural design that helps passengers avoid schlepping all over the terminal building (unlike in other busy airports the world over) for a task as simple as taking a connecting flight or just plainly exiting the terminal to go home after a long journey. However, to remind you that you are finally on terra firma, some facts will wake you to startling realities -reports say that the San Francisco airport has a rather unenviable record for laptops stolen after they pass through the X-ray machines even as you grapple with the other clearance formalities. The entire area is a strange co-existence of early 20th century relics in the older parts of the city with the ritzier areas of the Silicon Valley where the Pentium 3 is now considered 'antique'.

San Francisco Overview

A small portion of the Pacific Ocean on USA's West coast decided to make its way inwards towards the east and created a natural bay. This came to be called the San Francisco Bay, now simply called the Bay area.

The Bay area is by itself divided into two main areas - San Francisco proper city including the downtown areas and the outer spreads such as the Silicon Valley area near San Jose.

Actually the entire northern part of California is the real scene-stealer - San Francisco (SF), Napa valley, Silicon Valley and Monterrey. San Francisco itself is a great city when compared to Los Angeles, which is its more glamourous and possibly richer tinsel town counterpart in Southern California. Much smaller than LA, however SF with its urban population of just around 8 lakh has an old world charm to it. The old city is one big fun place where you can spend hours on the Fisherman's Wharf waterfront with its amazing seafood or Pier 39 with its open-air restaurants and quaint shopping plazas.

The Golden Gate Bridge has been San Francisco's most enduring landmark for years

For Indians who love their curry, a 'not-to-miss' is the 'clam chowder’ served in many of the waterfront eating joints in the entire area - it is basically a huge bun with the center bread portion scooped out and filled with a coconut curry-based soupy preparation made from clams. This is then devoured by dunking bread/bun pieces into it to create a wholesome meal in itself. However this indulgence might be a little disconcerting to a conscientious Indian as he would have to do so under the benign gaze of Mahatma Gandhi who has been honoured by erecting his statue in the Pier 39 area, a hugely popular tourist destination. But then in a city that is at the forefront of liberal thought in the country and where for many bohemianism is their only raison d'etre, such bashfulness will not take you places. It was actually a huge libertarian movement in the 60s that propelled the permissiveness catapulting SF to the undisputed hippie capital as well as gay capital of the world.

Most of downtown SF is roads going up and down like a roller coaster because of its unique topography. Hollywood buffs would recall seeing a crooked street with a never-ending ‘S' type layout - this is very much Crooked (Lombard) Street in the downtown area. The best way to take in the city is to walk the entire downtown, which is very easily covered on foot. A fairly safe city, if those legs decide to give way, hop into one of those delightfully painted tramcars rattling along and get transported back into the early part of the last century.

Japanese Garden

If the ambience suddenly changes and you feel you have crossed the Pacific Ocean to reach the Orient, do not be too surprised. In the innermost recesses of the city is a huge Chinatown (presumably USA's biggest) that adds to the ambience. A walk down the streets here takes you straight to Shanghai with old houses and shops selling everything from magnetic medicinal marbles, feng shui kits, acupressure therapies and what have you. Restaurants with Chinese symbols offer authentic Chinese food, which is as far from Indian Chinese food as the Atlantic is from the Pacific.

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Pier 39 area

Ghirardelli Square is the chocolate capital here and in one of the shops you can actually see through a glass panel the molten brown yummy delight being converted into the brown bars that most of mankind has a weakness for. On the streets don't get taken aback if you are greeted with a Namaste - after all the 'desi' techies across the bay have taught the local street performers that though the colour of these geeks' skin may not be the best 'the pockets, they are a bulgin' with the greenbacks, buddy - so why not throw in a word or two to please them!! To entertain you, break-dancers with their suits painted silver or golden strive to gain your attention even as they contort their bodies into amazing shapes aided by songs blaring full blast from their heavy-duty portable music systems. If all that is too cacophonous, just take a stroll on the boardwalk bordering the waterfront and watch the seals laze around occasionally grunting to signal their bored disapproval of life in general.

Squint into the distance and across the harbour you will spot the island of Alcatraz from where the notorious Chicago don Al Capone made his escape when incarcerated here in the early part of the last century. Ferry rides from the Wharf take you there along a route that the prisoners of the 1930s Prohibition era swam to escape the penitentiary there.

Shift your gaze a little to the left and there you will spot the structure that will remain SF's most enduring landmark for years - the Golden Gate Bridge. A harbinger in the technology of suspension bridges, it was built in the mid 20th century (1937) to link SF to other parts of North California and then on to Oregon and Washington states. Today it has many rivals elsewhere but none to challenge its charm. The fog rolling down the hills next to the bridge and its imposing super structure seen from virtually everywhere in the city have not only been well documented but also have been the setting for many a novel or work of fiction, including the eponymous one with a somewhat farfetched plot where the American President's car is hijacked and he is held captive on the bridge. Its poorer cousin is the Bay Bridge, which though equally impressive does not have the same claim to fame. This links SF to the eastern parts of North California like the port city of Oakland, Emeryville and Sacramento (the capital of California) and the University town of Berkeley.

At the Muir Woods National Park redwood trees as old as five to eight centuries are well preserved

The Golden Gate's imposing structure can be taken in from various angles including one from a road at an elevation above it where a small area has been cleared out as a sort of viewing gallery. Further to the north of the city after crossing the bridge (12 miles beyond) is the Muir Woods National Park where redwood trees as old as five to eight centuries are well preserved. Some of the trees present a fascinating study for the botanically inclined as vagaries of nature as well as lack of sunlight due to the dense vegetation have created a strange phenomenon whereby the main trunk starts hollowing out and only the outer bark remains creating tall 100 feet high 'pipes' where you can see the sky from inside the bottom of the tree.

Cross the Bay Bridge and you reach the seaport of Oakland. The port here houses the USS Potomac - Second World War President F D Roosevelt's personal yacht on which he clandestinely met Winston Churchill in an epoch making meeting where it was decided by the USA to join the Allied forces and the rest, as we all know, is history.

Surprisingly, to add the quintessential American twist to the story, the yacht fell into the hands of the underworld, was used as a front for smuggling and eventually sunk in the SF harbour. To the country's credit however, it was recovered, restored and now gleams as a fitting tribute to arguably America's greatest President ever - F D Roosevelt. In the vicinity is the University town of Berkeley, a favourite with a lot of Indian students.

Further north, the Napa valley is home to some of the best grapes grown that side of the Atlantic and the wines distilled here are giving French wines a close run for their money. Most of Northern California is blessed with salubrious climate and hence its various areas such as Gilroy that you pass as you move southwards form the Bay area are also called strawberry bowl or salad bowl and garlic bowl.

St Peters and Paul Church

To the south of SF is Silicon Valley, where the climate is ideally suited for growing money by coming out with any idea (the more preposterous the better) that has anything remotely to do with IT or the new economy. The 'ideas' economy has of course taken a hit due to the technology meltdown but some brave-hearts are even today trying to see which venture capitalist will bite. In the euphoria of last year when logic was tossed over the Golden Gate and into the Bay, literally anything sold. The Indian presence in this entire 'world capital of technology' has been all-pervasive for the past few decades. It is believed that to add to your project's or idea's credibility if there is an Indian interface, so much the better. The late Dewang Mehta of Nasscom never tired of telling his favourite story whereby a start-up in Silicon Valley was trying to list on NASDAQ. In one of the road shows, a merchant banker asked the promoter Chris Murphy whether he wouldn't be better off in the valuation game if he renamed himself Krisnamurthy. Incidentally areas like Cupertino (in the Santa Monica county of the Bay area) have a sizeable Indian population and areas like the Cupertino Hills are lovingly called Marathwada in honour of its high profile residents like Suhas Patil and Prakash Bhalerao - cult figures in Silicon Valley.

In the heady days of the 'internet economy' if you had to sell your house in these rarefied areas, you could actually have a reverse bargaining whereby prospective buyers would come and offer you a higher price than the floor you had set. Thankfully all that is in the past and some logic and sense has been driven into the market.

This is also the area where all the suburbs we have all along read and heard about like San Jose, Palo Alto, and Sunnyvale are located. The exceedingly liberal Stanford University sits on a huge campus between the twin cities of SF and San Jose. Also HQs of Oracle, Apple, Intel and other temples of software and hardware dot the area. Venture capitalists all have congregated in areas like Menlo Park where they sit on piles of cash licking their wounds inflicted by the NASDAQ. With hardly any worthwhile projects doing the rounds, it is time for introspection here. The talk however even today is at a level whereby one has to be exceptionally well tuned into the new economy to be able to understand the (at times) vacuous discussions.

As you move towards the countryside if you see a few bi-planes lying around don't be flustered. They may be the spare family planes used in emergencies when the regular goes kaput. After all in a rich country if you have to be ‘richer’, having just a few automobiles extra in the garage is no great shakes - but an airplane or two - that is cool, maan!

Palace of Fine Arts

Further south of this area is the seaside resort of Monterrey. Its residents call it the most historic city of California. Originally under Mexican rule till the 1840s it was a major port of trade. Then in 1846, the Yankees from the East Coast marched in and annexed it. On the waterfront is a row of small but exceedingly charming shops selling tourist mementos and Mexican inspired handicrafts. The town also has a few museums depicting its maritime history.

Otherwise a small lazy town on the Pacific Coast, today Monterrey is known for its golf courses which have been set afire many a time by Tiger Woods and the seaside villas of the Silicon Valley honchos and Hollywood stars. The place also has had Clint Eastwood as Sheriff or Mayor some summers back to put the final seal of approval. With such a great opportunity the local area council would be foolish not to rake in the moolah. Restricted entry to this area is by means of a main road, which hugs the Pacific Coast on one side and has the lush greens on the other. Hence, you are supposed to pay an entry fee of US $ 8 to enter the area that enables you to take a 17 mile drive called the Pebble Beach drive that enable you to a) wallow in self pity at your penury, b) sympathise with the rest of America for the comparative poverty they are living in, c) turn blue, green, red or whatever with envy, anger, jealousy or any other state of mind or d) cluck cluck at the opulent decadence of the area.

Silicon Valley

A small township within this area and where the drive ends is called Pebble Beach and houses some of the most expensive resorts and hotels. As an added attraction, it has a small golf course the size of a couple of billiards tables. If all this luxuriance has only whetted your appetite for more, visit Carmel by the sea nearby and see if any of the villas on sale there interest you.

Fact File
Ramada Plaza Intl
Vagabond Inn
Holiday Inn City Centre
Union Square
Sheraton Fisherman’s wharf
Westin St. Francis


  • Metreon multiplex (www.metreon.com) - IMAX screens, video games, restaurants
  • Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum at Jefferson Street (downtown)
  • Theatre district (Market St., Mason St., Geray St. in and around Union Square

Night life

Night clubs at:

  • Jillian’s (Metreon Centre)
  • New Orleans Room in Fairmount Hotel
  • 330 Ritch Street
  • Piaf’s (Cabaret) at Market Street
  • Plush Room at York Hotel, Sutter St.

Moving About

  • Within downtown SF - daily pass - valid for all buses, tramcars etc.
  • Greater Bay area - BART local trains - fast and cheap (www.bart.org)
  • Outer areas - car rentals are convenient and cheap especially for a group of two or more - Hertz, Thrifty etc. are available at airports, Union Square, important stations etc.

Montgomery, Jackson and Columbus streets form the hub of the stylish bars/cocktail Lounges. Prominent among them are:

  • Fiddler’s Green - Columbus Avenue
  • Bubble Lounge - Montgomery/ Jackson junction
  • Kennedy’s Irish Pub - Columbus, Fisherman’s Wharf.

Tourist must-dos

  • Golden Gate - drive over it, take a ferry ride under it (from the Fisherman’s Wharf), or drive over the bridge in a 1955 fire engine, a 75 minute drive costs approx. US $ 25.00 per head (www.fireenginetours.com).
  • Alcatraz- take a ferry ride from the Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Visit Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Go to Anchorage (shopping and eating delights), Cannery (eating and entertainment), Ghirardelli Square (chocolate delights, jewellery shopping), wax museum at Jefferson Street
  • Pier 39 gives you panoramic views of the entire harbour; you can pay homage to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi there.


At Ghirardelli Square

  • Ana Mandara (Vietnamese cuisine)
  • Gaylord India restaurant (Indian cuisine)

At Fisherman’s Wharf

  • Mandarin Palace (Chinese speciality at Anchorage)

For the pure veggies

  • Greens at Marina Boulevard
  • Millenium near civic centre
  • Joubert’s - South African vegetarian specialities at Judah Street 46th Avenue

China Town