Monday, July 14, 2008

I left my train in San Francisco part 2

We sail past the stark rock of Alcatraz, not too close so as to feel guilty but close to see that it doesn’t look a happy place. But then, what prison does? Apparently it stopped being a prison because it was too expensive to keep prisoners there, so now it’s just a tourist destination. I wonder if any ever get left there.

There’s some great views of the city as we disembark at Fisherman’s Wharf and stroll over to see what has happened to Pier 39 in all those years.

I can see plenty of large metal crabs but I don’t see the rainbow shop I remembered and everything seems a little more tawdry with an abundance of performance artists leaping around – many dressed as pirates in the Captain Jack Sparrow style. M and I however are drawn into a shop selling sparkly things and manage to procure a couple more glossy boxes containing shiny articles to wear down our luggage.

We get stuck in traffic in Chinatown and visit an impressive cathedral, ostensibly for a bathroom break which is a little harsh as it has some very fine architectural features and rose windows which demand more admiration.

We think we’re winding up our day in San Francisco but it turns out that our train needed to have some wheels replaced and though that was resolved fairly easily the new engine that turned up was faulty and we have an electricity-less train with no way to transport it closer to us. So plan B is that see a little more of this eclectic peninsular and then dine on some local specialities back around Fisherman’s Wharf whilst they find a way to reunite us with our train.

So we get to explore beyond the obligatory tourist stops. We meander through Golden Gate Park which is a calm, verdant place much loved by San Franciscans. They relax here, picnic here, jog here and have been known to live here though that’s not entirely desirable to the authorities. One of the highlights for me was the conservatory of flowers which was clearly based on a certain Kew Gardens Palm House which is generally a little closer to home for me.

Apparently the citizens of San Francisco looked towards New York and Central Park (and obviously Kew Gardens) and decided that they wanted one of those. So during the 1860s, plans were put into motion to transform the bleak sand and shore dunes that decorated San Francisco into a usable, inviting park for the all to enjoy, and importantly to make it bigger and better than Central Park. In 1870, an engineer named William Hammond Hill started working on the huge planting programme that resulted in the paradise we see today. However, perhaps in hindsight one of the worse decisions was to introduce the incredibly fast growing blue gum eucalyptus tree from Tasmania. The trees grew rapidly but the plan to use them for the extensive building a burgeoning California required was thwarted by them turning out to be too flimsy for the role. They make good firewood though, possibly a little too good as the continually flaking bark from these trees make them extraordinarily flammable, as the California wildfires have sadly been a testament to. The fog that obscured the golden-ness of the Golden Gate Bridge this morning is also a residue from these dreadful fires.

After our extended tour we head back for Pier 39, this time past the basking sea lions and climb up to what I think was called Neptune's Bay View Café. Outside the window gangs of rival pelicans patrol the harbour sweeping in low formation and in Top Gun parlance – way below the hard deck.

Starter is a rather good clam chowder, I’d hoped it would be served in a hollowed out bread bowl but instead it was just a bowl. It was tasty though and actually the best part of the meal.

For main course we had a choice of seafood grill with sea bass and a lemon beurre blanc, salmon and fat shrimps or lemon chicken pasta or the infamous New York strip sirloin. Well we were far from New York, and it seemed so very wrong to be in Fisherman’s Wharf and not indulge in lashings of seafood. It was okay but the emphasis seemed to be too much on quantity and not quality. It was considerably below par from what we’ve been lavished with during our train journey so far but I appreciate that finding a restaurant that could accommodate our party – “table for one hundred and fifty please?” at such short notice. I think the best part was the sea bass and I had to ask what the sauce was before I realised it was a lemon beurre blanc, is that a good thing I wonder.

The dessert was billed as chocolate mousse but was actually cake with raspberry sauce. It looked okay but really managed to taste of nothing much, oh how we have been spoilt on the train! I've been wondering all night how much of the mis en place the kitchen staff had completed before they realised they'd have no one to enjoy it. I had visions of the servers all sitting down in the dining cars being waited on by the butlers and Mark tinkling out a few show tunes on the baby grand whilst Bonnie shook up a couple of martinis in the bar car. It transpired that the evening of Baccilian delight I had envisaged was way off the mark as they were completely devoid of power so instead of whooping it up they're eating a hastily grabbed Subway in the dark, though probably basking in the glow of a demanding passenger-less train.

After our meal we thought we were heading back for the train but our coach took a detour to allow us to take some night shots of the now Twinkly Gate Bridge but this turned out to be a cunning diversion tactic to distract us from the fact that our train was being mysteriously being held hostage by the custodians of the track and was being prevented from returning to Oakland station to collect us. However believing that this would soon be resolved we headed hopefully for station.

By now we’re onto plan C, which transpired to be an extensive visit to the outer reaches of Oakland station where we’d have a considerable time to acquaint ourselves with every nook and cranny whilst craning our necks to see a glimpse of our dearly departed and much loved train. The station seemed rather keen to close and get rid of these terribly unwelcome passengers but luckily there were way more of us than them so despite repeated requests for us to leave so they could lock up, we held our ground. Finally Amtrak could find no more reasons to detain us and could find no more random freight trains to throw in the path of our train so after many, many hours we were back being fabulously cosseted by our train team.

Mark was pouring cockle-warming Kir Imperials in the Seattle bar car so help us recover from our ordeal. Then we had to get to bed as tomorrow there’s more drinking to be done.

1 comment:

Loving Annie said...

Sorry that the food was so mediocre. Alcatraz IS sad. I still cannot understand why they don't rebuild it. There are definitely a lot of tawdry things on the wharf, true. The stained glass windows were pretty... Amtrak has seen better days, unfortunately...