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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

San Francisco a fun place to take the kids

 •  Escape to Alcatraz on a tour boat

By BETH HARPAZ
Associated Press

Indulge in ice cream and chocolates at Ghirardelli Square, headquarters of the famous brand-name sweets.

ERIC RISBERG | Associated Press

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IF YOU GO ...

INFO: www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com or (415) 391-2000. Visitor Information Center, 900 Market St., Hallidie Plaza, lower level, near Powell and Market.

CABLE CARS: At Powell and Market streets, you can watch workers manually turn the cars around. Ride from there to Fisherman's Wharf. Tickets, $5. All-day pass, $10.

FISHERMAN'S WHARF: www.fishermanswharf.org. Musee Mecanique at Pier 45, sea lions at Pier 39. Ghirardelli Square is a few blocks away.

TACTILE DOME: At the Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon St.; www.exploratorium.edu or (415) 561-0362. Tickets to the Tactile Dome are $16, which includes admission to the Exploratorium. Children under 7 not admitted to the Tactile Dome.

GOLDEN GATE PARK: nps.gov/goga. Attractions include carousel, playground, Japanese garden and bison paddock.

TIPS: Bring a jacket (even in August, temperatures can dip into the 50s).

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Prison cells are even spookier on an evening tour of Alcatraz. The former federal lockup now attracts about a million tourists a year.

JAKUB MOSUR | Associated Press

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SAN FRANCISCO I promised them chocolate, sea lions, Ms. Pac-Man and a prison cell.

My family and I were in San Francisco, so delivering on this unusual itinerary was as easy as taking a cable car to Fisherman's Wharf.

There we visited the pier where a colony of sea lions lives, played old-fashioned games at Musee Mecanique, and ate chocolate and ice cream at nearby Ghirardelli Square. Then we took a ferry to Alcatraz for an evening tour, catching a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in daylight on the way there and glittering in the dark on the way back.

We started at Powell and Market streets, the turnaround point for cable cars. When the cars reach the end of the line here, you can watch as workers manually rotate them to head back in the other direction.

When it was our turn to board, we chose to squeeze into the crowded rear platform, where you have to stand for the entire bouncy, noisy ride. If that doesn't sound like fun, head for a seat inside. But the back is also partly open to the breeze and offers great views up and down the city's hills. The tickets, decorated with colorful local scenes, make nice scrapbook souvenirs.

The cable car drops you off just steps from the piers at Fisherman's Wharf. It's a busy, crazy place that most locals avoid, but if you're from out of town, you've got to go. The bustling streets are lined with seafood restaurants, sidewalk vendors and souvenir shops, along with break-dancers, human statues and other street performers. Beware the Bushman, who jumps out from behind his leafy camouflage, eliciting shrieks and laughter from unsuspecting passers-by near Pier 43.

At Pier 45 stands Musee Mecanique, a repository for antique arcade games. Admission is free, and you can play most games for a quarter. Here you'll find a stereoscope (a machine that displays a set of 3-D pictures taken after the 1906 earthquake and fire); dioramas with figures that move or dance; and Laffing Sal, a cackling funhouse character from the 1930s.

Your hair will frizz and your fillings will sing if you dare hold on to the vibrating levers of the Addams Family Electric Shock Machine. I had my fortune told by a creaky mechanical gypsy, and my kids turned out to be much better than I ever was at Ms. Pac-Man, despite my years of practice.

We indulged in ice-cream sundaes a few blocks away at the flagship store of the famed Ghirardelli chocolatier, where we also picked up free samples of chocolate, then headed for the sea lions at Pier 39. We've seen sea lions at zoos and aquariums, of course, but somehow they're much more entertaining here. There are dozens of them, and sometimes hundreds, on the floating platforms just offshore. They nuzzle, jostle, play and shove each other into the water like kids at summer camp.

We ended our day at Fisherman's Wharf by hopping on a ferry for Alcatraz shortly before sunset. (See sidebar, right.) Reserve tickets for the evening tour if you can. The island seems spookier in the dark, and the city lights sparkle at night on the return trip. The taped audio tour is one of the most entertaining tours you'll ever experience.

Today the island, just over a mile offshore, is a national park, but Alcatraz also known as "the Rock" was a maximum-security prison from 1934 to 1963. "If the wind was blowing from that direction to the Rock, you could hear people laughing ... all the sounds of the free world," one inmate recalled wistfully.

If you're sure you're not afraid of the dark, there's another San Francisco attraction you'll want to take the kids to the Tactile Dome at the Exploratorium, a science museum. You literally crawl through a maze here, on your knees, in total darkness. Along the way, you'll encounter dead-ends and more than a few strange objects and textures. I get lost in broad daylight, so I let my children lead me through the tunnels. (My youngest, age 7, just met the minimum age requirement for admission.) One trip through was enough for me, but they loved it and went through three or four times.

Finally, we spent an afternoon at Golden Gate Park, where the playground's whimsical slides and rides were a big hit so different from the carbon-copy, boxy McPlaygrounds found around the country these days. There was even a seesaw a once-standard piece of equipment that's hard to find in parks these days.

The park's carousel has an ostrich, a cat, a dog, a zebra, a pig, a lion and a rooster, and there are real buffalos in the bison paddock. Stroll through the Japanese garden, admire the pagodas, picturesque bridge and walkways, and enjoy a cup of tea served by a waitress in a colorful kimono.

When your trip is over, keep your San Francisco memories going by renting old movies like "Vertigo" or the "The Maltese Falcon." For our family, however, the film noir genre was less compelling than the prison genre. We relived the highlight of our trip by watching "The Rock," "Escape from Alcatraz," and, of course, "Birdman of Alcatraz."