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Contradictions remain in San Francisco

Press AssociationPress Association 31/05/2016 Damon Smith

Tony Bennett left only his heart in San Francisco, but after spending five days in the Bay Area, I've also relinquished all feeling in my glutes.

The average temperature in April should be low double digits but the mercury has already hit 27C as I pedal in a chain gang of tourists along the Golden Gate Bridge's west sidewalk. The 2.7-kilometre stretch is reserved for the fast and Lycra-clad furious on two wheels, and rivulets of sweat sluice sunscreen from my brow as my buttocks angrily debate which of them is the most chafed from the saddle of my rental mountain bike.

I punctuate the 13-kilometre route from the Blazing Saddles main depot in Aquatic Park to the Bayside village of Sausalito with unflattering selfies to restore bloodflow to my haunches.

Pleasure and pain are exquisite bedfellows, as this city knows well - it was an altar for sexual abandon during the Summer of Love in 1967 and a beacon for gay liberation under politician Harvey Milk, as well as an epicentre for Mother Nature's seismic fury. (The city lies close to the San Andreas Fault.)

Today she remains a magnificent yet emotionally conflicted creature - still trapped in the bubble blown by Silicon Valley in the far south, but unable to sweep away signs of acute urban poverty in the north.

These contradictions play out daily beneath the benevolent gaze of the 64-metre-tall white concrete Coit Tower - a silent, unblinking Art Deco sentinel, tattooed with vibrant Depression-era frescoes, perched atop Telegraph Hill.

Powerwalking up 30 per cent inclines, which test the clutch control of slow-moving traffic, my imagination burns as fiercely as my calf muscles. I stumble upon tongue twister thoroughfares like Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard, named after the world's longest-running musical revue, and bustling cafes on Chestnut Street, where every block has one pedigree dog tied to a parking meter, while its owner devours al fresco lunch nearby.

Considering the heat and fierce topography, it's understandable that tourists queue up to one hour for the vintage cable cars, particularly on the route between Powell Street and Fisherman's Wharf - a waterside haven of clam chowder served in sourdough bowls. I seek cool, subterranean refuge in a tunnel of sharks, bat rays and shimmering anchovy swirls at the Aquarium Of The Bay.

A colony of mischievous African penguins, which are better suited to the swelter than me, and an implacable albino alligator christened Claude inhabit neighbouring eco-systems in Golden Gate Park at the California Academy Of Sciences, which houses an aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum.

Ironically, the earthquake simulator lacks the Richter scale excitement of a similar attraction at the Natural History Museum in London. But the centrepiece is a four-storey rainforest contained within a 27-metre spherical dome. The air is thick with butterflies and the caterwauls of two impish macaws.


*Sir Francis Drake

Victorian-style kitsch flirts with boutique chic at this hotel where Beefeater doormen in ruffled red tunics beckon guests into a reception/bar festooned with high-back thrones.

The Starlight Room on the 21st floor seduces fun-loving weekenders with a Sunday cabaret brunch hosted by feather-swathed drag queens. Away from the frou-frou, rooms from $US271 ($A375.48) are spacious, but en-suite shower/bathrooms are too compact to swing a corgi.

*The Buchanan

Head west along Sutter Street to the Eastern promise of The Buchanan in Japantown. Airy, Oriental-inspired rooms from $US259 boast cute design flourishes that put the fun in feng shui - including a flat-screen TV nestled in a wooden easel.


* Cadence

In the burgeoning mid-Market neighbourhood, Cadence proffers a playful four-course chef's menu with optional beverage pairings, or an equally tempting a la carte selection. Whalebone booths, beached centrally in the dining room, provide a dramatic backdrop to immaculately presented northern California produce, with occasional Euro-Asian flourishes.

* Delfina

This James Beard Award-winning Italian is a stylish eatery in the Mission District, sating hearty appetites with al dente pastas swathed in luscious ragus. The menu's lip-smacking mainstay - a succulent roasted half-chicken served with sinfully creamy olive oil mashed potatoes - makes my carb-conscious heart skip a beat.

* Fog City

The horseshoe-shaped dining room of this upscale bistro offers unobstructed views of the eastern waterfront. Lunch and dinner menus proudly flaunt locally sourced seafood and desserts are complemented with signature vanilla frozen custard.


* Visit Alcatraz Island

Before the last inmates departed on March 21, 1963, up to 320 prisoners and 90 correctional officers were stationed on Alcatraz Island. Considerably more tourists serve time here, flocking to the national parkland via a ferry service from Pier 33.

Tickets are never available on the day so book far in advance, preferably taking a boat before 10am to avoid the lunchtime crush in the cellhouse. A 45-minute self-guided audio tour relives the facility's bloodiest chapters, replete with the sickening sound effect of one prisoner being shanked during a canteen riot.

* Walk in Muir Woods National Park

Located 19 kilometres north of the city, this is one of the last remaining cathedral-like groves of coastal redwoods.

* Relive childhood dreams

You won't need to wish upon a star to reach the Walt Disney Family Museum, located in the former Presidio military base on the northern tip of the peninsula. Two free shuttle buses run on 30-minute loops, transporting visitors to 1765sq m of repurposed gallery space, crammed with memorabilia, props, hand-drawn sketches, photographs and historical treasures that illuminate the bare necessities of Disney's life.

* Damon Smith was a guest of the tourist board.

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