Another city I'd visited before on business and vowed to return to when I had time to wander around. A 4-day visit gave me time for the highlights at least.


I always try when travelling to go to bed at a sensible local time and hopefully wake up at a sensible time too, but it doesn't always work. I woke up at 4am, so decided to make the best of a bad job and try for a sunrise shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. That required getting across to a viewing point on the far side of the bridge. I grabbed a cab. The taxi driver didn't know exactly where it was, but we figured it out between us.

As I had half an hour or so before sunrise, we stopped off at another viewing point along the way. The weather was not looking promising.

And sure enough, it wasn't. The fog never lifted, and sunrise was a complete non-event.

I took the cab back to Fisherman's Wharf for breakfast, before a wander round the docks. Whilst I'm not over-familiar with dawn, I do love that smug feeling on the rare occasions on which I experience it.

The light was grey and bleargh, so not much point in photography:

There was a Liberty ship and WW2 submarine at Pier 45, but neither was looking photogenic in the grey haze.

An early customer for the seafood being packed at the docks:

It was pleasant walking, though, and I located a bike rental place for later.

But I'd opted to start the day with a city tour. I don't often do anything so organised and touristy, but this particular tour offered an opportunity to try something I'd wanted to do for ages:

They are extremely clever toys. They have four gyroscopes in them, so once started-up and stabilised, they stay upright by themselves. You just switch them on and wait for each of the lights to go green.

Then you step on. Riding them is as simple as leaning forwards to go, pulling back to stop, leaning left or right to turn. We each had a quick go indoors, having to satisfy our instructor/guide that we could remain still (actually the hardest part), go forward, stop and turn on the spot. That took 2-3 mins per person, then we went and played in a parking lot. One more exercise - an emergency stop - and then we were off.

Segways are great fun, and a really practical way to tour a city as you can get from A to B reasonably rapidly (max speed of 12mph) but go pretty much anywhere as you're more-or-less a pedestrian in size.

The models we were using had a range of about 24 miles, and coped fine with SF's hills. Coming down the really steep hills was slightly scary for the first few seconds, but you quickly get the hang of it.

Slaloming them between the concrete bollards dividing the cycle lane (Segways allowed) from the footpath (Segways not allowed) would be illegal and childish. And is quite challenging. I would imagine.

The tour was thankfully light on detail and mostly aimed to orientate you in the city so you could plan your own visits later. This was built for a World Fair, demolished at the end of the fair and then later rebuilt:

Most of us were rather taken with the Segway. They cost a rather frightening £3k each, so we had a quick go at breeding some.

In reality, the top speed quickly feels quite limiting, and I'm told removing the speed limiter only gets you an extra 2mph, so I'm thankfully in no danger of buying one: they don't really compete with a bicycle for me. However, if I lived in SF, with all those hills, I'd be seriously tempted!

Travelling handbaggage-only, I can't take tripods with me, so opt to buy a cheapo one on arrival when travelling. This typically adds £15-20 to the cost of a trip, so I just view it as a travel expense like any other. I picked up one for night shots later, then dropped it back at my hotel. Next on the agenda was a cable-car ride.

They are quite amazing things. Closed cables run at 11mph under the roads. The cable cars hook onto these through a slot in the middle of the road and are pulled up the hills. Downhill, the cable is released and the cars freewheel down being braked by brake shoes that push onto the outside of the wheels.

I asked one of the drivers to explain how they worked. If I understood him correctly, the left-hand lever grabs and releases the cable, the right-hand one adjusts the pressure of the brake.

The brake itself is applied via a large foot-pedal.

(If I got any of that wrong, I'm sure they'll be a transport geek Ixi along at any moment to set me straight.)

The cars are absolutely beautiful:

A conductor signals to the driver when all the passengers are on and off. This is done in the same fashion as an old-style bus: a line running the length of the car that the conductor pulls to strike a bell. I'm guessing the driver here found the bell a bit loud ...

All the tourists of course want to travel on a cable-car and do the hanging on the outside thing, so there are huge queues at each turnaround point - up to two hours at peak times. I was given a simple but extremely useful tip: wander up a couple of blocks and get on there. The hanging slots will all be taken, but you can just wait for one to become free later in the ride.

The notices warning people not to lean out are very much needed: many of the streets are narrow, so passing lorries and buses can leave little clearance! The conductor warned us all to lean right in as we approached a coach with a wing-mirror at head-height. A German tourist didn't get the message, so we came to a halt while the rest of us explained to him.

The turnaround points are, though, worth visiting to watch it done. There are points on the track on the approach to each terminus:

These are manually-operated:

The car then goes onto a wooden turntable:

The turnaround itself is also entirely manual:

Mostly, though, I tend to walk around cities when exploring them. My hotel was just 12 blocks from the water, so an easy walk. Except that SF blocks of course look like this:

Mathematicians come to SF from all over the world to study the unique topology, as it proves to be uphill in all directions, with no downhill sections at all.

Halfway up one hill, I stopped off at the cable-car museum, mostly because I wanted to see the cable motors (the 'winding machinery') in operation:

There are four closed-loop cable lines, all powered in the same building, with miles and miles of cable running around a series of pulleys under the road. That's a lot of cable!

The actual museum part is very small, but I'm sure a few Ixies could spend some time there.

The photos showing the damage caused to the system by the 1906 earthquake are dramatic:

The weather had brightened up by the time I got back to Fisherman's Wharf to explore the other piers.

Parts of which were closed off as quite a few of them are crumbling into the sea.

Pier 39 is famous for its sea-lions. Sadly, by the time I got there the sun was almost directly into the camera so I couldn't get any decent shots, but it was quite a sight.

The sea-lions moved into the pier after the 1989 earthquake. No-one really knows why, but the city declared an area of the pier a safe haven for them.

A sunrise shot of the bridge had been Plan A. With blue skies, I was optimistic about the chances of Plan B: a good spot that should have the sunset alongside the bridge. I rented a bicycle to get there. I set up my tripod and waited.

Sadly, the blue skies were replaced by blanket clouds, so I resorted to Plan C: ride over the bridge and up the hill back to the viewing point on the far side for a night shot of the bridge with the city behind it.

With grey skies, the ride over the bridge was not very picturesque but was quite an amazing experience.

There's an average of one suicide every 10 days by jumping from the bridge, so they've installed hotlines to a counselling service as a last-ditch attempt to avert them:

The city has recently approved a safety net scheme. While the stats are stark, I can't help feeling that anyone who really wants to kill themselves will find a way to do it, and I'm not sure that visually defacing such an iconic bridge in this way can really be justified.

The cycle ride up the hill was tough! Fortunately the bike had a range of gears matched to SF's hills. I reached my viewing point and went to set up the tripod, which was on the bike carrier. Except it wasn't.

I'd been up since 4am, and it was now 8pm. I realised that when I went to pack away camera and tripod after the aborted sunset photo, I'd got as far as carefully securing the camera in the bike-bag (a rather elaborate procedure involving double-zips and a carrier-bag used as a safety leash to stop the zips coming undone) and packing up the tripod. I hadn't actually got as far as securing the tripod to the bike carrier.

This called for ingenuity. Fortunately there was construction work on the road, and there were some large plastic cone affairs on the far side of the road. I persuaded one of these to cross the road and, with the aid of a squashed baseball cap, serve as a tripod. This actually worked remarkably well! I asked another tourist to take a photo of the arrangement and email it to me, so hopefully this will get added to the blog in due course ...

I then waited for the light to reach the right shade of dark blue as the lights came up in the city.

Once the right light arrived, I reframed and zoomed in for a tighter shot and was very happy wih the result:

I did try an even tighter shot. The bridge is so instantly recognisable that you can go in almost as tight as you like and have it remain unmistakably SF, but the above was my favourite.

Most of the rental bikes don't have lights, but I'd requested one that did and they had one brought over from another branch. The dynamo lighting was definitely of the 'be seen' variety rather than the 'see' type that would have been more helpful on the steep mountain road back down to the bridge. The headlight was rather akin to a trainee glow-worm, in fact. That part of the ride was 'interesting', especially when the tarmac shoulder of the road turned without warning into rocky dirt, but I didn't actually entirely fall off.

The ride back over the bridge was fantastic.

Navigating back along the coast wasn't entirely straightforward in the dark, and a lost couple of visitors on a rental tandem without lights, opted to follow me on the basis that my vague memory of where the turns were was better than theirs, and my feeble headlight was better than nothing.

The ride back to my hotel was, of course, all uphill. (Ok, ok, there were some downhill bits too, but it was mostly uphill.) I was pretty knackered by the time I got home. My rental bike of course got to share my room for the night.

I slept well.


I had the bicycle for 24 hours, so decided to take a random cycle ride around parts of the city I hadn't yet visited. Memo to self: random rides are not always a good idea in cities which look like this:

But it gave me plenty of appetite for a late lunch. I'd had a great many restaurant recommendations, one of which was recommended by no fewer than four people. The name sounded unlikely - Fisherman's Grotto - but it's apparently been in business since 1936 and was said to be the best seafood restaurant in town, quite some claim in SF!

It deserved its rep. I had crabs legs which arrived with a buttery sauce, mushrooms and rice, and it was absolutely delicious. It was served with the equally-delicious local bread:

Then back on the bike. I didn't take many photos today, partly because I was a bit photo'd-out from yesterday and partly because the handlebar bag wasn't really designed to hold a D3, so getting it in & out was not a casual undertaking!

I returned the bicycle at 6-ish, and walked back to the yacht club for a sunset photo of the bridge. Having made the trip once by Segway and again by bicycle, it was rather further on foot!

It wasn't the most dramatic of sunsets, but at least it wasn't foggy.

I then walked back along the waterfront to Bay Bridge.

There are no pedestrian walkways on the bridge, so I grabbed a cab across to the other side for the view back to the city:

One final shot on the way back home: City Hall.


I originally has a shoot arranged with a model from Model Mayhem, but she cancelled as she was feeling unwell (the perils of MM ...), but as I had a long day lined-up for Tuesday I didn't feel too guilty about a lazy day.

I caught a random bus until it crossed a random tram route, then switched to a tram heading along the waterfront.

Got off at Fisherman's Wharf.

And headed to a cafe to continue my never-ending mission to explain to Americans the concept of tea. If, in 20 years time, your tea arrives with the tea-bag already in the teapot, you can thank me.

Lunch was fish-and-chips. SF restaurants do seem to have gotten the hang of that. Can't argue with the view, either.

While there were plenty of blue skies for the asking, the bridge wasn't buying.

Mindful of the hills, I decided to switch from bicycle to scooter. I'd gotten my bearings reasonably well on the bike, but of course the scooter couldn't use the cycle paths so I had to figure out the navigation again. I did, I think, cheat at one point, riding along one stretch of what I suspect was cycle path.

I'm also not entirely sure whether 50cc scooters are allowed across the bridge, nor am I certain that filtering is legal in California. I think the rental agreement may forbid crossing the water, and I suspect that you're not supposed to take motorised vehicles up the dirt path to the viewing point. But hey, this is just between friends, right?

The weather at the bridge is ever-changing. By the time I'd ridden up the coast and across the bridge, the north tower was in bright sunlight while the south tower was still shrouded in cloud.

I went to a slightly different viewing point, and reckon this would make a very cool night-shot, but not enough to be bothered to head back out there after dark.

I then crossed the bridge back to San Francisco and headed inland to explore parts of the city that were a bit too far to cycle given the hilly terrain.

I had great fun on the scooter, and negotiated a deal to get it back for the following afternoon for the 24-hour rate instead of two half-day rates.


California seemingly takes motoring offences pretty seriously: yesterday I committed three minor moving traffic violations, today I was taken to Alcatraz ...

Known locally as The Rock, Alcatraz is a small island 1.5 miles from the mainland. It served as a Federal maximum-security prison from 1934 to 1963. Infamous inmates included Al Capone, Robert Stroud ('the Birdman of Alcatraz'), George 'Machine Gun' Kelly and Arthur 'Doc' Barker.

Dubbed escape-proof, the truth of the claim remains unknown to this day. It was believed that the icy-cold waters would make a swim to the mainland impossible. Of 36 attempted escapes, all but three prisoners were either recaptured or killed. The prison service claim the remaining three were carried out to sea and drowned, while others claim they made good their escape.

Black-and-white felt appropropriate for the shots on the island.

Alcatraz ceased operating as a prison in 1963 because of crumbling buildings and high operating costs.

The sunny shots of the island were actually taken on the way back, when the sun was out and the skies blue. On arrival, the weather was grey and murky, which matched the atmosphere of the place.

There were four prison blocks, known as A, B, C and D. Each had three levels.

Block D was the punishment block. Former inmates said that the strong winds blew right through the leaky windows, leaving them shivering in the cells.

The ultimate punishment was to be put in 'the hole': cells with solid doors and no light. Prisoners stayed in the hole 24 hours a day without light or exercise periods for the entire length of their punishment (up to 19 days). This photo is taken from inside one of these cells (with the solid door open, obviously, else it would be a rather boring photo!):

Prisoners were entitled to food, shelter and medical attention: everything else (showers, exercise, books, letters, visits, etc) was a privilege that had to be earned by good behaviour.

One item of reading material was, however, provided to all prisoners on arrival:

The regulations were many and specific. For example, on getting up in the morning, sheet and blanket had to be folded and placed on the bed, and the towel hung from the sink.

A few cells were set up to recreate the way they would have looked when in use.

If earned, prisoners got two showers a week.

There's a story that the showers were kept deliberately hot, so that prisoners could not use cold showers to acclimatise for the swim to the shore, but the guides said there was no truth to this: the prison authorities were satisfied that it would take a great deal more than a couple of brief cold showers a week to prepare for the freezing waters of the Bay.

The most valued privilege was time in the exercise yard, familiar to many of us from a number of films set there:

(Getting shots of the yard with no tourists in it took some careful angles and patience!)

From the top of the steps leading down into the yard, prisoners could see both the Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco:

Inmates claim that when the wind was in the right direction, they could hear sounds of conversation and laughter carried across the water, strengthening the one desire shared by almost all of them: escape.

Escape would not be easy. Food was served in a dining hall next to the kitchens.

Knives were hung on the wall in marked places so guards could instantly see if any were unaccounted for before prisoners were allowed out of the hall.

Prisoners were allowed one visitor a month. Conversations were held via intercoms, with bulletproof glass separating prisoner and visitor.

Guards patrolling inside the cell-blocks were permitted no weapons, in case they were taken by prisoners. As soon as they had let themselves in, they had to pass their key back up to a guard in the 'shooting gallery' above (all parts of the prison block were in line of sight of the armed guards on this level).

Finally, a few more miscellaneous shots to give a feel:

Then back to the city.

I'd had fun zipping around on the scooter, so had done a deal to get it for this afternoon too. After cycling down the Lombard Street switch-backs, I felt it should be done by scooter too. I must have been photographed a couple of dozen times on the way down.

(And no, the photo doesn't give any real sense of the steepness!)

As I travel hand-baggage only, I usually take only my small camera-bag (enough space for the D3, two lenses, flashgun, blower and a few smaller bits) as even the most jobsworth of security staff will accept that as a second bag. The scooter's underseat luggage space could have been made for it!

I went back to the Fort, underneath the bridge, where a couple of guys were fishing.

Then generally explored the hills, enjoying the architecture but not taking many photos.

The downtown area does have quite a few skyscrapers, but after recent trips to Tokyo and Shanghai, they couldn't really compete! I did, though, want to get a night shot of the city from up in the hills, so used the scooter to try to identify a location in daylight that I could return to at night. This mission was successful, giving me a pleasing final shot for the trip: