#NInjaVerdict: San Francisco, California, USA | The Holiday Ninja
The NInja Verdict

ninja-wheel #NInjaVerdict: San Francisco, California, USA

This latest NInjaVerdict trip began with the (now customary) early morning departure for Dublin Airport, to check in for the lunchtime flight. After a swift check in process and passing through a fairly deserted US customs and pre-clearance, it was straight to the 51st & Green Lounge to kick back and relax. With large, floor to ceiling windows, it offered great views of the runway (perfect for the plane enthusiasts out there) and with a fabulous breakfast spread on offer, it was the perfect start to the day in preparation for the long flight. The lounge was quiet and free of all the usual hustle/bustle of the standard terminal which was a massive plus point.

Aer Lingus offer a daily DIRECT service to San Francisco, one of 19 direct routes to the USA from Dublin Airport this year – for the best rates check with www.aerlingus.com. Everything was on schedule, boarding our Aer Lingus A330 aircraft on time for the flight to the West Coast of the USA. We had lots of movies and tv shows to choose from and they easily kept us entertained for the duration of the 10.5 hour flight. Combine this with a nice chicken pasta meal and chicken tikka wrap, several offerings of some light snacks and soft drinks, and it meant I was more than happy to stay awake and make the most of the great experience Aer Lingus offers. After a smooth and pleasant flight, we arrived at San Francisco International Airport around 4pm local time.

San Francisco International Airport felt like one of THE most modern airport terminals I have ever been to, and after a hassle free baggage reclaim made our way to our Uber pickup point. Our drive to the hotel was only approx 40 mins which was quite enjoyable as we chatted to the driver about the city and took in some of the early sites and sounds of the area.

Our home for the next 4 nights was the Hyatt Centric Hotel in the district of Fisherman’s Wharf. A modern, central hotel just a 10 minute walk from the Pier 39 / Fishermans Wharf area, it was a perfect location to make it convenient for us to explore the best of what this great city had to offer. With an on site restaurant and bar, valet parking, gym, snack shop, roof top swimming pool and jacuzzi to name but a few amenities, it had everything we could possibly need. With an early start ahead of us the next morning, it was a relatively early night to recharge and get ourselves ready for a fast paced few days ahead. For this trip, we were utilizing the CityPASS which is used in many major cities in the world – offering discounts on attractions and tours. We were able to use this for 4 of our activities over the course of the trip and it would have saved over 46% of the cost of individually purchasing entry to each one.

So after a good night’s sleep and a quick coffee, it was off to, one of, if not THE main pull for tourists to San Francisco – perhaps the most famous prison on earth, Alcatraz Island. As an avid watcher of all the documentaries and movies about Alcatraz I just could not wait to get there and experience what it had to offer – a real bucket list activity. We made our way down to our ferry at Pier 31 at around 9am for a 9.30am departure. There are lots of boats coming to and from the island on a daily basis, with two departures every hour provided by Alcatraz City Cruises. It was very quiet around our time of departure with very little by way of queues and with a little time to kill we were able to look in detail at the large scale model of the island which was on show. It consisted of every little detail of the prison and the island and kept us entertained while we waited to board.

Our journey across the bay to Alcatraz took approx 15 mins. We opted to stay out on deck for the duration of the crossing, a must in my view, to savour the approach to the island and to really appreciate the San Francisco city skyline you leave behind as you depart the bay. It really is very impressive!

Once we hopped off the ferry we were met by a guide who gave basic instructions on what to expect from our visit on the island, as she directed us to make our way up the steep hill to the main prison, passing the various out buildings and officer quarters on the way. Once we reached the main prison we were met by staff who handed us a headset audio guide so we could continue on with the tour at our own pace. The audio guide is narrated by ex prisoners and ex prison officers of Alcatraz. We made our way through all areas of the prison, including the main cell house, recreation area, canteen, shower/induction area, workshops etc and throughout we had various stories and tales narrated to us through our headsets. It was quite an eerie experience, taking in our surroundings while trying to picture what all went on and imagining being stood there with the prison full of some of the most dangerous men in America! It is safe to say this was an experience which did not disappoint. Towards the end of the tour, in the canteen area there was a member of staff who told stories openly about some famous prisoners, incidents and escape attempts.

At the end of the tour there is an impressive museum and gift shop where you can buy souvenirs and memorabilia of your visit to the island. All in all we spent around 3 hours touring the island at our own pace and after savouring all it had to offer, it was time to make our way back across the bay. On the ferry back the one thought that lingered throughout was ‘’I wonder did those 3 guys wo escaped actually make it?!”

Next up for us was a visit to the Exploritorium on Pier 15, one of the world’s premier interactive science museums, to learn a little bit about the wonders of physics, biology, environmental science, human perception and more! With a similar museum in Belfast, I anticipated I may have seen it all before, but boy was I wrong! This huge, spacious museum had more exhibits than I ever imagined. What I found best was the fact so many of the exhibits encourage  participation in some way, which adds to the fun for people of all ages and generally at the end you find yourself with as many questions as answers! The museum was very impressive with over 600 exhibits/demonstrations, enough to keep you there for a full day if you had the time. It is an absolute MUST for families or anybody with that question of ‘’How’’? or ‘’Why’’?. With the weather in San Francisco a bit unpredictable at times, this is the perfect activity for a rainy day, which was the case for us!

Once we had made our way around the museum, the fun continued outside for us with various other exhibits but a particular favourite of ours was ‘’the fog bridge’’. A 150 foot long pedestrian bridge which intermittently shrouds clouds of mist/fog, making it fun for those seeking a cool photo/video opportunity !

Our final activity of the day was the ‘’Aquarium of the Bay’’, located just on the very edge of Pier 39. With over 20,000 marine animals to see, this is a great activity for those curious to see what’s living below in the deepest, darkest corners of the Pacific Ocean! Taking an average of 60 mins to walk through, you will also find a few hands-on exhibits where you can touch the stingrays, something you certainly won’t get to do every day! Along the route through, you will experience the marine tunnel which is an under water tunnel giving you a fantastic viewing experience of the many different fish and sea creatures and if you’re lucky you may even see a shark or two! Towards the end of the walk through, my particular favourite was the otters, with a great setup for being able to observe closely as they playfully swim and frolic and watch them perform, it’s almost as if they are fully aware people are watching!

With our days activities complete, it was time to make our way back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner, via the sea lions of course at Pier 39! These guys are certainly the main attraction, and a must see for anybody visiting. Following the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 they made their way towards the dock and can be seen here frequently, resting up on the pontoons posing for photographs. The volume on show will depend on the season with larger numbers appearing during summer, with sometimes as many as 600+! (*at our time of year we maxed out around 30-40 at one time)

After our dinner (feeling rather bloated from the NInja favourite choice of … The Cheesecake Factory) we made our way to the Cityscape rooftop bar, situated at the Hilton Hotel in Union Square. 46 stories above the streets below and offering locally inspired craft cocktails, top shelf spirits, small plates and all your favourite beers and wines, it is the tallest sky bar in San Francisco and offers 360 degree views of the city – a really cool hotspot to unwind over a drink and take in the views, day or night!

Our second day began with what was probably the most enjoyable part of our trip – and one of the most popular activities on any trip to the area. Our hotel had free bicycle hire on offer, so we jumped on and made our way on a (approx 30-40 mins cycle if not stopping) cycle to The Golden Gate Bridge, via Lombard Street. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a look at the street most famous for its steep, tight hairpin turns, which was approximately 10 mins from our hotel. The area and surrounding streets provide some great photo opportunities from the top, offering views out to San Francisco Bay capturing a fantastic image of Alcatraz in between the trees and buildings either side, as you look down the steep hills – and by steep, I mean VERY steep at times! After 15 mins or so we made our way onwards, along the coast to The Golden Gate Bridge, to view one of the best known wonders of the modern world.

Thankfully, along with our cycle, came the best bit of weather during the entire visit. We managed to stay dry and it remained warm and sunny for most of the morning, enabling to maximise the photo opportunities as we made our way along the coast. Of course there are many ways to make your way there but I would highly recommend cycling, with some nice smooth cycle paths and some beautiful coastal views along the way, most of which will include the huge, red, 1.6km wide structure in the background! Passing marina, incredible houses and a gorgeous bay beach, it was quite a surreal experience and our excitement grew as the structure got bigger, and bigger as we made our approach!

Finally, after lots of photos and a few beads of sweat, we made it to the foot of the bridge. The great thing here is there is pedestrian and cycle access safely alongside vehicle, so we were able to make our way across safely. Whilst a little pushed for time, we still went the full distance across, taking our time and savouring the moment. It was nothing short of spectacular -we had lots more photos to take! Then we made our way back across. We had more activities planned for later in the day or we would have explored a little on the other side of the bridge, but that would be left for another day ….

Our next stop of the day was Oracle Park, home of professional baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. As a keen enthusiast of sports stadia, I was excited at the prospect of touring the ultra modern, 42,000 capacity stadium. Our 90 min tour (the baseball season didn’t start for another month or so) began with a short video introduction in to a brief history of the giants and the stadium, which lasted approximately ten minutes, then we were taken by our tour guide to see what the stadium had to offer. Our guide immediately gave us a very brief talk on the building itself and explained to us, interestingly, how the structure of the stadium has been reinforced to help protect against any potential earthquake damage, which will come as a bit of reassurance to any die hard giants fans!

Soon, we were taken field side. There is something truly spectacular about being field level at a professional sports stadium, looking up in to the gods and just taking it all in, understanding the importance of the sport that takes place to the many, many people who fill each and every seat to come and watch the event, whatever it may be.

Our guide went in to plenty of detail about each aspect of the stadium, what various signage and numbers meant, most notably the number 24, worn by the great Willie Mays, which has since been retired. The stadium offers LOTS of reference to the number 24 in respect of the greatest player in the clubs history. Most notably the address, 24 Willie Mays Plaza, for which the club had to seek special approval and the 24 palm trees that welcome passers by outside the main entrance/exit to the stadium.

Another highly impressive aspect of the stadium is the view from the back of the main stand, behind home base, where you can see directly out in to San Francisco Bay. Needless to say, a few home runs have been hit from said home base and any that make it out of the lower part of the stadium and make a splash in the bay are known as ‘’splash hits’’. On our visit there had been 102 to date, with only the home hitters being recorded.

As we were taken to various viewpoints of the stadium I couldn’t help but appreciate how unique this stadium was. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. Towards the end of the tour we were taken on a walk through of the club museum, showing various pictures and memorabilia of club legends of years gone by. Along the way, our guide continued to tell us stories and give us detailed information on the various items that were on display.

For any sports fan, the Tour of Oracle Park is an absolute must – OR, if you are there between April and September, get yourself to a game and cheer on the Giants!

Following lunch, our next stop was the California Academy of Sciences, situated in San Franciscos’ Golden Gate Park. We hopped in an Uber from just outside Oracle Park and our journey was approx 20 mins. We had a hassle and queue free entry in to the Academy, despite it being extremely busy with it being on the weekend.

Once inside, it was difficult to decide what exactly we wanted to go and see first ! We took a walk through the African Hall, the museums oldest running exhibit, where we had the opportunity to view a multitude of replica African safari animals along with various other exhibits. We spent a fair bit of time watching the live African penguins as they swam and played around and certainly had no problem drawing the crowds in!

Afterwards, we made our way to the aquarium, with over 38,000 live animals to see, spread over four levels of hands on exhibits and also the worlds deepest living indoor coral reef, it’s safe to say we were being spoiled for choice!

Other main attractions of the venue include the Planetarium, where from outer space to earths inner core, you can explore the universe from a 75 foot digital dome. They have showings every 45 minutes but the advice is to book a time slot in advance!

We then took a walk through the Osher Rainforest, which was my particular favourite! We made our way through the canopy of a four story rainforest and had the opportunity to get very up close and personal with lots of exotic butterflies and watch as they feed and flutter throughout the dome. Then if you are game, there is the opportunity to venture into the dark cave to see some hanging bats! Perhaps not everybody’s cup of tea! Once we were finished in the rainforest we made our way to the swamp exhibit where we met the academy’s most famous resident, Claude. Claude is a white (albino) alligator and here you have the opportunity to get very close, with above and below water viewing galleries. A moment not to be missed as im sure you wont have too many opportunities to see an albino alligator first hand! Claude is accompanied by a lots of other reptiles, arachnids and amphibians in the swamp and in surrounding tanks, namely turtles, snakes and salamanders.

Very similar to the Exploritorium, the academy can provide great family and individual entertainment for as little or long as you wish. I could see no problem at all with spending a full day there with plenty to keep the kids entertained.

Next up it was back to Pier 39 to experience some of the modern virtual attractions. First up was the interactive ‘Flyer’, where we were taken on an interactive journey through the skyline of San Francisco and from Alcatraz to Golden Gate Bridge, to Pier 39 and beyond. The giant 50 foot wrap around screen, motion seats, wind effects and more will give you 10 minute experience like no other. With very easy, hassle free admission, we scanned our QR codes and made our way straight to the waiting area. From the Flyer we made our way down the Pier to blast some evil clowns and zombies, whilst aboard a virtual rollercoaster making its way through an interactive carnival – it was the 7D Ride Experience!

Our last full day …. And continually throughout the trip, we kept getting messages telling us ‘’visiting Sausalito is an absolute must’’ so it seemed this time round we had to make sure we made an extra big effort to schedule it in. Feeling like a small fishing village, rather than a city, it is located just 4 miles north of San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge and with a population of just 7,629, we decided this was going to be the ideal place to source a nice breakfast! So off we went, back in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge, this time to drive across rather than cycle (which is also kinda cool to say you’ve done it!) and down into Sausalito. It seemed any day we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge the great weather came too! It was a particularly bright and sunny morning and as we parked up, we took a short walk along the front, as we made our way to a little gem called “Sausalito and Bakery Cafe’’. I have to say, this little place is an absolute must for anybody visiting….. fabulous cappuccinos topped off with a delectable pain au chocolat, all consumed while taking in some breathtaking views across San Francisco Bay. That little half hour spent was another highlight of my trip for sure. After that, off we set, to begin our onward drive along Highway 1, otherwise known as The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).

With its breathtaking coastal sea views, this is an incredible experience that you should do, if at all feasible for anybody spending time in San Francisco. If without constraint, please take the time to hire a car and experience this drive. With multiple stop-offs along the way each time we thought ‘’that would be great for photos’’ time was steadily moving on. Therefore, we decided to reign it in a little with regards the stop offs, as we wanted to give ourselves time to drive all the way to Monterey and back, approximately 2 hours there and 2 hours back. We had two main target stop off points!

The first was Santa Cruz – a quintessential beach town 70 miles south of San Francisco and a surfers heaven. There is a reason why the wet suit was invented here in the 1950’s! We stopped off to grab lunch and take a walk along the boardwalk, taking in all that was going on around us. Despite it being a relatively dull and damp afternoon by the time we arrived, Santa Cruz was still a hive of activity with volleyball action on the beach, plenty of people out dining for lunch and all fuelled by a superb ocean front amusement park which is essential for anybody with small kids. Set right on the beach, the beauty about this is you can walk straight off the beach and into the amusement park, a perfect destination for families. If you are willing to venture a little further along the pier you will likely stumble across a magnitude of (more!) sea lions, housed under the pier. They aren’t hard to find, just listen for the call! It would have been nice to spend a little bit more time in Santa Cruz, but as usual we were a little bit pushed for time, in this case as we desperately wanted to make it to Monterey in good time, before we began our journey back to San Francisco.

Pebble Beach was a further 50 mins or so drive from Santa Cruz. Set in an area known as “17-mile drive”, this is one of the most scenic drives in the world, with some of the nicest houses to match! Home to some of the rich and famous, we were lead along a 17-mile stretch of road through the Del Monte Forest, by red central road markings to guide us on our journey and help locate the 17 points of interest along the way. As darkness was drawing in, we were unable to take full advantage of all 17, which vary by way of elevated sea views, tree top level views, turbulent coastline views, bird/seal watching, sunset views and a stop off at some of the oldest Monterey cypress trees in existence. We were, maybe, most blown away by the homes that we came across and drove past – a quick google search detailed the various celebrities, millionaires, and sports stars that had homes here !

Needless to say, a little visit to Pebble Beach Golf Course had to be on the cards. Just one of a staggering 6 golf courses in 17-mile straight, Pebble Beach has been home to 6 US Open Championships, more than any other course over the last 50 years – and arguably one of the most famous golf course in the world. Met by some very friendly staff, they welcomed us and invited us to feel free to take a walk along the course and see with our own eyes some of the most famous holes in world golf. After a bit of exploring around the later holes of the course and a little bit of chat with some players making their way down the 18th, as darkness descended it was time to have a quick look in the pro shop, grab some souvenirs and make our way back to San Francisco for our final night in our hotel.

On the final morning we had one last set activity before we headed for home. A 60 minute boat cruise with unobstructed views around San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge and up close and personal to Alcatraz Island one last time. Our boat cruise, with Blue and Gold Cruises, departed from Pier 39 and gives an in-depth narrated tour, in a choice of nine different languages, along the San Francisco coastline before making its way out to Golden Gate Bridge and returning around Alcatraz Island and back to port, via the sea lions again of course! The boat offered indoor and outdoor seating, toilets and snacks on board and really was the perfect way for us to sign off on our trip. The boat departed four times daily Mon-Fri during our visit, which may increase depending on the time of year and up to seven times daily at weekends, so there should be ample time slots to suit everyone.

And with that, it was time for the journey home. Once again we had a hassle free experience at San Francisco International airport. With its ultra-modern international terminal, we again avoided the usual hustle bustle of check ins and security as we made it through in no time at all.

San Francisco is a cosmopolitan city that has enough charm to set out on its own away from the rest of the California stops – whilst it is perfectly do-able on a short break, I reckon that it would be best suited for either the start or finish of a California USA multi-centre trip ….. but one thing is for sure, you DO NOT want to miss seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and / or Alcatraz in your lifetime!

You can check out the FULL highlights from this Ninja trip over on the Instagram page – on the homepage under the SAN FRANCISCO highlight tab – CLICK HERE

Why not visit your LOCAL NInja travel agency and ask them to plan your next NInja adventure to San Francisco, California  you can contact them via Holiday NInja CLICK HERE and we can easily make that connection for you!!

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