VEGAS & SAN FRAN – Best for flying in and out

Last month’s issue on an American road trip, while interesting, informative, and very well written, had a distinct lack of arrival and departure cities. How can you start an American road trip without flying in and out of the country, and is it even a road trip if you arrive and leave from the same city? Considering the vague Eastern movement last month’s route followed, I would suggest flying into the ever-evolving, San Francisco.

‘San Fran’ became part of the United States in 1858, and the ensuing gold rush saw explosive growth in the city’s population. Industry and population continued to grow for about 50 years, the prosperity of the city was palpable, the mansions and swanky hotels were abundant, the city’s status was on the rise and nothing could stand in its way. Almost nothing. Mother Nature decided to shake the earth with such ferocious force, that many buildings crumbled to the ground, taking out gas lines, which started raging fires. In the end, over three quarters of the city was destroyed. However, reconstruction was swift and comprehensive. San Fran went on to survive the Great Depression and World War II before a wave of immigration, a solid gay rights movement, and a couple of tech based industry booms have made it the city we know and love today.

Lombard Street

This coastal, cosmopolitan city offers the perfect welcome to California. It’s one of the few cities in the English speaking world (I’ve been to) that has signposts in English and Chinese, due to their large Chinese community. This has its many upsides, one of which is the awesome food in the city’s Chinatown, which is well worth a visit. San Fran is perhaps most famously known for being the LGBT capital of the world, the Castro District being the most prominent. California was also the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use over 20 years ago, and today it is legal to use recreationally.

Musée Mécanique

If you weren’t already convinced, there is an abundance of reasons to visit this bustling city. Traversing the place can be tiring due to its surprisingly steep hills (most famously Lombard Street) but once you reach the water, things become fairly flat. Fisherman’s Wharf offers a wide variety of entertainment, restaurants, and shopping, after which you can stroll down to Pier 39 and watch the sea lions lazing around on the wooden planks. My personal favorite attraction of the area is Musée Mécanique, a Museum exhibiting hundreds of old mechanical arcade games. The museum is free, but bring a pocket full of coins as you’ll want to try all the weird and wonderful contraptions this place has to offer.

 

Fisherman’s Wharf
Pier 39

 

Alcatraz at night

Once you feel sufficiently sated/creeped out, the view outside offers two more famous landmarks. Looking straight out across the bay you’ll find Alcatraz, which, if you have time, you can visit on a day tour for around $40. Once on the island, you’ll have some great views of the bay and the city (take the night tour to see the city lights illuminate the area). There is an optional audio tour, which you can take or leave, but be warned that upon leaving it, you’ll fast become aware of the fact that you are just walking around an empty prison. The main reason people visit the jail is its notoriety, highlighted by the tales told by the prison guards and former inmates in the audio guide. Book in advance.

Alcatraz
Alcatraz cells

Back on the mainland and staring back out at the island from whence you came, in your periphery to the left, you’ll recognise a mass of rusty-orange cables and steel in the shape of a bridge. You’ll most likely drive across Golden Gate Bridge on your way out of San Francisco, but many chose to visit the thing as part of their city stay too, being as iconic as it is. Viewpoints of the bridge are varied and in abundance. My personal favourite is also the most convenient from Fisherman’s Wharf. A scenic walk along the water will land you at Fort Point, where you’ll find waves crashing against the feat of engineering as you stare up at it from underneath. As you stare out pensively at the waves, forming on a break lined with rocks, at the mix of tanker wakes, ocean swell, and strong currents, you’ll be happy to be on land. But wait. What’s that in the distance? Apparently, some nutters brave the treacherous conditions in order to surf the very unique location. For the postcard view, you’ll have to cross the bridge and use those legs of yours to get up to Battery Spencer, where you’ll have a chance to shoot the bridge from an elevated vantage point, with the city of San Francisco as your backdrop. Just lovely. Golden Gate Bridge also holds an unwanted record, as the barriers of the pedestrian lane are relatively low, this has unfortunately and rather harrowingly become the world’s favourite suicide spot.

Golden Gate Bridge

Traversing the city’s hilly streets on foot can lead to breathtaking views. For those with strong legs, cycling around can be a lot of fun, struggling up steep hills before nipping into a hipster cafe or pretending you can afford that faux fur jacket in the latest boutique. If you want to go full American, you can hire a segway and glide around effortlessly. Failing to make a decision on these options, you can always fall back on a pretty comprehensive public transport system. However you choose to get around, you might want to consider one of the ‘Go San Francisco’ cards, which offers a variety of options in the form of a card to get you into multiple attractions around the city.

Castro Street crossing

Back at the turn of last century, there was a district in San Francisco called Little Scandinavia, due its large population of (you guessed it) Scandinavians. During WWII, the United States army unceremoniously kicked thousands of gay servicemen out of the army who were fighting in the Pacific Ocean theatre. These servicemen and others gradually started to move into what was once Little Scandinavia, as its residence had moved to the suburbs in great numbers, leaving cheap housing opportunities. By the early 60s, the first gay bar opened in what was now called The Castro, which with the help of the summer of love in the 60s, would go on to flourish into one of the most prolific, revolutionary, and desirable LGBT communities in the world.

Castro Street

Today, this truly cosmopolitan district sees a high footfall of tourists stopping in at the local shops and cafes, as well as attending the street parties that crop up throughout the year. Those who feel they can’t be themselves within their own community flock to The Castro’s famous all-welcoming neighbourhood.

What’s the point of going on holiday without partaking in a spot of wine tasting? Fear not, the Napa Valley is within day trip distance and there are numerous tours to choose from, after all, who wants to drive to a winery? Stop for pictures of the vineyards arranged in perfectly straight lines as the roll over the valley before nipping into the winery for a tour and a tipple. Three or four wineries later and you’ll be glad you didn’t drive yourself there as you snooze in the back of the minivan back into the city.

With San Fran being the perfect start to your road trip, where would be the perfect finisher? Somewhere you can stick it all on black and have a chance of doing the trip again of course (gamble responsibly). On your way into Las Vegas, you’ll notice things gradually becoming Vegasised. Perhaps you’ll stop for a coffee or some petrol and notice a row of one armed bandits along the back wall, which, strangely, will always have a few dejected gamblers at the helm. Maybe it’s sometimes nice to gamble in a petrol station, give it a shot, let us know.

Las Vegas

After a fair few miles of desert, you’ll notice a sprawling mass of suburbs building of into the ultimate crescendo that is Las Vegas Strip. The Strip is generally the area people make a beeline to for their lodging, entertainment, and feasting needs. And it’s easy to see why. Who needs to travel the world when you can see the Eiffel Tower, a pyramid complete with accompanying Sphinx, and a miniature Venetian canal all within walking distance of each other. The lights, water shows, and rides overwhelm the senses leaving you like a deer frozen in awe/confusion/fear. Interestingly, the city is only just over 100 years old, and some of its initial tourists used to enjoy a spot of atomic-bomb-explosion watching, however, this has since been deemed too dangerous/idiotic. On the way in, you might be looking forward to seeing the famed Welcome to Las Vegas sign, well, it’s not in Vegas. It actually falls under the township of Paradise (like a fair bit of the strip).

Las Vegas

Staying on the main strip is likely to cost you somewhere in the region of $100 – 150 per night, unless you venture further toward the end where you can expect prices to halve. If you’re not bothered about staying in the middle of everything, other hotels a few streets from the area go for around $20. In any case, there are always massive reductions going on all hotel rooms in an attempt to lure you into their casinos. Keep an eye out for deals and try to arrive mid-week to avoid the weekend surcharges.

Personally, I’m not one for clubbing, and the clubs in Vegas are as plentiful and glamorous as they are expensive. If you want to stand in line for a very long time to pay ridiculous entry fees and drinks prices, you might want to try this money saving tip first: before heading out, sit down at a casino machine and bet $0.20 on red or black, a waitress will arrive to take your order for complimentary drinks. Order, tip (to ensure speedy service), drink, gamble, repeat. This system is far cheaper and less painful than ordering from a nightclub bar. Other than drinking and gambling, Vegas is famed for its high quality entertainment, most people are going to want to see a show. The choice can be overwhelming. Sit down, have a coffee and decide which show is most likely to interest you, otherwise you may end up accidentally buying tickets for an ‘adults only’ show. From magic and acrobatics to comedy and music, you’re bound to find something to suit you, and in general, they are well worth going to.

The Midnight Bath act from Zumanity

As many people visit this sinful city in the desert searching for a tipple and flutter, the fact that there’s so much more to do here usually goes unnoticed. A few quirky museums are to be found in the surrounding area, with most people favouring the National Museum of Organised Crime and Law Enforcement, colloquially known as the Mob Museum. Those who know of the glorious Pinball Hall of Fame will make the short five kilometre trip from The Strip to indulge in some vintage pinball machines and arcade games. Hours of fun.

Are you a certified diver but bored of all the wondrous beauty the open ocean has to offer? Fortunately, Shark Reef has bundled lots of sea creatures that can kill you into one place and allows you to go diving with them. Jellyfish, piranha, and 15 different types of shark are all waiting for you in a shipwrecked themed aquarium, for which you’ll be required to wear a, presumably bite proof, chainmail anti-shark suit. Just in case the sharks like the look of a bunch of divers dressed for a 15th century battle, they also feed the bitey little guys a precautionary meal before you head in. Nice and safe.

Dig This

I quite often see construction toys in children’s toy shops, diggers, bulldozers and that kind of thing, and I think to myself, why? It must be fantastic to still have the imagination of a child, to think that you actually work on a construction site, that you are actually driving these things. In this crazy, modern world, imagination is redundant. Dig This allows you to drive around in these monster machines, digging up dirt and completing various tasks such as stacking huge tyres. It’s fairly expensive, starting at $170, but will leave you with a sense of supremacy when you buy your nephew that dump truck from Toys R Us next Christmas.

Thrill ride on top of the Stratosphere

If bulldozing, gambling, and getting eaten by sharks doesn’t give you a thrill, then you might look to a few theme park rides… On top of a 108 storey building. Probably the most famous building for thrill seeking rides, The Stratosphere hosts a couple of brown trouser rides: Insanity dangles you over the edge of the building, then proceeds to spin you round really fast, or perhaps you’d like to try X-Scream, which hangs off the edge of the building pivoting forwards and backwards, making it seem as though you are going to fall. For some people, seeming as though you’re going to fall isn’t enough, you can actually free fall off the top of the Stratosphere. And pay $120 for the privilege.

Slotzilla zip line

There are also regular roller coasters on the ground for people who want a bit of a rush, but not too much. Of course, nothing is normal in Vegas, you’ll have to try the double loop, double corkscrew roller coaster INSIDE the Circus Circus hotel/casino. They’ve also fairly recently added a ride with, wait for it, an extremely steep negative 1.5G drop, 240 degree reverse roll, barrel roll, donut roll, and an inverted drop. Now, I don’t know what any of that actually means, or how to begin manifesting it into a tangible ride, but it sounds pretty crazy. Downtown you can have a go at flying over the heads of bemused tourists as you are propelled down the street from 115ft in the air by a zipline masquerading as a giant slot machine holding a martini glass. Whatever happened to the teacup ride?

After having taken in some of these ridiculous sights and partaken in a few bizarre activities, you may be in need of a lie down, so you’ll be glad to know the most places come with a pool. You can relax on a sun lounger with a book and reflect on just how it came to be that you ended your trip in a place so surreal as Las Vegas, and vow never to come back. Until the next stag/hen do. Or birthday. Or Tuesday.