A long and harsh winter can take the wind out of you and just make you feel like you want to get away. And what a long winter it has been: Toronto has experienced one of the harshest winters in a long time, with near-record snow accumulation. I knew I had to get away to warmer, sunnier place, even if it was just for a few days. I started to think and looked at the map and – bingo – I had the answer: San Francisco!
The City by the Bay has fascinated people for many decades now, and a brief trip to San Francisco in 2001 had introduced me to the extraordinary beauty of this unique metropolis. But I had just seen the city in passing and decided it was time to explore San Francisco in more detail and get reacquainted with it. So I called the Visitor and Convention Bureau, and with their help I was able to lay out an extremely packed four and a half day program that would bring me up close with many of the unique areas of San Francisco.
My travel partner Leslie and I got a head start on February 20 with a late night drive from Toronto to Buffalo where we spent a few quick hours in a hotel next to the airport and could park our vehicle for our getaway. Among many savvy Canadian travelers, Buffalo has become a bit of a secret travel savings tip since US-based flights from Buffalo are often many hundreds of dollars less expensive than the same destinations from Toronto. According to recent data, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport has the most expensive airport taxes in the world, so a quick jaunt to Buffalo can often save a few precious travel dollars.
So day one of our San Francisco trip, February 21, 2008, started with a wake-up call at 4:50 am. The hotel shuttle dropped us off at the Buffalo Airport and even at 5:30 am, the waiting areas were full of travelers lining up for their security checks. After a quick stopover at Cincinnati Airport, where we had to run to the gate to catch our connection flight, we arrived in San Francisco at about 11 am. Unfortunately the weather was not very welcoming: it was drizzly, grey and cold.
We just arrived in San Francisco: Here’s a look at the Orpheum Theatre
With the help of a variety of public transit vehicles we were going to make it to our hotel. San Francisco, being relatively compact, has a great public transit system, and its easy to get around, without the need to rent a car. We first caught the Airtrain to transfer to the BART Commuter Railway system and enjoyed a relaxing, yet rainy ride downtown. We hopped off at the downtown Civic Centre Station and got greeted by a grizzly grey sky, and with the assistance of a helpful BART employee we found our way to the correct bus station to catch the Number 19 MUNI bus. We travelled through the Tenderloin, historically one of the rougher areas of San Francisco, which is still experiencing significant poverty, homelessness and crime. According to one local legend, this colourful neighbourhood got its name because local policemen were supposedly paid more to work there and could afford tenderloin steak.
Late afternoon view of the Queen Anne Hotel
Finally, after switching to another bus we had reached our home-away-from-home for the next few days: the historic Queen Anne Hotel, located at the intersection of Octavia and Sutter Streets. We checked in and dropped off our luggage in a beautifully decorated large corner bedroom that featured a large bay window with a great westerly view. I found out that the hotel was a equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi Internet access as well as with a computer on the main floor that was freely accessible to all hotel guests.
Victorian splendour at the Queen Anne Hotel
Naturally this historic property caught my interest, and I needed to find out more about the Queen Anne Hotel. I was able to locate Michael Wade, the Director of Sales, who graciously volunteered to give me a tour through this extensive property. The origins of this imposing building go back all the way to 1890 when it opened as “Miss Mary Lake’s School for Girls”, a finishing school for young girls from upper class families. This San Francisco Victorian landmark was built by Senator James G. Fair, who was one of the Comstock Lode Silver “Kings” who became a millionaire virtually overnight with the discovery of the first major U.S. Deposit of silver ore. Two of his daughters also attended Miss Mary Lake’s Finishing School for Girls.
Victorian colour schemes at the Queen Anne Hotel
When we walked into the hotel’s expansive parlour, Michael explained that it actually used to be the gymnasium where the young ladies learned how to ball-room dance and do calisthenics. The original entrance to the school, with its opulent granite steps, impressive main door and stained glass panels, had been located on the second level, and it was not until some later renovations that the entrance was relocated to the main floor.
Piano in the Parlor
Michael started by showing me the Parlor which is outfitted in period furnishings and decorated in deep Victorian colours including burgundy and gold. A roaring fireplace provided a cozy ambience, and various hotel guests were sitting and chatting or reading the newspaper, enjoying a warm and welcoming atmosphere more reminiscent of an upscale and spacious private living room than an anonymous hotel. What impressed me was that different groups of guests were chatting with one another, creating a very communicative ambience. The back of the Parlor features the Library, a cozy sitting nook for guests who wish to relax with a book in front of another a fireplace.
A nice cozy fireplace