Fodor's Travel Talk Forums

Fodor's Travel Talk Forums (
-   United States (
-   -   Yo Ho Ho, A Day at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (

easytraveler May 25th, 2007 09:04 AM

Yo Ho Ho, A Day at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
After a wonderful night meeting fellow Fodorites, I found that I had to be back in San Francisco very early yesterday morning.

It was a beautiful day, so I decided to spend the rest of it in San Francisco. Here's what I did as a "tourista" in my favorite city. The SF Maritime National Historical Park is a great place to visit, especially for those with young kids. It's one of the best Maritime Museums in the world and is the only one in the US that's actually ON the water. The facility is huge. More about this park later.

First, my tourist day started up at Coit Tower, where I parked and then walked down the Greenwich Steps and up the Filbert steps. I would recommend this route to anyone wishing to "do the steps". The Greenwich Steps is much more scenic and offer great views over the Bay, whereas the Filbert Steps is just a straight line of stairs upward, so it's OK to have your back turned towards the Bay going up. Both pairs of steps are good fun. I met a couple and they said it's a great pair of steps to go on, if you have a "good heart".

Then I roamed around the downstairs of Coit Tower and looked again at the floor to ceiling murals, trying to imagine someone two thousand years from now digging up these ruins and seeing how we used to live in the 1930's!

Lunch time and I met up with my companion. We went to Mama's on Washington Square, much touted and a great disappointment. We both had shrimp specials. Mine turned out to be two halves of a soggy English muffin (I hate soggy muffins!) doused in very liquidy guacamole (how can guacamole have so much water in it?), topped with less than 10 small bay shrimp on each slice, then topped with lots of diced tomatoes, then topped with a soggy poached egg and THEN topped with some yellow imitation-French sauce. I ate the shrimp and tomatoes - everything else tasted awful. The side of potatoes tasted gritty (did they wash the potatoes?). HUGE disappointment, given the rave reviews for this place. Zagat's has this place rated "extraordinary". One small glass of "fresh squeezed" orange juice cost $3.75! I'm sorry to report that I've had better breakfasts in no-name diners along any stretch of US Highway. Maybe someone else will have better luck, but, for me, never again. There are all sorts of better restaurants in San Francisco.

After lunch, alone again and faced with a beautiful day, I decided to go down to the Maritime Museum because it's right on the Bay with gorgeous views. Turned out that the main museum building, the one that looks like a ferry, is closed until 2009! Too bad! It has wonderful displays. I then walked along the esplanade along the water by Aquatic Park and went into the Visitor's Center located in the same building as the Argonaut Hotel. It, too, is still under construction, but there are parts that can be visited and has some fascinating displays. I learnt that the sea is rising 8 feet per century! That's because San Francisco has been keeping a long record of tidal activity and can see how the shoreline has been disappearing over the years. The old Farallon lighthouse lens are also on display and is a magnificent glass piece, 10 to 12 feet high. The Visitor's Center also has a library and its collections which you can access.

One of their more fascinating displays was the one on how long it took to get from New York to San Francisco. Took 5 months by going around the tip of South America, around Cape Horn, in a sailing ship. That's because of the winds and the currents, the ships had to sail almost to Africa before they could start southward! Then along came the steamboats and they could go right along the shoreline of South America and through the Straits of Magellan instead of sailing all the way around Cape Horn. Then came the the Panama Canal which cut the travel time from NY to SF even further. Of course the fastest way to get from NY to SF was via the railroad which took only 5 days!

Next I crossed over to the Hyde Street Pier. This is the pier where the historic ships are docked. The museum actually has over 100 historic boats and ships, but only a few can be tied up at the pier. The rest are in storage in Alameda. Even if the main museum is closed when you come, I still would highly recommend a visit to the Hyde Street Pier. It only costs $5 a person and kids under 16 are free.

From afar one can see the full-rigged ship, the Balclutha, as it rises majestically in the water. When I got on board, there was a group of visiting schoolkids. My oh my! They were enthralled. Two of the park rangers were dressed up to look like the Captain and the First Mate and they were ahoying and hallooing at the kids and giving them a lesson in seafaring. The little eyes just got wider and wider and the grins got bigger. I envied kids who live in a city like SF and could go on field trips to grand ships like the Balclutha! Down in the hold were displays of the cargo the Balclutha used to carry - coal, lumber, and salmon. I must have spent over an hour wandering over this ship and could easily have spent more time.

At Hyde Street Pier, there's also the Eureka, a huge side-wheel ferry, the Hercules, a steam-powered tug boat, the Alma, a scow schooner, the kind of schooner that did most of the hauling around the Bay, and a host of smaller craft moored at the pier, including a modified version of a Chinese junk. The C.A. Thayer, a three-masted schooner is under repairs and so couldn't be visited; the Eppleton Hall, a stell tug boat, was also closed off.

There are also other seafaring related displays, such as how to tie certain knots like the bowline.

All in all, one could easily spend an entire afternoon at this park, learn a lot about America's maritime past, and have fun too! Do take your kids there if you're in San Francisco! ((y))

dovima May 25th, 2007 09:17 AM

Ahoy there easytraveler.

I always roll my eyes when I see a recommendation for Mama's. Like House of Nanking, it had its moment but that moment is long gone. Mediocre at best now.

The seafaring history of San Francisco is so very important. It hurts to see our city's prominence as a world-class port go further and further downward. I remember when all the piers on the Embarcadero were full of passenger or cargo ships. Those were the days of the American President Line, the Matson Line, and the Golden Bear ships. From my highrise seat South of Market 5 days a week, I always walk over to the window when I see a ship moving through the bay. "Ah, the tide's coming in (or out)", I think. It's a good thing to have an awareness of the element that surrounds us here - the Bay and the Pacific Ocean are what really made this city, after all.

Thanks for your great review on the Maritime Museum. Is there still an exhibit on the Japanese sailor who crossed the Pacific in a small boat back in the early 60's? I remember seeing that as a child and being totally awed at the thought.

baybee510 May 25th, 2007 09:24 AM

Thanks for the report easytraveler. Next time I start feeling miserable in the car or plane I will think about how people used to travel in the old days....

FainaAgain May 25th, 2007 10:31 AM

Oh, ET, I would have told you the museum is closed for renovation! But you haven't missed the Hyde St pier, this is great!

Believe it or not, my son sailed Balclutha! He was volunteering on the pier, then worked as a park ranger there. As a special thanks for volunteers/employees, there was a short sail just for them.

For anybody else in that area, go to the new Boudin Bread museum, very interesting, with tasting in the end.

easytraveler May 25th, 2007 01:56 PM

ahoy backatcha, dovima! :)

Yes, it's amazing how we guide people to Union Square, to the museums, to good restaurants in San Francisco and we don't guide them to the Maritime Museum. It's probably the most critical piece of SF history. As you've mentioned, this city probably would still be a small town if it weren't for the sea! Everyone in the early days came by sea. The sea made San Francisco and yet the Maritime Museum is pretty much neglected - and, the main part of it that is closed till 2009 is FREE!

I'm afraid I don't remember the Japanese sailor, where is that exhibit?

I know that people get turned off by the ticky-tacky shops at Fisherman's Wharf, but there are so many fascinating places in and around it - like the Mariners and Fishermen's Chapel hidden in the back of the crab shacks and the Maritime Museum!

baybee: Yes, travel in those days was HARD. In the Balclutha there were bunks for 12, but it usually had a crew of 24 and these accommodations were considered "better" than on most other ships! So, one sailor slept while the other was on duty. Being at sea for 5 months without a bath - phew!

Faina: I'd love to have sailed with your son! Those park rangers are so great! And the Balclutha is a grand ship!

Thanks all for the kind words! I just thought that visitors with kids should know about the Maritime Museum along with the Exploratoreum and other great SF attractions.

Grassshopper May 25th, 2007 04:35 PM

What a great post, ET. Have you been to the Bay Model in Sausalito? It's pretty interesting as well. Have a great Memorial Day weekend.

FainaAgain May 25th, 2007 04:40 PM

Oh, yes, Bay Model! ET, put it on your wish list. And it's not far from our favorite Spinnaker ;)

Is it still free? It was some time ago.

All times are GMT -8. The time now is 09:00 AM.