SAN FRANCISCO - A fine Pacific mist was dampening the tourists’ spirits as they huddled together waiting for the Powell-Hyde cable car to come and rescue them.
Their ride aboard one of the city’s famed cable cars would take them to the top of San Francisco's famous Lombard St., that long and winding road that so many visitors want to walk or drive down.
As we waited, the khaki-coloured doors of the Buena Vista Café across the street beckoned. The plaque near the entrance proclaiming this to be the spot where Irish Coffee was first introduced to America was all the coaxing some members of the group needed.
Bartender Larry Nolan offered a warm welcome to the shivering group as we entered the place where Andy Garcia confronted Meg Ryan over an Irish brew in the movie When A Man Loves a Woman.
Nolan, along with his brother Paul, have been serving up Irish Coffees - an average of 2,000 a day (every day except Christmas) - from behind the Buena Vista's ornate mahogany bar since 1972.
“It’s a true pleasure to stand here and serve these to so many people from so many different places,” said Larry as he topped the potent brew with a large dollop of rich cream.
“This place (the Buena Vista) has a long and treasured history but it started long before the Irish Coffee arrived,” said the likable Nolan about the café that opened in the 1890s across from what now is known as Aquatic Square Park.
The Irish Coffee story began in 1952 when then owner Jack Koeppler challenged well-known travel writer Stanton Delaplane to help duplicate the Irish Coffee they enjoyed while passing through Ireland’s Shannon Airport. After a few tries, the duo came up with the American version of Irish Coffee and the rest is history.
The old café oozes with atmosphere. If only the walls could talk - the tales this place could tell. No wonder movie companies choose it as a backdrop for many films.
Above: The view of San Francisco Bay from the city’s hills is spectacular.
Most of San Francisco's tourist treasures - the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Union Square, the Presidio, St. Francis Hotel, Fisherman's Wharf, Golden Gate Park and those colorful Victorian homes – are well marked on tourist maps. But the Buena Vista is one of those rare gems that you stumble upon while exploring America's most beautiful city.
Unlike most big cities though, San Francisco offers visitors a lot of cheap thrills - starting with the Buena Vista's reasonably-priced Irish Coffee.
After reluctantly leaving the Buena Vista, it's back to the cable car terminal where, for a couple of bucks you experience the ride of a lifetime on one of the historic cable cars.
The Powell-Hyde line slowly snakes its way through some of the city's most beautiful residential areas before reaching an upscale shopping district called Union Square. One of the hills it climbs affords passengers a great view of the Bay and neighboring Alcatraz. If memory serves me, this is the scene used in those old Rice-A-Roni commercials.
For a real treat, we stand at the back of the car with the brakeman, whose name this day happens to be Susan. The car is jammed with tourists but at each intersection more riders are pulled onto the vintage cars (many date back to the turn of the century) by less than courteous but highly entertaining conductors. While a cable car ride tops a tourist's must-do list in San Francisco, 70 per cent of the passengers, Susan tells me, are locals who use the system to get around.
The best, and cheapest, way to see San Francisco is by walking, though. Don't be afraid of those hills. Take cable cars to the top of some famous streets (like Lombard or California) and then walk down. It’s a lot easier than walking up.
The city's compact size (it's only 79 square kilometers in total) invites people to wander on foot. So spend a lot of time strolling through the city’s wonderful Chinatown and poke your head into the bustling shops and mingle with the locals who always greet you with a nod and a smile.
The aroma of sweet sausage teases one's senses while strolling on Columbus Ave., in the city’s trendy North Beach district, where some of the best Italian eateries in America are located. The North Beach Restaurant, favored by Hollywood-types, and the Mona Lisa, a short walk away, don't disappoint.
We dare you to treat your taste buds to a lunch or dinner at The Stinking Rose, also on Columbus Ave., where garlic-spiced entrees are followed by garlic-enhanced desserts and are washed down with garlic wine. Just don’t breath on anyone afterwards! Everything in the Stinking Rose is reasonably priced so you don't have to be stinking rich to eat there.
Next stop on our tour was the city's famed shopping district, called Union Square. Window shopping, thankfully, doesn't cost anything, so as long as one doesn't succumb to the display temptations at Saks or Nieman Marcus or any of the other upscale shops there, you'll escape with your wallet intact.
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a stop at the famed St. Francis Hotel. Everyone wants to meet at the St. Francis but eating there could blow the budget. So, stick to Dewey's, a pub-style restaurant off the hotel’s main lobby. It offers a reasonably-priced menu and we highly recommend the ribs in the basket.
San Francisco tour companies also offer bus excursions that last well over six hours and cost around $50 per person. Here's a tip: Make sure your charter company's price includes the ferry ride over to Alcatraz, the former residence of some of America's most notorious criminals - Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, to name just a few, once resided there. The abandoned prison is now an historic site, guarded by the U.S. Parks Service. Once there, it's a 14-story climb to the main cell block, but the walk is well worth the effort.
The bus tours also take you through the Castro District, the colorful home of the city's gay and lesbian communities; the Haight-Ashbury District, known in the late '60s and early '70s as America's hippie haven; Nob Hill, the spot where the city's rich and famous look down their noses on the rest of the city; the beautiful Japanese Garden in Golden Gate Park; and row after row of those brightly painted doll houses so unique to this city.
Fisherman's Wharf is the catch of the day for most tourists. It offers plenty to do and most activities, like watching harbor seals sleep away their lives off Pier 39 or mingling with the fishmongers, costs nothing - unless, of course, you can't resist the clam chowder served up in a sourdough bread bowl.
If you'd like to give your feet a rest one day, there's plenty to see on the popular wine tours that feature taste-testing treks to some of California's best known wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valley regions. The tours cost about $50 and last a good portion of the day. As an added incentive, most of the stops include free samples, which guarantees you'll be much happier on the return trip.
Many of the hotels in San Francisco, like the quaint European-style Tuscan Inn located not far from Fisherman's Wharf, offer free wine tastings each night for an hour or so before dinner.
Another cheap form of entertainment in the city by the Bay is to rent a bike and cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, painted international orange to give it its golden glow.
But the ultimate cheap thrill in San Francisco is to experience an earthquake - like the one that made the floor move under my bed at 4:16 a.m one morning during my visit.
The small quake measuring 4.1 on the Richter scale jolted the area and made the doors rattle for a few seconds.
It was enough to make me wish I had an Irish Coffee to calm my nerves.
- The Buena Vista Café is located at 2765 Hyde St., near Fisherman's Wharf. Go to www.buenavista.com for more information.
- The Tuscan Inn is located 425 Northpoint St. Go to www.tuscaninn.com for more information.
- For information on San Francisco, contact the San Francisco Convention and Visitors' Bureau at onlysf.sfvisitor.org/