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America's golden oldie: Hipsters have replaced hippies on San Francisco’s Pier 39 but you’ll still feel the love

  • San Francisco's Pier 39 is still one of the most popular attractions in the US city
  • But its waterfront is set to undergo a massive transformation in the next year 
  • A 14 acre park called Tunnel Tops will be created by team behind NY's High Line 

On San Francisco’s famous Pier 39, sauce-stained children slurp huge bowls of clam chowder. In the background, Alcatraz’s foreboding, mist-shrouded silhouette rises from the ocean.

The nearby gift shop is doing a roaring trade, churning out striped underpants and replica prison-issue toiletries bearing the tag line, ‘don’t drop the soap’, all to a soundtrack of the pier’s famous blubbery, barking sea lions.

But the waterfront — with its many fresh crab restaurants — will soon look very different. The green-fingered team behind New York’s urban High Line has now turned its attention to the Presidio — a beautiful, sprawling park overlooking the bay.

A classic: San Francisco¿s trams with Alcatraz in the distance. However, the waterfront will soon look very different 

A classic: San Francisco’s trams with Alcatraz in the distance. However, the waterfront will soon look very different 

The tunnels burrowing through it will soon form the base of a spectacular, 14-acre park known as Tunnel Tops. When it opens in 2019, there will be beautiful views of the bay and meadows filled with fragrant wildflowers.

During 1967’s Summer of Love, pier workers fought their way through crowds of garland-waving hippies who gathered here to shout about the Vietnam War.

Now, more than 50 years on, hipsters have replaced hippies in Haight-Ashbury. A handful of psychedelic shops filled with tie-dye are squeezed between boutiques and organic cafes.

The closest encounter I have with a possible hippy is when I crouch down to take a picture of an enormous rainbow-themed piece of street art and accidentally disturb a dreadlocked local dozing in a doorway.

At Pork Store Cafe, a 40-year-old Haight Street institution famous for its huge breakfasts, I meet Amanda, a local, who tells me how the area’s beautiful, Victorian, pastel-hued houses are being snapped up (and lovingly refurbished) by dotcom billionaires. She complains that prices have rocketed.

As I cycle towards the city centre, a smiling skateboarder shouts his encouragement and speeds past me — uphill. I realise his skateboard is battery-powered. I recall my chat with Amanda and wonder if it’s Mark Zuckerberg or someone similar.

On the recommendation of a friend, I stop by Hotel Zetta in downtown San Francisco. Since last spring, it’s been home to the world’s first hotel-based virtual reality room. It’s free to try — those in need of a moment of escapism (without the mind-altering drugs) can simply walk off the street into the padded room and slip on the headset.

A pinch: The crabs that are available to buy from vendors in Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco 

A pinch: The crabs that are available to buy from vendors in Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco 

I do so and find myself standing atop a shipwreck, one of several colourful worlds to be explored. Neon fish swarm around me and when I turn around, I’m face-to-face with a huge, blinking whale. The next moment, I’m in a mountainous valley (apparently it’s modelled on the landscape of Washington state).

Despite being just metres away from the rumbling trams, I can wander to a cliff edge and peer into a valley so deep that my stomach flips.

On my final night, I check out China Live, one of the city’s newest restaurants. The walls are lined with hand-painted tiles showing local landmarks, such as the Transamerica Pyramid.

I sit at one of the communal tables and try jellyfish for the first time (it’s salty, rubbery and delicious) with a potent, dragon fruit tea-infused cocktail.

Chinatown borders North Beach, a bay-side neighbourhood with a huge Italian community. I cycle home past Italian flags painted on lampposts and delis blaring opera music.

In a park, Chinese women perform perfectly choreographed tai chi routines near students making the most of California’s decision to legalise marijuana.

Suddenly, that Summer of Love doesn’t seem quite so far away. 

TRAVEL FACTS 

Thomas Cook (thomascookairlines.com, 01733 224808) flies from Manchester from £400 return. Doubles at the Kimpton Buchanan Hotel (thebuchananhotel.com) start at £225 and at the San Remo Hotel in North Beach (sanremohotel.com) from £86. Go to: sftravel.com 

 

 

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR celebrityrave

Journalist, writer and broadcaster, based in London and Paris, her latest book is Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English. Read more articles from Agnes.

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