As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “The sea that laves the piers of San Francisco is the ocean of the East and of the isles of summer.” He observed that “a forest of masts bristles like bulrushes about [the city’s] feet; nothing remains of the days of Drake but the faithful trade wind scattering the smoke, the fogs that will begin to muster about sundown, and the fine bulk of Tamalpais looking down on San Francisco, like Arthur’s Seat on Edinburgh.”
Take a stroll down the historic Hyde Street Pier, one of several jetties jutting from the city’s tourist-tacky but cheerful Fisherman’s Wharf area, and you get a sense of what the wandering Scot meant. Now part of the San Francisco Maritime National Park, the pier is home to various vessels, from shrimp junks to ocean-going tugs and, most splendidly, the Clyde-built Balclutha, a square-rigged sailing vessel which, around the time of Stevenson, plied between Britain and the Pacific coast, bringing coal and exporting Californian grain.
Also moored here is the paddle steamer ferry Eureka (complete with on-board classic car collection) which, before the landmark Golden Gate Bridge opened 76 years ago, took traffic across the Bay to Sausalito, making Hyde Street pier an extension of Highway 101, as still signalled by a road sign. Everywhere there is the slap of water and the creak of restless timbers against bulwarks, as if these tethered craft are impatient of being museum pieces. It’s also a reminder that we’ve arrived, like Stevenson, at the Pacific Ocean.
In 1879, the man who famously wrote that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive sailed from Greenock to New York, in pursuit of Fanny Osborne, the American he would marry, who was then awaiting her divorce. “The air was hot, but it struck a chill from its fœtor,” he wrote of the wretched steerage quarters. “From all around in the dark bunks, the scarcely human noises of the sick joined into a kind of farmyard chorus.”
Stevenson was slightly better off in that he travelled second class, one up from steerage, but by the time he docked at New York, ten days after leaving the Clyde, he was exhausted and had lost a stone from his already flimsy physique. He then embarked on a gruelling 12-day train journey across America, ill for much of the time.
Our journey was rather different, reading his American travelogues, The Amateur Emigrant and The Silverado Squatters, some 3,500ft above the Atlantic, chasing the sun westwards and skipping across time zones.
After touring heatwave-stricken south-western states, we arrived in San Francisco to be greeted by a mercifully cooling sea fog, as familiar as North Sea haar. We stayed in the excellent Argonaut Hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf, right opposite Hyde Street Pier which shares a converted cannery building with the Maritime National Park’s museum.
Step out of the hotel earlyish, stroll past the timber quarters of the venerable Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, and the beach beyond was still quiet, with just a few dogwalkers. It could almost have been back home at Portobello, except for that egret wading in the shallows, that sea lion’s wake further out.
Stevenson eventually moved out to Monterey, then across the Bay to the Napa Valley and the derelict mine buildings of Silverado, where he and Fanny passed their honeymoon and where a Robert Louis Stevenson State Park today preserves his memory, along with a Silverado Museum in neighbouring St Helena. Our limited schedule left us no time to visit there, but RLS still crops up among the steep San Francisco streets (his other “precipitous city”, surely?), not least in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square, where, amid pines and pagoda-roofs, a stone plinth topped by a bronze galleon commemorates him, erected in 1897, three years after his death.
Some streets away, a plaque at 608 Bush Street marks where he stayed some months, writing: “Of all romantic places for a boy to loiter in, that Chinese quarter is the most romantic ... And the interest is heightened with a chill of horror. Below, you hear, the cellars are alive with mystery; opium dens ...”
Today, a rather less threatening but bustling Chinatown remains fascinating, its shops displaying unfamiliar fruits and even less identifiable objects being chopped up on its fishmongers’ slabs. As sea fog drifted in once again, all but obscuring the 850ft Transamerica Pyramid, we enjoyed dinner in the busy Great Eastern restaurant in Jackson Street (President Obama had dropped by some time previously).
Returning, we experienced our first authentic San Francisco cable car ride, hanging grimly on to the side poles as it clanged down gradients made famous by Steve McQueen and his Ford Mustang in Bullit.
The wandering shade of RLS apart, San Francisco is as vibrant and cosmopolitan a city as its reputation suggests, whether you’re enjoying Italian restaurants in North Beach – and the comfortably lived-in Caffe Trieste, venue for everything from jazz to Italian opera, or tacos in The Mission district. We took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) across to Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto” for the more upmarket but extremely friendly Chez Panisse. The restaurant was full but we enjoyed a fine meal in its classy “cafe”, following an apéritif in the adjacent Bar César, a great place for a margarita but which also sports a connoisseur’s array of Islay single malts.
For artistic nourishment, the striking San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with its cropped cylindrical tower, offers, among much else, a major collection of Latin American artists, including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as lesser-known names such as the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta. You’ll find such American notables as O’Keeffe, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein, but also the mischievous creations of Bay Area ceramicist Robert Arneson – “father of the ceramic funk movement”.
And in the Fillmore district of a Sunday morning, you’ll be made welcome, and possibly handed a tambourine, in the extraordinary St John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, where its founder, Archbishop Franzo King, plays a mean sax as they chant the liturgy to the hypnotic pulse of the late John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
Approaching Golden Gate Park by its Haight Ashbury gate, we found ourselves outside Amoeba Music, “the world’s largest independent record store”.
A quick look inside left us overwhelmed by receding perspectives of rack upon rack of CDs and vinyl. Across the street, a bleary Hendrix look-alike with a Flying V guitar, too young to have been a survivor from Haight’s hippy heyday, was already tearing tentative riffs out of the morning air.
We retreated into the park, with its Aids memorial grove where the names of victims of the 1980s epidemic are etched into flagstones shaded by conifers and tree ferns. Nearby, Renzo Piano’s astonishing California Academy of Sciences building, the public face of a major scientific institution, harbours a teeming aquarium, planetarium and four-storey rain forest, all under a 2.5 acre “living roof” planted with native species.
On 28 June, 1888, having returned to the United States, Stevenson, by now a world-renowned author, sailed, along with Fanny, her son Lloyd and Stevenson’s mother Margaret, out of San Francisco harbour on a chartered yacht, the Casco, bound for the South Seas. He would never return to America – or Britain – again.
Personally, I’d happily berth at Hyde Street Pier any time.
Bon Voyage Travel & Tours offers five nights at the Argonaut Hotel in San Francisco, with flights from Glasgow, starting at £1,185 per person; also two nights in San Francisco at the Argonaut plus five nights at the Yosemite View Lodge, Yosemite National Park, plus car hire, starting from £1,495. For further details, see www.bon-voyage.co.uk