Does this sound familiar? You’re traveling on business. Your workday is done, and the choices are endless … You can do more work all night in your room. You can dine alone with a book. You can sit in the bar and try to chat-up the bar staff. Heaven forbid, you can even order room service and watch the world’s worst TV channels.
Well, finding myself in this very situation during an extended stay in San Francisco recently, I decided to look for other options and maybe even interact with some like-minded individuals. And no, I don’t mean speed dating. Okay, day trips from San Francisco are out of the question since I’m here for work. But many cities have lots of interesting evening options, especially in summer with longer daylight hours.
So my first choice was the Chinatown Ghost Walking Tour, and I was happy to find that you don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy this outing. The guide’s tales weave a personal history of her father, uncle, grandfather, the history of Chinatown mixed into the history of San Francisco, plenty of movie-making gossip, and a few spooky tales for good measure. You’ll see alleyways you never knew existed, find where the secret entrances to the opium dens used to be, where the current mah-jongg gambling rooms are, where the best fortune cookies get made by hand, where the cheapest Chinese meal in town can be found, and where to relax with a lovely cup of green tea. I was entranced by the hour-and-a-half walk with a small group of ten people.
My next visit was a tour to Alcatraz. I selected a night tour to Alcatraz—it sounded more spooky than the ghost tour! Alcatraz is the most visited tourist destination in San Francisco and I hadn’t been there yet. The operation is very slick. They get you on the ferry on time, onto the island on time, up the hill to the jail house while diverting you with a great series of tales to tell, and then you get the audio tour and wander around at your own pace (okay, at the audio tour pace).
There’s some intriguing highlights—the boat trip to and from the island with the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city, stepping into an isolation cell and having the door shut behind you, seeing the glimpses of harbor and “real life” across the water that the inmates would see, seeing the utility shaft the escapees drilled their way into using the handles broken off spoons, and I always love old ruins silhouetted by beautiful harbor and city views.
The downsides were that walking around with the headphones of an audio tour on is quite isolating, and at the same time, the sheer number of people doing the same thing was making me feel much like a sheep being herded—very nicely and effectively, of course!
Also, at this time of the year, even going on the last trip for the day at 6.40 p.m., the sun doesn’t set until after you’ve done your tour, so at best, you’ll get to listen into the talks on escape attempts or Hollywood movies as the sun sets, which is a shame because it could’ve been so much spookier!
Now I’ve got so many ideas I may just have to extend the business trip again. If I can sneak away from work early one day, I would like to try the San Francisco Fire Engine Tour (leaves at 3 p.m.). Who hasn’t wanted to ride on a red fire truck and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and see the Presidio and Sausalito? Or maybe I should risk getting scared again and do the Vampire Walking tour which leaves at 8. And I definitely have to try the Nighttime Segway Tour … now there’s a way to get around without any effort at all.
Now that’s better than being stuck in a hotel room, isn’t it?
By Vicki Potts
Related Story: “Traveling Solo”