West Coast ‘sister city’

By The Vancouver Sun - May 8th, 2012


Okay, first thing I learned here is never, I mean never, refer to it as ‘Frisco.’

City by the Bay, no problem. The Paris of the West, sure. Even Baghdad by the Bay passes muster. But not Frisco, as I discovered on a number of occasions when uttering the F-word to the locals during a recent weekend getaway to San Fran. Who knew?

Second thing I discovered, much to my relief, is that despite not a theme park to be seen, a well-earned reputation for all things romantic, and a counter-culture history not exactly suited for young minds, San Francisco is a great place for kids.

This was my first time visiting the cosmopolitan city with children in tow, and before landing at San Francisco airport on Friday morning — less than two hours flight time from YVR — I was a bit concerned that my nine- and 11-year old, though well-travelled, might not appreciate our three-day visit to this Vancouver-esque city.

As it turned out, the entire weekend was spent doing kid-friendly activities, and a dizzying 60 hours later while thumbing through a well-worn tourist guide awaiting our flight back to YVR on Sunday, I realized we could have spent another few before exhausting the preteen “things to do list.”

They’re not official sister cities, but Vancouver and San Francisco have much in common.

There’s that over-arching West Coast vibe, from the tolerant and friendly populace to the wide variety and high quality of the food.

There’s the climate (insert rain joke here) and the geography.

And then there’s the ease of getting around, as we discovered after spending just 30 minutes in a cab from San Francisco International to our hotel in the central downtown district of Nob Hill. We’d caught an early flight out of Vancouver — following a similar half-hour cab ride from our North Van home to the airport — so after a quick check-in, we were clanging down Hyde Street hanging off a cable car en route to Fisherman’s Wharf with mid-morning commuters. From there it was a 10-minute walk to the Ferry terminal building and our first family friendly destination — Alcatraz.The infamous penal colony is of course one of the city’s two iconic historical sites; the Golden Gate Bridge, which celebrates its 75th anniversary on May 27, being the other.

Still, I worried that the advertised two- to three-hour self-guided tour of ‘The Rock’ was going to strain the very essence of the kids’ ever-diminishing attention spans, though I also suspected the fact they’d be wearing GPS devices and headphones during the tour would feed their ever-expanding appetite for ‘technology.’

Turns out any misgivings were misplaced as they each spent a couple of wide-eyed hours hearing the stories, touring the cellblock and treading in the footsteps of the thousands of prisoners and guards who called the desolate island home between the 1930s and 1960s.

The parent in me also hoped there was a bit of a ‘scared straight’ aspect about the tour, and as we headed back to the mainland they were both uncharacteristically quiet as we discussed what it would be like to stuck on ‘The Rock’ serving time. (For info visit and for tickets

Back on the mainland it was time for a late lunch and we didn’t have to go far as the Fisherman’s Wharf area is teeming with eateries, from casual to formal, from cheap to expensive.

We then spent a few more hours in and around Fisherman’s Wharf, checking out the numerous T-shirt shops and other tourist-trappy attractions, including a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the heart of the district.

Feeling the effects of a long day that started early in Vancouver, we headed back to our hotel for dinner and dessert in the hotel’s comfortable lounge, resting up for the only full day we’d have on our three-day trip.

The next morning it was back on the cable car for the 10-minute ride to Fisherman’s Wharf and a visit to a tour that offers one of the most unique ways to get to know a city.With the motto “The cure for the common tour,” this tour screams out for a Vancouver franchise.

GoCar Tours are a clever blend of small, easy-to-operate vehicles with high-tech GPS technology that provide a memorable way to learn about the history of a city and have some fun while doing it.

The three-wheeled cars come equipped with a GPS system that guides you through city streets on a predetermined tour — there are a number to choose from — and an audible voice coming out of the car’s speakers tells you all about the roadside attractions along the way. You rent the cars by the hour and can stop the programmed tour at any point, park the car, have lunch or check out something that catches your eye.

One hitch was road construction that took us off our programmed tour, and it did take 15 minutes or so to get back on the route.

Our tour took us through historic Chinatown and other interesting districts, and provided no shortage of trivia and historic facts that even the most seasoned San Francisco visitor would be hard-pressed to know. (Check out

After lunch at yet another seafood restaurant — can one ever tire of them in this city? — we were off to a destination that had been a major talking point, to the point of exhaustion at times, when we first started planning our three-days in San Francisco. House of Air

Located in a former airplane hanger in The Presidio, which from 1776 to 1994 served as a military centre, the House of Air, also called Trampoline City, features four main attractions.

The Matrix is the main one, and consists of 42 conjoined trampolines, creating a “trampoline floor” larger than an NBA basketball court surrounded by trampoline walls on three sides. The Colosseum is a similar design utilizing 22 tramps and is used primarily for, to quote my son, “epic dodge ball games.” For the little, little ones there is an Junior Bounce House, while the Training Ground is a by-appointment-only apparatus featuring safety harnesses and three competition-grade trampolines.

Up until this point I’d have said Alcatraz was the big hit of the weekend, but after 90-minutes of bouncing, dodge-balling and more bouncing, the House of Air took top honours. Best of all for non-bouncers, there’s free Wi-Fi and plenty of couches and armchairs.

Take note that this is one popular attraction in the Bay area, and on weekends if you don’t have a reservation, to paraphrase the Soup Nazi, “No Bounce for you!” Visit

An added bonus of all that bouncy is the amount of energy it takes, and we gathered up our exhausted kids and headed back to the hotel for a dinner and a movie, and to make a plan for our final day in San Francisco.

With a late-afternoon flight back to Vancouver, we had the better part of Sunday to do some exploring, and we did our best by checking out Haight Ashbury, Golden Gate Park and Alamo Square, famous for its row of multi-coloured Victorian homes.

By the time we left the Haight for the airport, my daughter had grown accustomed to the parade of hippy chicks and groovy guys making their way along the avenue, with only the most outlandish of costumes forcing her to stop and stare.

And so it was with one final look over our own shoulders as our car pulled out to the departure terminal at SFO that we bade farewell to San Francisco, having learned that the City by the Bay is as much for children as it is for adults.

Just don’t call it Frisco.

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