Cruising Alaska, Day One: Pre-cruise Adventures in San Francisco

San Francisco is impossibly charming. It doesn’t matter how many times I visit, and I visit regularly, I fall more deeply in love with her each time. The Avid Cruiser’s 2014 Alaska Guide lists a number of considerations for the selection of your ideal departure port. Truth be told, once I saw San Francisco on the list of possibilities, my search was over before it even began. San Francisco is not only a short (and typically affordable) 90-minute direct flight from my home base in Salt Lake City but also allows for three full days at sea while we make our way up up up to the last frontier. This was appealing to me as a way to balance four days in a row packed with excursions and adventures on shore.

My friend Heather and I chose to come to San Francisco the day before we board Star Princess for two reasons. First, we wanted time to revisit a few of our favorite spots, which I’ll share with you below. We also flew in early because, in my opinion, there are few things worse than rushed, stressed travel. If and when possible, I prefer to pad my arrival and departures days. This luxury often adds costs to the trip, but for my money, enjoying my trip well-rested, calm, cool and collected … is priceless. It turns out that padding was a particularly wise strategy this time around. Our flight to SFO out of SLC was delayed. Twice.

Delta’s on-time departure rating out of SLC is 96 percent, so the delays were particularly surprising. The fault, it turns out, was weather issues in SFO this morning. While the delay allowed for a leisurely breakfast at a favorite local restaurant in Salt Lake City, by the time we landed and reached the cruise terminal, we would’ve had been cutting it close — had we been boarding Star Princess today. We were glad the most pressing item on our agenda today was where to find lunch after checking into the hotel. Arriving a day early proved to be particularly beneficial for our cruise.

We did not purchase the hotel extension and ship transfer offered by Princess. We chose to book on our own and ended up in a lovely Best Western turned Kimpton property. We questioned our decision when we booked “Best Western – The Tuscan,”  but the price and neighborhood were right. We thought at the very least we’d collect a funny memory in a cheesy theme hotel. Not at all. We didn’t realize it was a beautiful Kimpton property until we checked in and the concierge mentioned the complimentary wine reception and we saw dog treats in the lobby, both Kimpton trademarks. The hotel was perfect for our one night, and it was situated near the cruise terminal.

We were pleasantly surprised to learn Kimpton took over the Best Western and added their iconic flourishes.

Our hotel is one block off The Embarcadero, and our afternoon goal was to ride the California cable car line to Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. The most logical lunch spot between Point A and Point B: The Ferry Building Marketplace via the iconic imported F-Line street cars. The car we stepped onto was originally operated in Mexico City.

A foodie’s paradise, the infamous Ferry Market is hyper local, hyper fresh, and a flagship destination in a city filled with endless foodie destinations. We grabbed a quick bite at Out the Door, an Asian eatery, where I now heartily endorse the pork dumplings.

Sitting at the top of Market Street, the world-famous foodie destination, San Francisco's Ferry Building. 

Quick. Fresh. Healthy. Out the Door is a new favorite in San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace.

After lunch, we were back on the cable cars. I will make a bold claim in advising you to ignore the Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines altogether. The California line is far more residential and filled with local commuters. The other lines go to and from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Visitor Information Center downtown on Market Street, so you can imagine the difference. You will not only stand in long lines on the Powell cars but also be packed in tight with tourists stacked two deep along the outer edges. If that’s your goal and the end point destinations appeal to you, enjoy yourself. If your goal is enjoy steep hills, understand the mechanics of the historic cars, experience the flow of normal life in the city — and meet gregarious operators who routinely chat with their friends in cars driving by (seriously, without fail they always know some dude at every other stop light) — the California line is for you.

The less-touristy California cable care line is the way to go.

We reached our destination, Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal Church that markets itself as “a house of prayer for all people, without exception.” It was once Grace Church, built in the Gold Rush of 1849. It was destroyed in the 1906 fire/earthquake and rebuilt in the French Gothic style between 1928-1964. The giant front doors are modeled on Ghilberti’s doors to the baptistery of the Duomo in Florence, Italy. Having experienced that work first hand, the replica at Grace brought back fond memories.

The cathedral holds no religious significance for me, but is certainly a sacred, meditative space. In fact, the labyrinth is the first place I visit in the city every time I come. There was a two-year period a while ago when I was in the city about twice a month. Without fail, my feet touched down in San Francisco and you would find me on the California line to the Grace labyrinth. Labyrinths are a form of moving meditation found in traditions and cultures all over the world. You walk in with a question, you walk out with an answer. You walk in with a problem, you walk out with a new perspective. It’s a beautiful process if you let yourself fully engage with it. The Grace Cathedral is a hidden gem in an otherwise bustling city. You’d never realize you’re just one block above the always chaotic Chinatown neighborhood.

Built in the French Gothic style, Grace Cathedral is perched atop San Francisco's Nob Hill.

Grace Cathedral is "a house of prayer for all people."

Graced With Light, an installation by Artist in Residence Anne Patterson, involves 20 miles of hand-assembled ribbon.

There is an exterior labyrinth available to the public all day every day. The indoor labyrinth is available for meditation when the cathedral is open. 

We decided to walk to North Beach (the Italian quarter and our dinner destination) because the hills were in our favor. Don’t let the maps of San Francisco fool you. “Just three blocks that way … ” means nothing without knowing the grade of the street. You may be in for an intense urban hiking experience if you don’t clarify.

After enjoying a bit of time Instagramming and the like in the beautiful Washington Square park area, we revisited Caffe DeLucchi. The last time we were in San Francisco together, we stumbled in on accident and dumb luck. Our return was intentional. I had the house-made spinach ravioli with gorgonzola cream sauce and I recommend it without hesitation.

San Francisco has many parks hidden amongst its bustling streets. Washington Square in North Beach is one of the most picturesque.

Caffe DeLucchi is a must when visiting San Francisco's Italian quarter, North Beach. 

Full of pasta and satiated memories, we made our way back to our hotel. Tomorrow we’ll have brunch at the Ferry Building (yes, again) before boarding the Star Princess.

I hope you’re enjoying your virtual vacation. You can follow along on each day of the adventure through my Live Voyage Report landing page. If you're interested in following other Live Voyage Reports, visit The Avid Cruiser website to see where the team is exploring now!

Bon voyage...and love,

This article was originally published on the Avid Cruiser Live Voyage Report website. 

Cruising Alaska, day two: Departing San Francisco on Star Princess

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