It’s all happening at the wharf

  • By Beth Harpaz / Associated Press
  • Saturday, June 17, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

I promised them chocolate, sea lions, Ms. Pac-Man and a prison cell.

Fortunately, my family and I were in San Francisco, so delivering on this unusual itinerary was as easy as taking a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf.

There we visited the pier where a colony of sea lions lives, played vintage video games at Musee Mecanique and ate chocolate and ice cream at nearby Ghirardelli Square. Then we took a ferry to Alcatraz for an evening tour, catching a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in daylight on the way there and glittering in the dark on the way back.

We started at Powell and Market streets, the turnaround point for cable cars. When the cars reach the end of the line here, you can watch as workers manually rotate them to head back in the other direction.

When it was our turn to board, we chose to squeeze into the crowded rear platform, where you have to stand for the entire bouncy, noisy ride. If that doesn’t sound like fun, head for a seat inside. But the back is also partly open to the breeze and offers great views up and down the city’s hills. The tickets, decorated with colorful local scenes, make nice scrapbook souvenirs.

The cable car drops you off just steps from the piers at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a busy, crazy place that most locals avoid, but if you’re from out of town, you’ve got to go. The bustling streets are lined with seafood restaurants, sidewalk vendors and souvenir shops, along with break-dancers, human statues and other street performers.

At Pier 45 stands Musee Mecanique, a repository for vintage arcade games. Admission is free, and you can play most games for a quarter. Here you’ll find a “stereoscope,” a machine that displays a set of three-dimensional pictures taken after the 1906 earthquake and fire; dioramas with figures that move or dance; and Laffing Sal, a cackling fun-house character from the 1930s.

Your hair will frizz and your fillings will sing if you dare hold on to the vibrating levers of the Addams Family Electric Shock Machine. I had my fortune told by a creaky mechanical gypsy, and my kids turned out to be much better than I ever was at Ms. Pac-Man, despite my years of practice.

We indulged in ice-cream sundaes a few blocks away at the flagship store for the famed Ghirardelli chocolatier, where we also picked up free samples of chocolate, then headed for the sea lions at Pier 39. We’ve seen sea lions at zoos and aquariums, of course, but somehow they’re much more entertaining here. There are dozens of them, and sometimes hundreds, on the floating platforms just offshore. They nuzzle, jostle, play and shove each other into the water like kids at summer camp.

We ended our day at Fisherman’s Wharf by hopping on a ferry for Alcatraz shortly before sunset. Reserve tickets for the evening tour if you can. The island seems spookier in the dark, and the city lights sparkle at night on the return trip.

You wouldn’t think an abandoned building filled with identical corridors of empty metal cages could be all that interesting, but Alcatraz was the highlight of our sightseeing.

The taped audio tour is one of the most entertaining tours you’ll ever experience, alternately narrated by former prisoners and guards who tell stories as they direct you around the jail. Even kids who have to be bribed to go to museums, and who claim to have no interest in history (I’m referring to my own children, of course), will find it fascinating.

Today the island, just over a mile offshore, is a national park, but Alcatraz, also known as “the Rock,” was a maximum-security prison from 1934 to 1963. “If the wind was blowing from that direction to the Rock, you could hear people laughing … all the sounds of the free world,” one inmate recalled wistfully.

You’ll hear about Al “Scarface” Capone and the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud (who actually conducted his bird research during an earlier incarceration in Leavenworth, Kan.), as you go through the halls.

And you’ll find out about the famous “hole,” a small, lightless cage where inmates were punished with solitary confinement. One prisoner relates on the tape that he’d rip a button off his coveralls and throw it into the darkness, then look for it over and over – just to have something to do.

If you’re sure you’re not afraid of the dark, there’s another San Francisco attraction you’ll want to take the kids to – the Tactile Dome at the Exploratorium, a science museum. You literally crawl through a maze here, on your knees, in total darkness. Along the way, you’ll encounter dead-ends and more than a few strange objects and textures. I get lost in broad daylight, so I let my children lead me through the tunnels. (My youngest, age 7, just met the minimum age requirement for admission.)

Finally, we also spent an afternoon at Golden Gate Park, where the playground’s whimsical slides and rides were a big hit – so different from the carbon-copy, boxy McPlaygrounds found around the country these days. There was even a seesaw – a once-standard piece of equipment that’s hard to find in parks these days.

The park’s carousel has an ostrich, a cat, a dog, a zebra, a pig, a lion and a rooster, and there are real buffaloes in the bison paddock. Stroll through the Japanese Garden, admire the pagodas, picturesque bridge and walkways, and enjoy a cup of tea served by a waitress in a colorful kimono.

When your trip is over, keep your San Francisco memories going by renting old movies such as “Vertigo” or the “The Maltese Falcon.” For our family, however, the film noir genre was less compelling than the prison genre. We relived the highlight of our trip by watching “The Rock,” “Escape from Alcatraz,” and of course, “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

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