The eight-mile ride from Oakland to San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge is your introduction to a breathtaking city that defies all classifications. Like its inhabitants, it's full of surprises
The most celebrated city in the USA - in songs at least - is San Francisco. It is a visual experience par excellence. Imagine travelling the eight miles of Golden Gate Bridge spanning San Francisco Bay as you journey from Oakland to the city itself after Interstate Highway 80 comes to journey's end 2,905 miles from New York City.
The nightime city rears up on the steep hills in front of you. Behind the buildings, shot through with lights, is a wealth of grey-white clouds caught in the beams of an early rising moon. The city is breathtaking. And does not disappoint on entering either.
Pastel-shaded houses climb the hills in terraces, the hills are so steep that road signs urge car parkers to engage gear and handbrake and turn the front wheels into the kerb. To be driving down these hills is definitely an experience, similar to plunging down a ski run with some initial trepidation to be followed by the thrill of descent. All of this was shown to brilliant purpose in the classic car-chase sequence in the Steve McQueen film, Bullitt.
Some of the first people to reach California were the Chinese. For on the other side of the great ocean, Asia begins, and it looms large in the settled Californian's mentality. Behind mountains, ahead sea, the Californians see themselves as an island between East and West, and a possible bridge. They are very much part of the Pacific region which the 21st century will push forward.
At the same time as the Californians have reached out into the Pacific, the Chinese have come in from the great Pacific Basin. In the mid 1800s the rich were sending their laundry on the astonishingly fast clipper ships to China. The laundrymen rightly saw the opportunity to return with the washing for these prosperous customers. The result is Chinatown, the largest Chinese settlement outside of Asia.
The notorious Golden Dragon massacre
Sandwiched in among the sex shows offering wall-to-wall sex and male strippers, there are some fine eating houses. The Imperial Palace Restaurant (816 Washington Street, 415-398 3920) is in the heart of Chinatown and under its previous incarnation as The Golden Dragon, was notorious for a massacre that took place in 1977. Five people, including two tourists, were killed and 11 injured when a triad gang tried to assassinate a rival gang member - without success.
Nowadays you can live a little dangerously and dine out on the story afterwards simply by visiting the scene of the crime. Especially as you can dine off delicious Dim Sum Hong Kong style at $2 an item and have a complete sea food meal for $25 while you soak in the atmosphere.
Another area of town packed with eating houses is Fisherman's Wharf. At the foot of the hills that make up the centre of the town, the wharf is best reached by cable car, a San Francisco experience in itself.
Should you want to stay as well as eat here, I would recommend the Hilton San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf - a super luxury experience which surprisingly you can obtain for around $110 a night. The boutique-style hotel lets you soak in the atmosphere of the bay by being just two blocks from the wharf., and close by the cable cars.
Alternatively, you can stay for around $100 a night at the Hilton San Francisco Union Square which puts you right at the heart of the city, with access to the theatres, cable cars and business district. Californian standards of service and presentation are in a class of their own yet cost less than in other towns thanks to all the competition for the tourist dollar.
Fisherman's Wharf is thronged with a restless tide of tourists, all in good humour and perpetually distracted by the sights and sounds of street buskers and shops offering such intriguing wares as 19th century style photographs with girls in saloon bar dresses who drape themselves around you. It does give a glimpse of the true San Francisco, a hell-raising town in its day if ever there was one.
There are any number of fine restaurants offering views across the bay to the former penitentiary of Alcatraz. In spite of the film, Escape from Alcatraz, there is no confirmed successful escape from this bleak rock sitting in the powerful currents of the bay.
City Lights Bookshop
But enough of the sober side of life, above all San Francisco is a place of experimentation and celebration. There is a party at City Lights bookshop. A centre for independent publishing since the 1950s. It is a rather battered bookshop and publishing operation up the hill from the Bank of America's futuristic pyramid skyscraper in Columbus Avenue. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti plays host to the assorted publishers and literary groupies who have spilled out onto the sidewalk as they drink an innocuous-tasting but highly effective cocktail containing champagne and brandy.
I get into conversation with Ferlinghetti and tell him I saw him in Australia.
'Oh yes, I was with Allen (Ginsberg).'
Ferlinghetti describes himself as a libertarian with anarchist leanings. Now at 90 he is a pillar of the new establishment as President Obama, who spent two formative years in California on first arriving from Hawaii, weaves his magic.
Ferlinghetti's press, New Directions, was an early precursor of a latter day explosion of new writing. What the beats like him and Kerouac pulled down left room for new philosophies to grow.
A visit to his bookstore is certain to produce some fascinating glimpses into what the most creative Americans are now thinking, and dreaming, as the future is reinvented yet again in the Golden State.
Gift Center Pavilion
There is a ball being held for publishers at the four storeys high Gift Center Pavilion (888 Brannan Street, 415 436 6040) which has a glass dome that can be opened up to reveal the stars. It is well worth checking out to see what dance or concert is being held.
I invite my old boss Jim Mercer along to the ball, explaining it may be a rather stuffy affair.
'No,' he says, 'San Francisco people are never boring.'
He is right. It is a thronged, crowded, bustling concert and dance. A tide of arms rise back and forth in perfect unison as a white tamla motown group give it their all. It is some party. But then, so is the whole of San Francisco, you are sure to have a good time as long as you leave your inhibitions behind.
And if you need a beautiful delightful place to unwind after all the partying, there are the wide acres of Golden Gate Park offering you stunning views across the Bay to the always impressive Golden Gate Bridge.