x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Charmed by friendly San Francisco

Watching the sun set over the traffic-capped hills of San Francisco isn't a bad start for day one of my round-the-world trip.

Watching the sun set over the traffic-capped hills of San Francisco isn't a bad start for day one of my round-the-world trip. Despite a volcanic ash cloud threatening to throw a spanner in the works of my meticulous travel planning, I had finally made it to the US. Until this moment, I hadn't felt the complete rush of thrill and adventure I had been hoping to feel at the start of my trip. Glancing over the hills of the city, the lights appearing like fireflies, it looked like an open invitation to explore.

Tempting as it was to hop on a bus tour to get my bearings, I'm glad I didn't. Frisco (as I now like to call it) is a fantastically pedestrian-friendly city. All I needed was a determined pair of calf muscles - to tackle the steep gradients - and a good map. The only public transport I used was a taxi from the airport and a cable car journey. Before arriving, I assumed I'd be using the cable car around the city but I found that the limited routes and waiting times made it more of a one-off afternoon novelty than a practical proposition.

Craving an all-American breakfast on my first morning, I wanted to make the right choice. Dottie's was noted by Rough Guides as a firm Friscan favourite and its signature stack of cinnamon and ginger pancakes were highly rated. Driven by my appetite, I set out to find it. The block-grid system (similar to Abu Dhabi island) makes the city easily navigable. A sure sign I had chosen the right spot was a concert-sized queue outside the cafe. A 50-minute wait later, I was seated and served by friendly staff who warned me that I had ordered too much. Caught up in the "American Breakfast Dream", I consumed a heavenly four-course meal - a full breakfast averages US$15 (Dh55) per head including a tip - which kept hunger away until 11pm. The waitress was right. After these huge courses I learnt my lesson and since then have been requesting half-orders - off the menu but half the price - wherever I go.

The highlight of my week in Frisco was an all-day bike rental. I was free to explore the city and surrounding areas at my own pace. I cycled along the piers and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Already marvelling at its height and length, I noticed suicide warnings and help hotlines every few metres, which made the impressive steel structure seem even more powerful. It was slightly unnerving, cycling along a freeway or two, but drivers in this city, it seems, are used to cyclists and almost all roads have a bike lane.

With no meetings to attend or deadlines to meet, I decided to keep exploring. I continued about 30 kilometres into the suburbs, past a high school football practice, the charming 1920s-esque town of Sausalito and along a nearby field full of joggers and dog walkers, until I became positively lost. In the typically helpful manner I'd experienced so far in the US, I was offered directions to a nearby ferry station without even asking for help. Returning on a ferry, I enjoyed great views of Alcatraz, the city and the Bay area. The bike rental cost $36 (Dh132) and the ferry ticket $9.50 (Dh35).

San Francisco was much smaller than I had imagined and the weather cooler and more unpredictable. Also unexpected was the large number of homeless people; in fact, in sharp contrast to Abu Dhabi, the steep streets are teeming with characters of all types - the many colourful types and musicians crossing the street alongside me left me with an impression of a city of charm and energy and I can't wait to return.

Budgeting has been easier than expected. My main expenditure has been food and accommodation. So far I've found it easy to find free WiFi hotspots in California, which helps in the search for accommodation. Whenever I have attempted to negotiate the online room rate for a hostel, inn or motel over the phone, I have succeeded - a welcome surprise. After four nights, It was time to start making my way south. The only way effectively to see what the central coast has to offer is by a combination of car and bus travel. To save money, I had arranged to meet up with some university friends who were also travelling in the US and wanted to join me for some coastal driving. Split between four drivers, car rental is approximately $170 (Dh625) each for two weeks, including satellite navigation and a premium for under-25s. I made polite conversation with the lady at the rental office and managed to get a free upgrade from a small semi-SUV to a giant Jeep Commander. My confidence on the roads was instantly boosted. No one was going to mess with us now!

The friendliness of locals, the ease of getting about and the lack of a language barrier have made San Francisco an unchallenging yet exciting jumping-off point. The first leg of my round-the-world adventure could not have started any better. In next week's instalment of Ismat's round-the-world adventure, follow her journey to Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast's Highway 1.