Accessing San Francisco

San Francisco has always been one of my favorite cities in the world. Its neighborhoods, restaurants, friendly people, and the lovely bay have drawn me, time and time again. This trip was no exception, and I was amazed to realize that on this particular trip, I would discover things about the city and its accessibility that I hadn't seen before.

It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon when I landed in San Jose Airport. San Jose Airport is only an hour away from San Francisco, and I absolutely love its accessibility. It is small enough to maneuver easily, has companion restrooms, TDDs, and visual paging systems. Best of all, it has a central rental car facility with an accessible shuttle that is quick and reliable. I always hate going to airports where I have to figure out whether a wheelchair will be able to get to the facility. These centralized car rental centers are a dream!

The sun was shining and it was a lovely, warm November day, so rather than head to my hotel room, I ventured over to Golden Gate Park. It is breathtaking!!! Winding paths enveloped by dense forests meandered between large fields to play. Windmills and a botanical garden provided picturesque spots to stop and enjoy the weather. Parking was plentiful, and accessible restrooms were available.

As the sun started to set, I made my way to the Mark Twain Hotel. The hotel is located a couple blocks from Union Square, surrounded by interesting ethnic restaurants. The hotel was quaint and very old. In fact, I had the Billie Holiday suite, which is where she was arrested for possession of opium in 1929. The room even had a plaque next to it to commemorate the occasion. While the hotel was a great value, I would recommend this hotel to the budget traveler who does not use a wheelchair, or uses one that is very small. While they have a few ADA rooms, the elevator door was only 29 inches wide! I thought I was in Europe when I saw it.

The next couple days were spent looking at a variety of hotels in the city. I always hand-pick the properties I visit, ensuring that they have good services and locations in a variety of price points. This trip was no different. I visited Holiday Inns, several hotels on Fisherman's Wharf, and for those who enjoy a bit of luxury, the Grand Hyatt, who had just gone through a room renovation. All of the hotels were compliant, but I found that some more functional than others. Unfortunately, I didn't find one that knocked it out of the ballpark in every single area, meaning stellar accessibility for sight, hearing and mobility impairments across the board. Each one had something to improve upon. Whether it was the use of lifts that required a staff member to assist (I hate those; people just want to get around on their own), or a sink that was lovely but not very functional, or shower chairs that were not very sturdy, I was disappointed that I couldn't find a single property on my list that just had it all figured out.

However, the news isn't all bad. What I did find was property management that was interested in making changes to address the issues I found, and interested in how they could do more for travelers with disabilities. I was glad to see that many of them were up to speed on the new ADA requirements for March 2012, and were already ahead of schedule in preparing for those changes. For example, the Holiday Inn - Fisherman's Wharf was tearing apart their pool to install the required pool lift and will have it in place by January. The W Hotel already had one.

In between hotel visits, I spent quite a bit of time touring the city, looking at curb cuts, the buses, restaurants, and attractions. The city's curb cuts could use some work. Many are a bit steep, and not always level. This is especially true in the very hilly sections of the town. These areas can be avoided by keeping to the areas that skirt the coast, which are very level and flat. Going onto streets like Lombard will only bring anxiety if you are not used to very, very steep hills, whether you are driving or rolling. I had one panic moment sitting at stop lights were I couldn't see the street because I was on such a steep incline. Then I had to hope I didn't roll back too far when I went to gas the car at the green light. I stayed away from that intersection in the future (California and Taylor Sts.)

City buses and some of the streetcar lines along the wharf are very accessible with ramped access. If you would like to tour the city, the Open Top Sightseeing Hop On/Hop Off is the only company in the city that has all accessible buses. Also, no visit to San Francisco is complete without hitting Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39. These areas are wonderfully accessible with level access to shops and restaurants, accessible parking, restrooms, and plenty of space to roam. Pier 39 has a central parking lot with validation if you eat dinner or lunch in one of their many restaurants. You can also listen to the sea lions sing to you if you wander toward the end of the pier. This was my favorite experience. I spent sunset with the sea lions and had a lovely dinner overlooking the bay at the Fog Harbor Fish House Restaurant.

If you are near the pier, consider hopping on a boat and visiting Alcatraz. It's one of my favorites, as well! The boat ramp is a bit steep, but manageable with an assist. You depart from Pier 41, and will see some of the best views of the San Francisco skyline as you head into the bay to this famous prison turned state park/museum. When you disembark from the boat, there is a small shuttle that can take wheelchairs and slow walkers up to the prison cell block at the top of the steep hill. Make sure you get the audio tour, which was done by a former prisoner to get a real glimpse of life as it was on "The Rock". There are accessible restrooms on the island.

My next sunset photography session was spent climbing to the top of Coit Tower. I had heard the view was magnificent, so I drove up the winding and steep road to get to the parking lot. There was only one handicap parking space there. I was excited to see the ramp to the tower and followed it to a dead end entrance, which was very disappointing. After walking to an alternate entrance, I went into a tiny shop to purchase my $7.00 ticket to go to the top. A wheelchair user would not be able to fit in this shop, and, as I found out, there was an additional flight of stairs to traverse at the top of the tower. While the views were nice, I thought the view at the top of the Grand Hyatt was just as spectacular. You see, the top of the Grand Hyatt has a lovely bar and restaurant overlooking the bay at the top of the hotel. You can go up there and enjoy a beverage or meal without the hassle and stare out their floor to ceiling windows. I enjoyed that much more! They also make fabulous martinis!
This region of California is such a magical place, and there are many, many other accessible places to explore in the Bay area. Bonnie Lewkowicz wrote a book for the Northern California Shore Conservancy called "A Wheelchair Rider's Guide: San Francisco and the Nearby Coast". It outlines the countless trails, beach heads and nature centers available to everyone. She covers the area extensively, from the Northern Shores of Marin County, down the coast, south of San Francisco, including the Oakland and Berkeley Shores. She is also the main contributor for Accessible San Francisco, a website dedicated to sharing information about accessibility in the area.  Be sure to check out her website at: accessnca.org.

Another local traveler who is a wealth of accessibility information is Ashley Olson of Wheelchairtraveling.com. She provides insights on fun and adventure in the area and other locations, as provided by a wide variety of contributors to her site. Ashley was the first person to try out local hot-air balloonist, Up and Away's, brand new fully-wheelchair accessible balloon basket that allows a wheelchair user to ride right into the basket, and view the earth below through the glass inserts that are at eye level. Up and Away will be featured in a future article, but if you would like information, you can go to: up-away.com.

Whether it's a romantic getaway, a family vacation, or adventure you seek, there is so much to do and explore in the City by the Bay. Be sure to keep an eye out when we launch the full San Francisco accessibility guide at the end of the year for more details and insights to make your trip complete!  In the meantime, you can see my photographs in the photo gallery.