By CARY ORDWAY
If walking or driving the streets of San Francisco is not quite enough adventure for you, try joining the growing number of people who are seeing Bay area sights while balancing on board a Segway, that two-wheeled electric vehicle that was once hailed as the future of all personal travel. Not only will you see tourist landmarks, but you'll learn a new skill and face just enough of a challenge to keep you, well — on your toes.
The Segway — formerly called the IT when it was first unveiled in 2001 by inventor Dean Kamen — was the object of considerable media speculation as people no less prescient than Apple's Steve Jobs suggested the new invention would be as fundamentally life-changing as the PC. When it was finally unveiled, the contraption actually seemed a bit odd looking — it resembles in some ways an old two-wheel push lawnmower, except this device allows you to step right onto it. What makes it work are five virtual gyroscopes that sense what way you are leaning and then "tell" the wheels to turn in the direction and speed you want to go.
The City Segway Tours offers two-hour tours to various tourist sights leaving from their Fisherman's Wharf location. We'd seen the single-file lines of Segway riders not only in San Francisco but in other California cities and decided we just had to give this kind of sight-seeing a whirl.
Understand you don't just show up, hop on a Segway and head out for the nearest attractions. Before you fly solo, there is 30 to 45 minutes of instruction, including a brief check-out to make sure you really do know how to go forward, turn and, most importantly, stop. The good news is your training time is not deducted from your tour time.
We'd heard some people compare riding a Segway with riding a bike, and this comparison does make some sense. It's not that it's difficult to ride a Segway; it's just that it's a different feeling that takes a little getting used to. Riders are taught how to power up the Segway, how to read the display lights to make sure the vehicle is in balance, and then how to step on board, one foot at a time. From that starting point, we learned how to lean forward slightly to go forward and lean back to bring the Segway to a stop. Then it was lean left or right on the handlebars to turn — which, by the way, the Segway does on a dime.
Most people in our class of 20 were picking all of this up quickly, and soon there we were, with our helmets and very unfashionable yellow safety vests, following our instructor in a single-file line out onto the street like so many baby ducks following their mother. Soon we were off the road in Aquatic Park where we stopped on an open, wide concrete pathway to practice our maneuvering. After a few minutes of that, it was time for graduation -- "Momma Duck" (aka Carla Plante) told us we now could change our speed governors from five miles per hour to 10, which was not too far from the Segway's top speed of 12.5 miles per hour.
The difference in speed was almost breathtaking. Okay, 10 miles per hour doesn't sound very fast, and of course it isn't — but there was something about being on that Segway that made it seem like it was just as fast as we wanted to go. At the higher speed we could lean our whole bodies into our turns and actually feel some gravitational force as we spun our Segways around in different directions. A few riders seemed almost giddy as they finally gained a comfortable balance on these unusual machines. It was starting to become fun.
Soon, our group of about eight riders was traveling single-file not only along paths and walkways, but on major roadways with real cars and trucks. Carla carefully led the way through all kinds of traffic, up and down hills and to several famous San Francisco waterfront locations. From Aquatic Park we rode to Marina Green, then over to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Exploratorium. Our route back took us through the Marina District. There were several opportunities to stop for picture-taking — since taking photos from your Segway is strictly prohibited — as well as a longer rest stop at the Exploratorium.
The sights and views in this part of San Francisco are great, but if you're like us, you'll be focusing as much on mastering the Segway as viewing the scenery. But it's an experience we won't soon forget, and will no doubt want to repeat.
More San Francisco fun
The Segway tours begin and end in the Fisherman's Wharf area so, naturally, we spent a few hours down on the Wharf before and after our tour. First it was a tour of the Aquarium of the Bay, just down the waterfront at Pier 39, which should be a must-visit for anyone with children visiting Fisherman's Wharf. The aquarium features 20,000 marine animals, focusing on species that are all found in the San Francisco Bay. These include sevengill sharks, bat rays, various bottom fish, sea stars and many more colorful and unique fish. Especially fun is the walk-through tunnel at the aquarium that lets you walk right through a huge tank filled with many species of marine life. Huge sharks and sting rays glide right past you and you can watch aquarium divers feed the fish.
Closer to lunch time we browsed the many fresh fish vendors and sidewalk restaurants at Fisherman's Wharf offering just about any kind of seafood you want. Visitors often get a fresh bowl of chowder or crab sandwich and eat it on the run, avoiding the higher cost of sitting down at one of the Wharf seafood restaurants. We chose a sit-down restaurant right on the Wharf, Sabella and LaTorre, where we feasted on clam chowder in a fresh-baked bread bowl. The prices were reasonable considering the location.
Part of the fun down at the Wharf is watching the boats — the ferries, the tour boats, the fishing trawlers and of course the wildlife that comes right up to the wharf in the form of seals, sea lions, pelicans and other birds of the sea. For us, it's the atmosphere down at the Wharf that keeps us coming back. The sights, sounds and smells of a busy waterfront are always worth spending a couple of lazy hours.
From Fisherman's Wharf we drove about a mile and half downtown to our hotel, the Palace Hotel, where we checked in and did a little bit of late-afternoon shopping at the many fine shops located in the area. If you're looking for a luxurious, yet historical place to stay, the Palace is a great choice. Originally built in 1875 to celebrate the West Coast boom, the Palace is one of the city's landmarks and located near such well-known San Francisco attractions as Union Square and Chinatown. The Garden Court is the hotel's main dining room and as ornate as the First Class Dining Room depicted in the movie Titanic.
The Palace also is known as a place where the city's movers and shakers meet to nail down business deals or be seen in the right company. Esquire Magazine named the hotel's Pied Piper Bar one of the top seven bars in the world. The drinks are pricey, but then someone told us the painting in the bar is worth $5 million so we're guessing they have to make that up someplace.