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The young explorer

Al Capone was more popular than the US president. This is one of the less gruesome facts I learnt from the audio tour around former prison Alcatraz, which was only closed down in 1963, a year before my mum was born (she didn’t want me to mention that bit).

The young explorer

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Alcatraz is one of the reasons people come to San Francisco, and there were a lot of other teenagers there, listening to stories of the escapes and famous prisoner, the Birdman. We were all pretty amazed by the fact inmates were fed well, and that at Christmas and New Year they could hear the celebrations on the mainland across the Bay.

San Francisco is definitely a city you should go to before it disappears. It’s not a case of ‘if’ there’s another earthquake but ‘when’. Our guide on the Urban Safari Tours, who wore sunglasses and pith helmet, told us tons of facts like this as we toured the streets, yo-yoing up and down the hills in a massive jungle jeep. We passed China Town — the largest of its kind in the States — the Italian District, where the great West Coast writers hung out in the bars and bookshops of the ’60s, and we dropped in on The Stinking Rose, where all things garlic are on the menu.

We visited the Exploratorium, which has the world’s largest IMAX, to hear about earthquakes and why San Francisco’s days are numbered. I also learnt why San Francisco has its own climate — all to do with hot air pulling in cold air. I don’t believe it; I think all the negative energy from Alcatraz has seeped into the waters and that’s why in the summer there’s almost permanent cloud over the place.

I loved the Golden Gate Bridge, which is incredible but it isn’t golden — the colour is called ‘autumn orange’, although it looks more rusty to me. I also loved the hotels we stayed in. Union Square is really the place to be. The Westin St Francis is where stars from the silent movies once stayed, and we did too. And at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel there’s a secret floor that was used for drinking during the Prohibition era, when alcohol was banned. That’s why Al Capone was more popular than the president, because the president enforced this unpopular law and Capone broke it.

It’s a hip city — provided you know where to go. Pier 39 is admittedly full of tourists but has some great poster stores, plus good basketball and baseball shops. There’s even a Forrest Gump shop selling cool tees and sweat shirts. I loved seeing the seals lying on the pier, trying to soak up what sun rays there were; funny to look at but smelly. I also bought some cool trainers (from the Westfield San Francisco Centre) and clothes (American Eagle Outfitters) that you can’t find at home but wish you could.

It’s an easy city to walk around, despite the steep hills, and although it looks fun to take the trams, I could never get on one, as they were so full of tourists all the time.

Mum had driven from LA to San Fran, thankfully with a satnav, which made it easy to concentrate on the views. We stopped off at the little mountain town of Ojai, a place where tennis and golf pros go, to holiday at its posh spa and golf club. Then on to Santa Cruz, where The Lost Boys was filmed, and Half Moon Bay, where The Fog was filmed. They love the British in Half Moon Bay. We stayed at Cameron’s Inn & Restaurant, which has a black London cab, double-decker bus and red pillar box in the car park, and apparently grows more pumpkins than anywhere else on the planet.

While in LA, we heard Gordon Ramsay and David Beckham had been spotted riding their Harleys to San Francisco. I saw lots of bikes on the coastal highway, but I didn’t see them. That’s a journey I’d like to do when I’m older, but for now I’m happy for mum to take the wheel.

More info

How to do it: Intrepid Travel offers an eight-day Ultimate California Southbound small group tour from £760 per person. Between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it visits Yosemite NP, Sierra Nevada, Death Valley, Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Lake Havasu and Joshua Tree NP. Price includes accommodation, transport, national park entry and a Strip tour. www.intrepidtravel.com  Sarah Tucker, author and journalist, travels with Tom, her son. www.sarahtucker.info  Discover America: www.discoveramerica.com

Published in the Spring 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)