San Francisco: Perfect peace of California, 50 years since the Summer of Love
'Run away, run away," roars my new pal Serene Rain out of our bus window in San Francisco's Financial District, startling the slick-suited business people on the pavement below.
She hauls herself back inside and wipes the rain from her violet-tinted spectacles before ejecting giant bubbles on to the 'wage-slaves' toddling beneath the shadow of the city's Transamerica building.
Scolding their conformity, she mutters about their 'lost souls' before gently adorning the cheeks of her fellow passengers with love-heart shaped stickers as the vehicle speedily turns the corner leaving Montgomery Street well behind us.
Fresh flowers pinned into my hair, I've hopped on to a time-travelling Magic Bus, zipping right back to 1967 San Francisco and into the epicentre of the city's hippie movement. In 2017, it's the Summer of Love's 50th anniversary.
A flower crown heavy on her head, our tour guide carries us back to the peace and love-filled summer when the Californian city became something of a Mecca for hundreds of thousands of free-spirited runaways. Just before dropping us off at Hippie Hill, Serene encourages us to take a much different kind of journey, and as the bus's windows transform into movie screens dancing with dizzying imagery and mystical notes, we relive the psychedelic Sixties in the most authentic way one can without actually tripping on LSD.
Disembarking the bus feeling a little bit carsick but jam-packed with peaceful energy, I decide to leave my flowers in my hair and walk the short distance to Haight-Ashbury, the magnetic neighbourhood which attracted more than 100,000 people during that historic summer almost five decades ago.
Then home to the likes of Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane as well as the city's first psychedelic head shop, Haight Street has transformed into something quite different, with many high-end boutiques and hipster coffee spots - even an international ice-cream chain fills one of its many shop fronts.
I order a flat white from a barista - bearded and tattooed - before wandering into one of the Haight's array of vintage shops.
Among the dozens of questionable items hanging on the rack is a pair of furry, murky brown trousers (which do not fail to remind me of Chewbacca) pinned with a $225 price tag and a wooden cane topped with a stone carving of a Buddha. Wondering what kind of individual would don the trousers anywhere outside the set of the new Star Wars film or a pretty eccentric costume party, I abandon my look around the shops and wander away from Haight Street's beautiful Victorian buildings to one of its most respected establishments, Amoeba Music.
The run-down bowling alley was torn up and revamped in 1997, its long lanes replaced with rows upon rows of music paraphernalia and it now boasts one of the world's largest collections of new and used CDs.
Since the Noughties, there has been a massive shift to digital, but a recent resurgence in the popularity of vinyl and even small sales peaks in vintage items like cassettes and video tapes has allowed the shop to continue to thrive in the Haight.
So old-school cool is Amoeba that designer Stella McCartney debuted her 1970s-inspired autumn line in its sister store in Los Angeles earlier this year, perhaps a personal ode to her father of Beatles fame.
I pass a mural of a scraggly-haired and bare-chested hippy smoking a joint, a colourful throwback to the summers of the late 1960s, however the Game of Thrones pint of craft beer I sip before making my tracks towards home shows just how the neighbourhood has catered for a new movement - the hipsters - just as much as any other western city the world over.
The next day, the heavens have opened and with trepidation I set off on a scheduled walking tour of the Mission District with my ukulele-playing tour-guide who forgot his raincoat and therefore evokes my immediate sympathy.
He belts out a chorus of Scott McKenzie's San Francisco before the group takes shelter beneath a tree in Dolores Park praying that the downpour is just a shower.
Upon realising it isn't going to ease off, we brave the torrential rain through the Mission, which is another corner of San Francisco that has been transformed through the decades. Once heavily populated by a middle-class Latino community, the Mission is now home to techy professionals who commute to and from Silicon Valley.
Their arrival has caused rents in the area to skyrocket, and the Latino population has dropped by 20pc in the last 10 years. Yet the amazing murals, such as the one which hugs San Francisco's Women's Centre, have the power to take your breath away and remind you that immigrant culture is still very much at the heart of the community.
Apple-nerds may have moved into the Mission District but its exciting food scene is still very much reflective of the past.
Just an elevator away is a delightful rooftop Mexican restaurant El Techo, which thankfully provides us solace from the downpour and jugs of fresh tangy margaritas on arrival.
Spilling them down our necks as we dry off beneath a heat lamp, a thrilling array of dishes are sent towards our table, including the most delicious locally caught ono, served as a ceviche, that leaves a tang of fresh lime in my mouth.
As a doughnut lover, my eyes widen as plates of warm, sugared buneulos turn up as a second course making it impossible to turn down a single one, each dipped generously in a deep bowl of thick and sticky dulce de leche.
The hippy's Summer of Love may have been about experimenting with sex and drugs but for me the true joy is always found at brunch, with flowing cocktails and revolving bowls of fresh, chunky guacamole accompanied by tortillas. The Mission would capture the heart of any glutton roaming its streets and the long queue outside Tartine Bakery is evidence of this as at least 20 people wait for fresh loaves of sourdough to be pulled out of the oven as I pass.
A stroll through Bi-Rite market would have tempted me to shove a giant ball of mozzarella right into my gob along with a ripe Californian tomato, had I not been concerned about being apprehended by staff.
Across the road, punters defied the stormy weather and licked rich ice cream from beneath their umbrellas accompanied by their enviable designer dogs at Bi-Rite's creamery.
A belly full of buneulos makes my return to the Hotel Zeppelin in the city's theatre district a little bit laboured but the massive roaring fire in reception proves the perfect spot to allow the over indulgence to pass.
The rock 'n' roll themed hotel is just one block down from San Francisco's Union Square and the city's main shopping district with trams destined for many of the main tourist hubs.
One such hub, Fisherman's Wharf, has changed very little since 1967, particularly for the fattened sea lions who continue to laze along the waterfront.
For fans of David Bowie, a dinner reservation in Chambers at the Phoenix Hotel is a great choice, and a venture over to the Tenderloin caps off a perfect day in San Francisco.
The Phoenix has played host to the late rocker and the likes of Franz Ferdinand, and during the summer months is said to host some of the wildest of pool parties on the West Coast. Those content with a deep glass of pinot noir from Napa Valley can expect seasonal produce to be churned out of the kitchen at Chambers and served up 'family-style'. A rich pork belly is married in my mouth with a sweet fig chutney and is by far the highlight of my day, followed by the most tender short rib sitting on a bed of fresh vegetables carted over from 'the valley', just like the wine. If the pinot noir isn't your thing a gin distillery just a four-minute walk away takes you even further back in time, throwing you into a world before the hippies and right into an episode of Mad Men.
Throughout 2017, the city is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the hippy movement and it's easy to see why it is such an important occasion for them.
Although many abandoned the hippy movement after that fun-filled idyllic summer, returning to their real lives in the autumn, it is clear that the same carefree spirit is still alive in many modern day San Franciscans.
On April 20 thousands of them joined to celebrate 420 in the Park [420 refers to the date and is code for the consumption of cannabis] on Hippie Hill at the same iconic spot where more than 30,000 people turned up to rally against the state-ban on the psychedelic drug LSD in January 1967 and where George Harrison played unannounced later that year in moon-print flared trousers to crowds of bare-footed music lovers.
Despite the changing neighbourhoods, the passing of time and the influx of Silicon Valley's brightest stars, the spirit of revolution is still one of the most magnetic draws of this vivid American city, where peace and love are still very much at its core.
Virgin Holidays has a seven-night package in San Francisco including scheduled Virgin Atlantic flights from London Heathrow to San Francisco and accommodation at 3V Bijou with car hire included from €1,291 per person.
This price is based on a February 8, 2017 departure and on two adults travelling and sharing. To book, visitvirginholidays.co.uk.
San Francisco Travel: www.sftravel.com
El Techo, eltechosf.com
San Francisco Walking Tours, wildsftours.com
Spark Social SF, sparksocialsf.com
Distillery at Whitechapel, whitechapelsf.com/private-events
TAKE THREE: Top attractions
Street food at Spark
If you’re a lover of street food, Spark is one of San Francisco’s coolest urban gathering places with its wide range of local, ever-changing vendors doling out dishes inspired by the world. Tuck into a fresh burrito and a craft beer before throwing yourself in-front of the roaring fire pit. Make a reservation and toast some marshmallows on the open fire and fill your belly with melty all-American s’mores to your heart’s content.
Conservatory of Flowers
It may sound like a snooze but San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park is surprisingly fascinating. If possible, request a tour with Lau, an eccentric curly-haired flower-enthusiast, who I believe would be able to bring the dullest of exhibits to life. The eclectic conservatory is an inexpensive way to spend a lovely few hours and is an ideal spot for brightening up your Instagram.
Summer of Love
During the 50th anniversary, the Monterey International Pop Festival will be held on the same dates as it was on in the Summer of Love: June 16-18. It will even be hosted on the same stage, the John Phillips Memorial Main Stage at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. A dozen bands will play on the Saturday and another dozen on Sunday reviving some of the Sixties’ best-loved tunes. summer67.com
Sunday Indo Living