Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Electric (Tour) Company

According to hundreds of reviews posted on TripAdvisor.com, touring San Francisco is best done on a Segway. Until recently, Segway tours offered by 2 different companies hogged the top 2 spots on the rankings of recommended activities in San Francisco. This month, a guided walking tour bumped the Segway guys down to 2nd and 3rd place.

Well these walkers probably had no clue what they lost out on in San Francisco by choosing to pump their legs instead of zipping around on a Segway, besides maybe a few hundred more burnt calories than us wheelies.

Not to say that tackling those infamously steep Frisco slopes isn't fun. It is - for one's first day in the city, when we went without a car in SF earlier this year. After that, we started noting which way the slopes rolled and planned our walking route around avoiding the uphill climbs. This time, on our second visit to SF, we wanted to see more of the city - on a set of wheels.

While the cost of renting a car within SF isn't expensive, parking in the city is a bi*ch. Multi-storey carparks (or garages, as they are called in the US) are few and far between. Curbside parking spaces are limited and leaving our car lurching at a 45-degree angle for hours at a stretch is rather worrisome. So is not having enough coins to feed the greedy metres which gobble up to US$1 for every 15 minutes.

Forking out US$70 each for a Segway tour isn't cheap either but the rave online reviews convinced us to give it a go. Traveling is all about discovering new experiences and given the limited authorised usage of Segways in Singapore, it would be our first time on one. I think you can now sample a ride on a Segway within the confines of a building in Singapore, but we're a long way from seeing tourists zipping around on these neat machines alongside vehicular traffic down Orchard Road.

Morning Rush

We woke up bright and chirpy, hopped onto the 'F'-line streetcar to Beach Street, only see a guide on a Segway trundle out of the tour office and down the road, with a lone tourist on her (w)heels. We had arrived 10 minutes too late and had missed the morning tour! Since the tour company only ran 1 daily tour in winter (as compared to 2 tours a day in summer), we had missed the boat for good.

The nice owner pointed us to another tour company offering a similar city tour on wheels. We practically ran over to the office and found the morning's participants already decked in safety vests and helmets and in the midst of the briefing. Argggh. Too late again! Thankfully, this second tour company offered afternoon tours and we promptly signed up for the 1pm ride.

So in the meantime....

A hot fudge sundae for lunch!

As with our first sundae experience at Ghirardelli Square last year, the ice-cream and chocolate samples were really good. One tip though: stick to the plain ol' sundae with milk chocolate fudge. I love dark chocolate but the fudge tasted strangely sour. And lay off the incredibly salty peanut butter. Sour and salty are not great flavours for a sundae.

Back at The Electric Tour Company, 1pm:

The Electric Tour Company offers electric bike tours over the Golden Gate Bridge as well as Segway tours in San Francisco and Sausalito. The name reminds me of this television series for children in the 1970s and 1980s - The Electric Company, which I loved watching after I got home from school. Some of you may remember it:

Participants have to attend a safety and introductory briefing before being allowed anywhere near the machines. After that, we are assigned our wheels and taught how to operate the controls, mount and dismount the Segway safely, how to accelerate, steer, brake and stop, etc. We putted across the parking lot at 'training speed' - 10mph (16km/h) - slaloming through tiny orange cones.

No training wheels - just training mode

So is the Segway a dangerous machine?

Well, as with any bicycle or motorised vehicle, the Segway on its own is probably less dangerous than a horse, given that it can't go anywhere by itself without a driver. But under conditions of misuse, horseplay or inconsiderate riding, yeah, somebody could get hurt pretty badly. The directional handle bar is highly sensitive to movement, so tilting it too far and too suddenly in either direction could send your Segway into a crazy whirring spin. And just like cycling or in-line skating, you cannot let the wheels of your machine touch that of another machine while in motion. One lady did just that. She sent her Segway tripping in 1001 different directions at once and fell right off it.

With our guide convinced that we all had our Segways under control, he took us out of training mode with a few jabs at our control panels and raised the maximum speed limit to 16mph. We filed up in pairs, forming a Segway convoy and hit the road alongside cars, trams and buses.

Each individual Segway is equipped with a walkie talkie. The guide speaks into his set and we get a wonderful introduction to San Francisco as we had never known it before - quirky stories about the residents of Little Italy, the woman whom Coit Tower was named after, the best restaurants and pubs in town and an overview of the architecture around us. The guide brought us to a swimming area at Fisherman's Wharf and showed us a crazy Irish man languidly doing the backstroke in the freezing water. We expertly navigated gentle slopes and pedestrian crossings, and avoided potholes like plague. One place we weren't allowed to go was Lombard Street - the crookedest street in the world. That is for the Advanced Segway Tour. Serious!

Terrorising the city on wheels is much more fun than on foot!

Stopping for a break at Washington Park

Being left to run amok up and down a pier at Fisherman's Wharf

We created quite a spectacle on the streets of SF. Tourists snapped photos of us. Cars slowed down for the people inside to gape at us. We waved and posed for photos and felt like mini-celebrities for the day!

This guy, however, was not impressed

I wish...

I wish we had Segway tours in Singapore! In SF, anybody can buy a Segway to ride about town. Anybody who has about US$30,000 to spare, that is. But seeing how I can't even blade down the designated cyclist/skater track along East Coast Park in SG without requesting that people keep to their lanes and yelling at walking mobs to move over to the pedestrian path instead of strolling four abreast in the face of bikes and skates, I'm not too excited at the thought of dodging errant Segways anywhere on this island. However, guided tours where users are briefed on how to operate these wheeled machines in a controlled environment would raise the bar for fun city tours in Singapore.

If we do eventually get Segway tours in SG, just remember, for goodness sake, not to ride in the park (note somebody's sheepish look in the clip):


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