Associated Press file

Segways are a fine way to see San Francisco and save a little leg energy on the city's hills. But while those on the jaunts may love them, some of the city's motorists may not think quite as highly of the small vehicles and their riders.

Discoveries: S.F. Segway tour turns tourists into attractions

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 - 11:00 pm | Page 1H
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012 - 8:31 am

SAN FRANCISCO – There are annoying tourists, and then there are annoying Fisherman's Wharf tourists. Even worse, deserving of a special place in Dante's burning circle of travel hell, are the annoying Fisherman's Wharf tourists riding Segways.

That's, uh, me.

Of all the conveyances available to the huddled masses of humanity wanting to see the sights of this fair city – speed boats, GPS-equipped go-carts, bikes, jogging, converted firetrucks and multifarious open-top buses – the Segway tours stand out as the epitome of either uber-dorkiness or way-coolitude.

During a two-hour tour of the wharf, waterfront and North Beach on an unusually sunny weekday morning, my five fellow riders and I were the objects of curiosity, scorn, ridicule and envy, depending on the public's sense of whimsy or road rage, as we zipped about the Embarcadero and cruised up hills.

MUNI bus drivers must have seethed behind their darkened windshields. A woman in a black Mercedes SL 63 AMG, hands dripping in diamonds, leaned on the horn and swerved around us. We were featured in any number of photo albums by camera-toting tourists. Homeless men playfully stuck out thumbs. Toddlers pointed and giggled.

Yeah, we were quite a sight. But, you know what? If you want to see the sights of vertically challenging San Francisco, a Segway might be the way to go.

"It's a novelty, but they are fantastic for these hills," said Liz Michaud, tour guide for the Electric Tour Co., which first used the "personal transporters" in 2004. "Realistically, there's no other way to take a broad range of ages and different physical abilities through these nooks and crannies of the city."

For those who are pop- culture impaired, a refresher course on all things Segway.

No product perhaps save Ginsu knives had received such unwarranted advanced hype as this two-wheeled, self-balancing, lithium-ion battery-powered vehicle. Before its unveiling in 2001, inventor Dean Kamen said the then-"mystery" product's impact would rival that of the personal computer. One venture capitalist crowed that the thing would be "more important than the Internet."

Alas, Segways became little more than a $7,000 punchline on late-night talk shows. Perhaps the makers didn't figure on the high dork factor, reinforced in 2003 when President George W. Bush fell while riding one.

Although the Segway never lived up to its advance buzz, I must admit they are exceedingly convenient (but they don't exceed 12.5 mph) to tour a busy metropolis.

At first blush, the $70 price tag seemed a bit steep, as Fisherman's Wharf tours go. Remember, though, you are not just paying for the wit and humor of tour guides such as Michaud; you also are getting the experience of piloting a Segway, which is quite a trip.

The first 45 minutes of the tour is, essentially, a tour of the company parking lot. This is the all-important training session, in which Segway virgins are taught the essentials: how to get on the contraption ("carefully"), how to make it go forward ("lean your torso into the handlebars"), how to slow and stop ("lean back on your heels"), how to turn ("lean the bars – but not your body – left or right") and how to get off the contraption ("carefully").

Our group consisted of a young couple from the Midwest, an older couple from Marlborough, New Zealand, a middle-aged couple from Wantage, England, and me going sans mate. Can you say awkward social situation?

But my Segway mates were nice to this solo rider during the pre-tour maneuvers. Michaud, who isn't a comedian but should be, admonished us not to abruptly jump off the Segway lest we get caught in "the spiral of horror." She said that if we rode too close to the curb, we might crash and need to be picked up in "the golf cart of shame."

Before taking off, we Segwayed (yes, people use it as a verb, another annoyance) an obstacle course through orange cones, practiced stopping quickly for an emergency, which Michaud called the "booty stop," since one's derriere does the work, and then sat down for a 61/2-minute safety video.

Oh, I forgot to mention the five-page waiver, in small type, we had to read and sign. Merely for insurance reasons, right? No one ever gets hurt going 5 to 10 mph on this device, right? (News item: Sept. 27, 2010, the owner of the Segway company dies when he steers his Segway off a 30-foot cliff on his English estate.)

Once helmeted, draped in handsome reflective vests and outfitted with earpieces to hear Michaud's monologue, we took off. Safe but hardly timid, our group swung out into traffic and held our own against the impatient cabbies, cable cars, buses and map-folding rental-car drivers.

After a while, you almost feel as though you're gliding. The Segway, with its trusty gyroscopic sensors, does all the work to keep you balanced and ambulatory.

"I thought it'd be hard to master," said Colin Broadbelt, the New Zealand tourist. "But once you're up and about, you go like a rocket."

"After a while," added Paul Couchman, the Englishman, "it feels like an extension of your body."

The first half-hour featured lots of uphills around North Beach. We saw Joe DiMaggio's old playground, the stately Saints Peter and Paul Church (Michaud: "Note the address, 666 Filbert Street") and Italian joints around Washington Square Park.

When we stopped at the park for a respite, I asked Michaud if any of her minions have been hurt.

"Last night, the ambulance had to come, but that's not typical," she said. "A woman broke her leg. It was bad. But not typical. People do fall off, but 90 percent of the time they say 'ouch' and get right back on. Let me tell you, I've totally fallen off my Segway. Not a big deal."

But cruising the Embarcadero and the pier at Aquatic Park, we were a big deal. If you're self-conscious, don't take this tour. Because people will stare.

But shielded by helmet and dark sunglasses, you can retain a shred of anonymity and dignity.

"You," Michaud said with mock import, "have gone from tourists to tourist attractions. Congratulations."


SEGWAY TOURS IN SAN FRANCISCO

Electric Tour Co.: $70. (415) 474-3130; www.electrictourcompany .com

City Segway Tours: $70. (415) 409-0672; citysegwaytours.com/ san-francisco

Viatour Segway Tour: $69.99. www.viator.com/ tours/San-Francisco/ San-Francisco-Waterfront-Segway-Tour/ d651-2062WATERFRONT

Note: Sacramento also has a Segway tour. The Hysterical Walks and Rides tour starts at the Clarion Hotel and traverses downtown and Old Sacramento. Cost: $80. Contact: (916) 441-2527; hysterical walks.com/Segway_Tours/ Segway_Tours.html.

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Read more articles by Sam McManis



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