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A PORTSIDE GAM Some San Francisco Holiday Freebies
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San Francisco has always been a beautiful place to visit during the Christmas holidays, but the high cost of visiting has been a major deterrent for those of us who are operating on a small budget. That is not the case any longer, as the Bay City has much to offer that is either free or nearly so.

You can spend an entire day around Union Square, that's the high rent district, and only pay for a meal while walking and gawking at the holiday marvels that abound. You can avoid the outrageous parking fees by taking BART from the Livermore station into the city, and seniors can buy greatly discounted tickets for only 30 percent of the adult rate.

Just the 80 foot tall Shasta fir Christmas tree makes the Union Square stop worth the effort. Donned with no less than 21,000 energy efficient lights and 1,500 lovely ornaments, it makes for an impressive centerpiece for the Square. Sit and watch the passing parade of colorful characters, street performers, or those who pay only $8 for a 90-minute ice skating session on the small rink there. It's only $4 for kids under nine, and skate rentals go for $4.

On one corner is the 'top-of-the-line' Neiman-Marcus store that is worth visiting if only to see the beautiful decorations that adorn every floor. Their Christmas tree in the entryway climbs all the way up to the stained glass dome and is an amazing eye catcher.

Most items are on sale this time of the year, and you can purchase Prada or March Jacob purses at a 40 percent discount. One lady almost bought the Prada $3,000 purse that had been marked down to a mere $2,200.

That's an incredible savings of $800 per purse. I came so close to yielding to the temptation to save, but common sense said "no."

On another corner is the fashionable Westin St. Francis Hotel that has lobbies full of eye candy. Many stuffed Santa dolls and figurines adorn the ornate walls, but the main attraction is an incredible 12-foot Holiday Sugar Castle that is the masterpiece of Pastry Chef Jean-Francois Houdre. First created in 2005, the castle has grown each year and now weighs 1,200 pounds, with 20 circular towers, 30 rooms, illuminated windows, and a quaint village surrounding the edifice with a train choo-chooing around it. All this, and no charge.

Another corner finds the famous Macy's store that has dozens of items on sale at bargain prices in their Christmas Tree Lane area on the sixth floor. Some tree ornaments were only $7to $10; amazing. As lunchtime approached, I was coerced into eating at their famed Cheesecake Factory restaurant, and I shuddered to think of what the final bill would be. But my fears were quickly eased when I checked out the menu and found the prices to be very reasonable and a great value. The Grand Burrito easily feeds two starving adults, and for only $14.

Old timers who prefer a more relaxed and inexpensive atmosphere walk a half block to the famous Lefty O'Douls where the hofbrau style food and prices draw a large local crowd along with those outsiders who know the territory. Monster sandwiches for only $7 means more money to spend elsewhere.

Macy's has made a major league effort to place abandoned dogs and cats, and if you walk to the corner of Stockton and O'Farrell you will discover many puppies and kittens living in luxurious surroundings along with a horde of stuffed animals. The Dalmatians are particularly cute. And it's all free, unless you want to buy one.

In front of the main door to Macy's is the poor man's lunch stand, Stanley Steamers, where you can purchase a tube steak on a bun for only $3.75, a soft drink for $1.50, a bag of chips for a buck, or a polish dog for only $4.25. Join the many suits and elegant dresses who buy their steamers, take them across the street, and sit in Union Square for a lunch on the cheap side.

What more incentive do you need to make that visit to The City? You can even toss in some quality time at Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, again at no cost if you so choose. What a wonderful way to spend a day on the bay.

For more information about free and inexpensive attractions in the Bay area call 634-6804 or e-mail: