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How One Family Spent Their Seven-Day Visit to the San Franciso Bay Area
My first house guests of the year came for a week-long visit in February. They were a family of three: Adele, Bobby and their 11-year-old son, Aaron. They live in New York and this was Aaron's first visit to the San Francisco Bay Area.
They were interested in history, science, and, because they have just come from the frosty-cold Northeast, they wanted to spend as much time as possible in our relatively-warmer out of doors. They kept busy every waking minute of their visit, so busy that there were few evenings that any of us could stay awake past 9:30 p.m. Prince, Jim, and I joined them as often as we could. Having a curious young person with us opened my eyes to many things that I might not have noticed or indulged in on my own.
I consider the activities of their "perfect" week to be as appealing to locals like myself as they are to those who travel 3000 miles or more to visit the Bay Area. Here is their itinerary. If you live in the Bay Area, use it with your next house guests or treat yourself to some of these day-long outings whenever you are up to "vacationing" close to home. If you are a visitor, you can easily pick and choose the days that are most appealing to you.
Day One: S.F. Driving Tour
Right from the airport, we headed into San Francisco for a driving (by me) tour of the City. Since I live about 25 miles out of town, I wanted them, Aaron especially, to have this overview so that the places that they had been reading about in their guide books would have some context and so that they could have a better idea of places to return to for in-depth visits.
We started at the Civic Center, past the new San Francisco Main Library, City Hall, the Opera House and Symphony Hall. From there we headed west on Hayes Street until we got to Alamo Square (bordered by Hayes, Steiner, Fulton, and Scott Streets) where we looked at the often-photographed row of Victorian houses along Steiner Street. Not only is this row of houses an excellent example of San Francisco's Victorians, but also, with the downtown skyline in the background this spot makes for a memorable photograph.
From there we continued west to Golden Gate Park, past the Conservatory of Flowers (closed because of storm damage in 1995), the Academy of Sciences, the M. H. de Young and Asian Arts Museums, and the Japanese Tea Garden. Heading further west in the Park, we passed the herd of American Bison, Spreckels Lake, and, when we got to westernmost end of the Park, the Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden.
Turning left on the Great Highway, we stopped at the Beach Chalet, a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean. On the lower level of the Beach Chalet is the Golden Gate Park Visitors Center where we picked up some maps of San Francisco and information about Golden Gate Park. The wall murals in the Beach Chalet's lower level depict life in San Francisco as it was in the 1930s when these murals were created as part of the federal government's Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects. The Beach Chalet Restaurant & Brewery on the upper level features an American Bistro menu and is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week; prices are moderate.
Back on the road, we headed north past the Cliff House (great place for a drink) and Seal Rocks and the ruins of the once-elegant Sutro Baths. We drove out to Land's End for a view of the Golden Gate and then into Lincoln Park for a walk around the Palace of the Legion of Honor, stopping to ponder Rodin's "Thinker" in the center of the courtyard. We also spent a few sad moments contemplating the Holocaust Memorial by artist George Segal on the north end of the parking lot across from the California Legion of Honor. From there we passed the impressive Mediterranean-style homes in posh Seacliff and continued on into the Presidio and up to the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza for a view of the Bridge. We turned back on Doyle Drive past the Palace of Fine Arts (home of the Exploratorium), through the Marina and east on Lombard Street for a drive down the one block that is described as the "Crookedest Street" (Hyde to Leavenworth Street). We finished up with a drive through North Beach and Chinatown.
This driving tour, with several short stops, took about four hours. We ate a picnic lunch in front of the Legion of Honor which, by coincidence, had attracted several other tailgate picnickers.
Day Two: S.F. Downtown and Beyond
On Day Two we were back in San Francisco, this time on foot. We started our day at Embarcadero One for a view from the Sky Deck. To my surprise, my guests were less enthusiastic than I was about the view of San Francisco from the top. They felt that the views they saw on our driving tour the day before were more thrilling. The Sky Deck videos about San Francisco's historic buildings and transportation history did not interest them. Could it be that the Sky Deck has more appeal to locals than to tourists?
From there we walked to Chinatown, stopping in Portsmouth Square to watch the elderly men gambling and at one of the many bakeries on Grant Avenue for some Chinese pastries. At the Bush Street Gate to Chinatown we took pictures and then headed south a few more blocks to Union Square for a look at the downtown shopping district. We ended our walking tour by strolling east on Market Street to the Ferry Building.
Back in the car, we stopped on Mission Street at the Rincon Center to look at more WPA murals (by Anton Refregier, depicting the settling of California) and to see how this former Post Office building has been renovated as a museum and restaurant/office/shopping complex. The final stop of the day was at Pier 32 to go aboard the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, the only World War II Liberty Ship that is still in operating condition (it takes guests out twice a year). The Jeremiah O'Brien was the highlight of this day's touring; all were enthralled with the tales told by the enthusiastic volunteers who keep it ship shape (most are retired Navy personnel who donate their time). By chance, we were on the Jeremiah O'Brien on the third weekend of the month, the "steaming" weekend when they fire up the ship's engine; even Adele in her designer coat dared to climb down the narrow stairway into the boiler room to take a look.
Day Three: Napa Valley
Taking a break from San Francisco, this was the day to drive up to the Napa Valley. We made stops at Mumm Napa Valley to learn about Champagne making, to Beringer to see the majestic Rhine House and the Limestone Caves, to Clos Pegase for a combination of wine, art and the architecture of Michael Graves and to Sterling for a ride up the tram and their self-guided tour. Of these four wineries, the only one that we did not tour was Clos Pegase where we missed one of the two tours are given each day, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The other three wineries offer tours throughout the day. With a pleasant lunch at Spring Street in St. Helena and walks around the towns of St. Helena and Calistoga, this made for a full and educational day.
Day Four: Mostly Waterfront
This was a mostly-waterfront day. The first stop was at the Exploratorium a "playful" museum of science, art and human perception where most exhibits are hands on. Our timing was such that we participated in a live Internet show about the Hubble Space Telescope. What impressed Adele and Aaron the most was the Tactile Dome (they were the only ones brave enough to try it), a pitch-black environment in which one crawls, climbs, and slides; Adele and Aaron are still debating whether it is better to go down the slides feet or head first, with Aaron saying that head first is best if you are small enough to turn yourself around to feet first at the bottom (I say, "In the dark, how do you know when it is the bottom?"). Your ticket ($12 per person which includes Exploratorium admission) entitles you to up to 3 trips through the dome in a one-hour-and-15-minute session.
From the Exploratorium they took a taxi to the Cable Car Barn for a look at the workings and control center of the three Cable Car lines. They returned to Fisherman's Wharf via Cable Car. After a fish and chips lunch at Pompei's Grotto, it was time for the ferry from Pier 41 to the Alcatraz tour. After Alcatraz (they loved it; thought the audio tour was outstanding) there was a visit to Pier 39 to see the noisy sea lions and some browsing in the shops at the Cannery and Ghirardelli Square.
Day Five: Marvelous Marin
We arrived at Muir Woods at a little after 9 a.m. when it was quiet, uncrowded and a bit damp. We started out on the paved walking trail along the floor of Redwood Canyon from Bridge 1 to Bridge 4. This walk, which takes about an hour, is flat and provides visitors with a good overview of Muir Woods...giant redwoods, other tree varieties, ferns, clover, fallen trees, fungi. At Bridge 4, we felt a bit adventurous and decided to go for the "Hillside Trail to the Parking Lot." We expected that we would quickly join up with the main paved trail, but instead ascended up a narrow, muddy path out of sight and sound of the Redwood Creek we had been following. In time, thankfully, we came to Bridge 2 and were on our way on more firm ground and footing. We stopped for a cup of coffee in the snack bar/gift shop and headed to Tiburon.
Our first Tiburon stop was at Blackie's Pasture where the boys tossed the football for a few minutes. Then we went on to the Village for some browsing in the Main Street and Ark Row shops and for lunch at the Sweden House. We adults had sandwiches and salads while Aaron advenurously tried the Swedish Pancakes and liked them!
After taking in the views across the Bay and driving up into the Belvedere Hills, our next stop was Sausalito with more driving up in the hills (remember, there is nothing like this in Westchester County!), walking along the Marina, and checking out the shops in Village Fair. I had not been in Sausalito in awhile and my impression of the Village Fair shops is that they are now more like I remember them in the "Good Old Days," with many art galleries and unique shops featuring handcrafted items. The Sausalito Historical Exhibit on the top level is worth a visit. In the adjacent Visitors Center a knowledgeable docent can provide information on sightseeing.
Day Six: Golden Gate Park
This day was focused on Golden Gate Park. On the way to the park, they made a return visit to Alamo Square to see the Victorian Row. Once in the Park, the first stop was at the California Academy of Sciences where the Earthquake simulation and the Steinhart Aquarium were key attractions. By now they were ready for a little something to eat, but not ready to slow down from "doing" the Park. The Japanese Tea Garden was the perfect next stop...a walk through the garden, tea and cookies at the Tea House. Wanting to enjoy the park like the locals, they had packed a picnic lunch. When it came time for lunch, they found a picnic table in a sunny spot and enjoyed their sandwiches. Other pleasant stops were at the Strybing Arboretum and the Shakespeare Garden. Renting a boat at Stow Lake was a possible option, but when they got there, the available boats (choose from paddle, row, or electric) did not seem in the best of condition, so they just enjoyed the Lake from its banks.
Next stop was at the Cliff House for a look at the sea lions who make Seal Rocks their home, a traipse around the ruins of Sutro Baths, and a visit to the Mus�e Mecanique. Aaron particularly enjoyed the Mus�e's coin-operated musical instruments and old-time penny arcade machines. They passed up going into the Camera Obscura, the replica of Leonardo da Vinci's darkroom, mainly because they were a bit saturated with the day's sights and didn't feel they needed another attraction where there was an admission charge.
Finding a parking space near Ghirardelli Square, they parked for an hour and took another quick walk through. From their pass through the Fisherman's Wharf area shopping centers on Day Four, they had decided that Ghirardelli Square was their favorite and worthy of this return visit.
Day Seven: To the East
Their final day was spent east of San Francisco. We arrived at the Herman Goelitz Jelly Candy Company a few minutes after the 9 a.m. opening. Another group was already there before us so we had a short wait for the next tour. I never tire of seeing how a Jelly Belly jelly bean is made and of learning why it takes 7 to 10 days to make these flavorful jelly beans. The tour lasts half an hour; we spent about an hour and a half here, making sure to buy some bargain-priced "Belly Flops" (Jelly Belly seconds) before we departed.
Our next stop was in Benicia at the Zellique, Smyers, and Nourot glass studios. At Zellique and Smyers we watched glass blowers at work. The glass blowers took a few moments from their delicate work to explain what they were doing and to encourage us to watch for as long as we wished and to ask questions.
No one was blowing glass at Nourot. When we expressed interest in their work, the staff brought out chairs and invited us to view a 29-minute film, "Alchemy in Light," about glass making and the work of Nourot's artists. This film is currently being broadcast on Public Television stations around the country; we learned a lot from it.
Next stop was for lunch at Mabel's in their new Benicia location on Columbus Parkway. The restaurant is more than twice as large as the old downtown Benicia one and cheerfully decorated in bright colors. As usual, the food was delicious...creative salads, sandwiches, and hot dishes. The soup of the day was Cioppino and the wonderful Mexican-inspired Caldo Largo soup was as good as ever.
By now it was mid-afternoon. We returned to Walnut Creek to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum. We saw a snake and an owl close up and learned more from the docents about their care and feeding. The other live wild animal exhibits were equally intriguing, both from the standpoint of seeing such animals at close range and of learning why they cannot be released back into the wild...many have been injured and can no longer function on their own; others have been "imprinted" by human contact and are not capable of living in the wild. Whenever possible, the Lindsay rehabilitates wild animals and releases them back into the wild. Those that must remain at the Museum are exhibited and used in the museum's many educational programs.
Too tired to cook dinner or even go out to a restaurant, I made our final stop at the Oakville Grocery in downtown Walnut Creek where we each selected our own choice of prepared food for our final dinner together.
Alamo Square/Victorian Row
bordered by Hayes, Steiner, Fulton and Scott Sts.
Ferry departures via Red & White Fleet from Pier 41 daily; Advance ticket reservations and boat schedule: 415/546-2700; Admission is charged.
Benicia Glass Studios
Mon - Sat 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.; artists work Mon - Fri and at special weekend open houses:
* Nourot Glass Studio, 675 East H St., Benicia; 707/745-2181
* Smyers Glass, 675 East H St., Benicia; 707/745-2614
* Zellique Art Glass, 701 East H St., Benicia; 707/745-5710
Cable Car Barn and Museum
1201 Mason St. at Washington; 415/474-1887; Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; FREE.
California Academy of Sciences
(includes Steinhart Aquarium, Natural History Museum, Morrison Planetarium), Music Concourse, Golden Gate Park; 415/750-7145; Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; until 6 p.m. Memorial Day weekend - Labor Day; FREE admission first Wednesday of the month.
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park (34th Ave. and Clement St.); 415/750-3600; Tues - Sun 9:30 a.m. - 5:15 p.m. (until 8:45 the first Saturday of the month); FREE admission second Wednesday of the month.
2801 Leavenworth St.
bordered by Bush, Kearny, Stockton Sts. & Broadway.
bordered by Market, Hayes, Franklin Sts., and Golden Gate Ave.
Great Highway at 1090 Point Lobos Ave.; 415/386-1170
Weekdays 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.; FREE admission; 150 coin-operated machines.
Lombard Street between Leavenworth and Hyde Sts.
Exploratorium/Palace of Fine Arts
3601 Lyon St.; 415/563-7337; The Exploratorium is open year-round Tuesday through Sunday and select holiday Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Cost: Adults (18-64) $14;
Seniors (65+) or students with ID $11; Youth (13-17) $11; Children (4-12) $9; Children (3 and under) FREE
Tactile Dome $17 (includes museum admission) First Wednesday of every month FREE; Tactile Dome advance reservations: 415/561-0362.
900 North Point St. between Polk and Larkin Sts.
Golden Gate Park Visitors Center
in the Beach Chalet, 1000 Great Highway; 415/751-2766; Daily 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.; FREE.
Herman Goelitz Candy Co., Inc.
2400 N. Watney Way, Fairfield; 707/428-2838; Tours weekdays 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.; FREE.
Lincoln Park, across Legion of Honor; Outdoors; always open; FREE.
Japanese Tea Garden
Golden Gate Park; 415/666-7024, Daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. March - September (until 4:30 p.m. rest of year); Tea House open 10:30 - 5:00 p.m. Admission is charged; additional cost for tea.
Pier 32 (Embarcadero at Brannan St.); 415/441-3101; Mon - Fri 9 a.m. - 3 p.m., Weekends 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Admission is charged.
Lindsay Wildlife Museum
1931 First Ave., Walnut Creek; 510/935-1978; Wed - Fri 1 - 5 p.m., Weekends 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Admission is charged.
12 miles north of Golden Gate Bridge, Stinson Beach exit off Hwy. 101; 415/388-2595; Daily 8 a.m. - sunset; FREE.
Beach St. and the Embarcadero.
* Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant, 1000 Great Highway at John F. Kennedy Drive; 415/386-8439.
* Mabel's Restaurant, 2034 Columbus Pkwy., Benicia; 707/746-1465.
* Oakville Grocery, 1352 Locust St., Walnut Creek; 510/274-7900.
* Pompei's Grotto, 340 Jefferson at Leavenworth; 415/776-9265.
* Spring Street, 1245 Spring St., St. Helena; 707/963-5578.
* Sweden House, 35 Main St., Tiburon; 415/435-9767.
Mission Street between Main and Steuart; FREE.
San Francisco Main Library
100 Larkin St.; 415/557-4400; Daily with varying hours; FREE.
Sausalito Historical Exhibit
Village Fair, 777 Bridgeway, Sausalito; 415/332-0505; Daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.; FREE.
One Embarcadero Center; 888/737-5933; Wed - Fri 5 p.m. - 10 p.m., Weekends/holidays 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Admission is charged.
Ninth Ave. at Lincoln Way, Golden Gate Park; Weekdays 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Weekends 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; FREE.
* Beringer Vineyards, 2000 Main St., St. Helena; 707/963-4812
* Clos Pegase, 1060 Dunaweal Ln., Calistoga; 707/942-4981
* Mumm Napa Valley, 8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford; 707/942-3434
* Sterling Vineyards, 1111 Dunaweal Ln., Calistoga; 707/942-3344