There are many nicknames for the city of San Francisco, including “The City.” There is “415” – the area code, “San Fran” – (don’t use this one), “Fog City” – self-explanatory, “Golden Gate City” – for the bridge, and even “Baghdad by the Bay” – with reference to the cosmopolitan nature of the population, much like that of pre-war Baghdad. The City remains high on my list of great places to visit, and one of my favorite activities in the Bay Area is exploring some of the surrounding nature and vicinities.
With Covid-19 having shut down much of international travel, domestic road trips are suddenly the new adventure. Having taken several in the past couple of months, I can attest to a new appreciation for visiting a destination and using it as a base of operations. I recently flew into San Francisco on Delta, and checked into the Intercontinental Hotel, which became my out of town office for a few days of sight-seeing. I was eager to see The City as it awoke from its Covid-imposed lockdowns.
Interestingly, I expected the airfares to be better than they were in actuality. In fact, there was little difference in my fare from my last trip to San Francisco, no doubt the result of the middle seats in the Comfort Class being unoccupied. Every passenger was wearing a mask and there were no incidents to mar the experience. Both in Atlanta, my point of departure, and upon arrival in San Francisco International, masks were required in the airport, again, as far as I could tell, with near universal compliance. From SFO, a mask-wearing Uber driver had me to the Intercontinental in record time in light Sunday traffic. The room rates at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins were an affordable $136 a night and made for an excellent refuge.
I always spend some time in San Francisco visiting favorite neighborhoods, experiencing the micro-climates, and sampling some of the food for which it is so famous. I ate outdoors at every opportunity, but because at the time the restaurants were operating at only 50% capacity, social distancing while dining was easy. I can’t go to San Francisco without a visit to Fisherman’s Wharf’s waterfront, usually one of the city’s most touristy areas, but the crowds are now appropriately diminished. I spent the afternoon after my arrival browsing through shops in the northern waterfront while enjoying the bay, Golden Gate, and Alcatraz views. To my delight, there were more sea lions basking in the sun than I had ever seen there before. For lunch, I ducked inside the Ferry Building Marketplace and spent a pleasant hour shopping and snacking since their outdoor seating area was open.
The next day, I ventured out to Lands End, a wild and windy area with stunning views, located within the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The site offers a perfect getaway from the city’s hustle and bustle with some of the best sunset viewing spots in the city. I explored the park’s trails winding around the rocky cliffs and enjoy watching the impressive Golden Gate Bridge changing colors as the sun set on the horizon.
When hiking in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, visitors are well-reminded to keep their distance from the cliffs above the ocean and always stay on trails. If you are not familiar with Lands End, Vestiges of Lands End is a digital guidebook of the area’s landscapes, geology, historic places, and artifacts. The Lands End’s trails wind their way around the massive cliffs above the water, through cypress and eucalyptus trees, emerging with terrific scenery and one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Of particular historical interest are the ruins of the amazing “Sutro Baths.” Designed by Adolph Sutro in 1894, the Sutro Baths were intended to be a recreational swimming facility for the citizenry of The City. The massive glass enclosure contained seven swimming pools along with slides, spring boards and diving platforms. The ocean supplied the water and could fill the 1.7 million gallons necessary in about an hour. The Baths could accommodate 10,000 people at a time. Never commercially successful, however, the Baths fell into ruin and were destroyed by fire in 1966 and have been part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1973.
Having already been to Alcatraz on a previous trip, I decided to visit on my third day Angel Island, the second-largest island in San Francisco Bay, only a short ferry ride from the city. The island was originally the home of a military installation, but today you’ll find some great bars and cafes serving excellent food along with fantastic city views. During non-Covid times, visitors can take a Segway tour around the island but those are now suspended. Being a walker, in any event, I opted for a two-hour guided tour with some of the San Francisco skyline’s most spectacular views with the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais as backdrop. The 760 acres that make up Angel Island are well supplied with numerous picnic tables sprinkled throughout the park and trails and the hiking with 360 degree views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay are worth trip.
Zip-Car is my go-to solution for transportation when flying rather than driving to a destination, and the next day I drove the 20 miles north across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit Muir Woods. If you have a National Park Pass (you should, especially now) there is no entrance fee. The primeval forest of old-growth redwoods towers above Redwood Creek into the sun and fog. These are the most massive trees on earth, and the well-maintained paths in the small park that is Muir Woods makes a visit there easy to accomplish. You will, of course, want to have your camera with you, and if you can go during the week, you can avoid the crowds that even in a time of Covid flock there on weekends. On the day I visited, all traffic on the paths was “one-way” to avoid hikers coming at you from the opposite direction, which only slightly altered the experience. Because of Muir Woods location in the valley, there is no cell phone service and parking reservations must be made in advance. This was a change from my previous visit, and, again, kudos for the advance warning by my travel agent!
On my last day I visited the village of Benicia once again. I am always surprised how even well-traveled friends who go to San Francisco often fail to discover Benicia. From The San Francisco Ferry Building near Fisherman’s Wharf, it is a pleasant ferry ride to this quaint village filled with art stores, excellent restaurants and bars. Benicia was, for a very short time, 13 months in fact beginning in 1853, the capital of California. The old state house is a treasure trove of antique furniture and historical artifacts. Jack London once lived here and a marker on First Street memorializes Jack London as “The author who immortalized this locality in John Barleycorn and Tales of the Fish Patrol.”
There is never enough time. On my many visits to the Bay Area, I have been fortunate enough to tour areas from San Francisco to San Jose and everything in between. This trip, I had fully intended to find my way to wine country, but my short visit did not allow for a trip to Napa and Sonoma, only 40 miles north of Benicia. Likewise, I had to decline a return to Half Moon Bay.
I’m saving those two for my next trip to The City.