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Fantastic San Francisco

If you haven't left your heart there yet, go, and you will

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Photo courtesy of Extranomical Tours
A wine country tour includes hiking, a tutorial on wine and plenty of wine tasting.

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Photo courtesy of Extranomical Tours A wine country tour includes hiking, a tutorial on wine and plenty of wine tasting.

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was time to give this city a second chance, an opportunity for redemption after it sent me packing 24 years ago.

That was when a 6.9-magnitude earthquake rocked the Bay Area. This time I wanted to be stirred, not shaken, thanks.

And I wanted to share it with my daughter, who was on the phone with me when the quake wildly shook the Candlestick Park press box and our connection was cut.

At home, the five-year-old wondered why Daddy hung up. In the press box covering the 1989 World Series, I was scared for a moment that I might not see her again.

Now 24 years on, she is getting married, and there was a short window open before the wedding for our first father-daughter trip.

I suggested San Francisco. Kate researched and liked the idea, and the travel gods delivered with four flawless days of blue skies and fair winds that showcased the embarrassment of riches the Bay Area boasts.

We spoiled ourselves right off the bat with side-by-side "queen deluxe" rooms with balconies overlooking the Bay in Sausalito, the one-time fishing village and artists' retreat that is now a popular destination for an international crowd and day-trippers off the ferries from San Francisco's waterfront.

The Inn Above Tide was a soft landing after a long initial day. It offers stylish and beautifully appointed rooms, first-class service and spectacular views.

And to be awakened by a ferry's plaintive foghorn was a charming alarm that put one in mind of a Van Morrison lyric from his classic Into the Mystic.

Morrison, a long-term resident of Marin County, wrote some of his best stuff in the tony region in which Sausalito is located. The area has a south-of-France feel, with houses with water views rising along steep hillsides.

On Day 2, we checked out some of those homes on streets winding up from the water, some modest, some rich, after grazing at a splendid Inn breakfast spread of fresh fruit, breads and pastries.

Then we jumped on two of the Inn's bicycles for a 20-minute ride to Mill Valley and Seaplane Adventures for a half-hour airborne primer on the area called The Golden Gate Tour.

Owner/pilot Aaron Singer provided a tour highly recommended for getting the full context of the region. Once you've seen it from the air, everything makes more sense when you're on the land or water.

Singer's de Havilland Beaver soared over key city sites such as the Presidio, the former military garrison and now urban national park, and identified high-end areas like Pacific Heights as well as providing a look-see at Alcatraz, the former forbidding prison that is now a popular tourist attraction.

We also flew near San Quentin State Prison. It drew the best line of Singer's engaging commentary.

"That's where some of the world's worst people sit on some of the world's most expensive real estate."

Indeed, it occupies space between upscale communities like Tiburon and San Rafael.

We also circled out over Muir Woods, the giant redwood forest, and the Pacific shore before getting a rare view of the Golden Gate Bridge from above.

Back at the Inn, another bonus was revealed. The ferry terminal was literally a one-minute walk. The 30-minute ferry ride to the San Francisco waterfront is both transportation and sightseeing, Golden Gate Bridge shimmering to one side, Alcatraz glowering to the other, as the promise of the city grows closer.

We gave the waterfront attractions a quick walk-through, leaning to long treks through the hilly city. And leaning is apt. On some ascents, it felt like my face was a foot from the sidewalk.

Kate, a ballet and Pilates teacher and personal trainer, is a champion walker who set a blistering pace.

But there is added value in having tramped kilometres to earn spectacular views, and San Francisco offers plenty of them on its slopes.

Like our climb to the top of the "crookedest street in the world," Lombard. It led us through a small park with tennis courts. At its apex, trees and mist gorgeously framed Golden Gate Bridge.

We tramped through Pacific Heights and its lovely Victoria, Edwardian and Mission Revival architecture and back down serpentine Lombard to the Russian Hill district, where, to our delight, a motorcyclist alighted from his bike and turned to reveal a petite canine named Rocky poking his head from a backpack. Rocky was protected by a coffe-cup-size helmet and loonie-dimension goggles.

On our third day, we moved to San Francisco's core and the Hotel Adagio, a newly renovated property that boasts the city's largest rooms and is near its shopping heart, Union Square.

The hotel featured a busy and stylish lobby bar, which buzzed with multiple languages late into the night. A very agreeable spot to top off the day.

We jumped on the California Street line car for the obligatory cable-car trip, a clattering and cool open-air climb in the maroon car that had something of the feel of an old-style kids' amusement-park ride.

We were headed for Golden Gate Park and the California Academy of Sciences, where I would get back on the horse, so to speak, taking in the exhibit which simulated the 1989 earthquake.

But first we enjoyed a stroll through the San Francisco Botanical Garden, which was already bursting with life in mid-March.

Kate took off for a bucolic walk east through the park and a thin extension called the Panhandle, which thrusts into Haight Ashbury, the famous home of "the summer of love" in the late 1960s. She was searching for a house the late singer Janis Joplin lived in, 122 Lyon St., in the former hippie enclave.

I found some queasy memories in Earthquake at the Academy of Sciences. The Planetarium show provided an easy-to-understand description of the source of earthquakes, including a walk-through Earth exhibit that shows the forces and material at work in the globe's core. There was also a primer on what to do when an earthquake hits, useful information in this part of the world.

Then it was time to try The Shake House, a mocked-up Victorian house in which you get to experience both the 1989 quake, called Loma Prieta, and the devastating 7.9-magnitude quake of 1906.

The mock window view from The Shake House showed The Painted Ladies, the colourful row of Victorian homes fronting Alamo Square, where Kate and I were to meet up.

The apex of the park offers panoramic views of the city and Bay and is best known for the opening credits of the 1980s and '90s sitcom Full House. The Tanner family is shown picnicking in the park, with the pastel homes in the background. The house front in the show is a few blocks away.

All that walking was rewarded at night with some spectacular meals, the best coming on our first day. After about 18 hours on the go, Burritt Tavern delivered with brilliant seafood and a sweet server who understood the frayed nerves of weary travellers.

The cinnamon-dusted Sea of Cortez scallops, topped by duck prosciutto and smoked pistachio, backed by a side of pumpkin risotto was a magical medley.

And the grilled Hawaiian pink swordfish with a golden raisin, curry-brown butter caper sauce, ably supported by caramelized cauliflower, won a gush of approval.

Meantime, at Waterbar, by the start of the Bay Bridge near the city's financial district, a big crowd buzzed in a room defined by two cylindrical, 4.5-metre-high aquariums featuring live coral.

Bonus eye candy came in the form of a light show pulsing along the San Francisco-to-Oakland bridge, an electric fish swimming down the span or bright waves washing to shore, to name a few images.

The $8-million project, launched in March, features 250,000 lights and celebrates the bridge's 75th anniversary.

The food lit us up too -- striped bass with a light harmony of flavours featuring peppers, asparagus and a Mandarin pur}e and farm-raised trout with crispy skin over bok choy and a side of mussels, pork belly and beans with citrus foam. In Sausalito, Scoma's offered sunny open-air perches by the Bay, where we enjoyed a cilantro-lime prawn salad and Cabrese salad, and a funky Mexican place called Sausalito Taco provided fresh fare at good prices.

For a trip finale, we checked out the Muir Woods & Wine Country Escape with Extranomical Tours. With the wine-tasting component, it seemed best to leave the driving to someone else.

With an early 7:30 a.m. start we beat the rush to Muir Woods park for a 30-minute hike among the giant redwoods, some up to 800 years old. The cool, crisp air and ups and downs of the paths through the valley was an invigorating tonic.

Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma was the first wine destination and flutes of Carneros Cuvee awaited us in the tasting room. After a brief tutorial on the richly structured sparkling wine, we basked in the sun on the Vista Terrace overlooking vineyards and olive trees with glasses of Pinot Noir and Merlot.

Then it was on to Madonna Estate in Napa for multiple tastings from their stable of 10 wines and some quiet time in the garden.

The nine-hour tour featured lunch in the historic city of Sonoma, where the rebellion against Mexican rule was centred.

The tour concluded with a stop on the Marin Headlands and an unparalleled view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a worthy outing, enlivened by the breezy commentary of driver/guide Paul Nicolas.

So a lot squeezed into four days. And the best gift ever at the end.

"I'd love to travel with you again," said Kate.

 

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 E1

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