July 12, 2004 -- I've let down Tony Bennett. I went to San Francisco, but left with my heart intact. Oh, there is much to thrill a visitor here and I did enjoy my recent stay in the famous city by the bay. But now that I've toured it, I can safely say I'd take Rome, Paris, and certainly Manhattan over it any day of the week. Perhaps it was the laid-back pace, almost slothful to a born-and-bred New Yorker conditioned to use every minute to its nth degree. Or maybe it's just a case of too-high expectations after reading and hearing raves about it for so many years. It's a beautiful city, though not quite the paradise described by those who tend to wax enthusiastic over its charms while overlooking its faults.
Two Cool Spots to Stay
One highpoint of the city was its accommodations. San Francisco boasts many fine hotels, though they are often pricey. Here are two great places that won't break your budget and offer great value for your money.
In Union Square
Very popular with shoppers, business people, families, and Europeans is Joie de Vivre Hospitality's Maxwell Hotel (www.jdvhospitality.com) in Union Square. It's location, in a safe section of the city's shopping and theater district, is priceless. Indeed, the setting has inspired this historic hotel's rich theatrical decor: public areas and guest rooms are loaded with rich fabrics, dark woods, and lots of artwork (check out the Picasso-like paintings in the elevator -- they were done by one of the hotel's bellmen). Though the hotel is by no means new (it opened in 1908) and has retained its old-fashioned charm, it's been kept up to date. Structural improvements in 2003 included a complete overhaul of the plumbing system and new carpets, and by December 2004 all of the guest rooms will have high-speed Internet access; free WiFi access is already available in the lobby. The staff is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.
Guest rooms are surprisingly large, and the beds and pillows are very comfortable. The lighting could be better (though that's in keeping with the theatrical tone) and some rooms do get noise leakage from the street below (not unexpected in a busy downtown location; ask for a room on a high floor if you're a light sleeper). In keeping with its shopping- and family-friendly nature, the hotel offers lots of closet and drawer space as well as a complimentary shopping bag in the closet. Bathrooms are small but immaculate and the water pressure is great. The hotel's junior suites are among the best deals in the city, but best of all are pair of one-bedroom suites on the 13th floor, both of which offer separate living rooms and exceptional views of the city (one even has a private rooftop deck). With a rack rate of a mere $500, these two suites are a steal.
The Maxwell's unique services for shoppers include a special newsletter that features coupons and discounts at nearby shops and department stores. And when you've worn out your heels (and credit card) for the day, there's even a foot massager available to guests on request. Families can take advantage of the weekend Kids Are V.I.P.s package, which enables parents to rent an adjoining guestroom for their kids at half the regular rate and tosses in some kid-friendly extras, including a free welcome gift for your offspring at check-in. Rates for the Kids package start at $129 for the first room, plus $65 for the adjoining room. Regular hotel rates start at $159 double.
Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay
The Argonaut Hotel (www.argonauthotel.com) made its debut at Fisherman's Wharf in 2003 and has already taken the crown as best hotel in the area, attracting both business and leisure travelers alike. The Argonaut is located inside the Maritime National Historic Park (the National Park Service leased the Argonaut's building to the Kimpton Hotel Group) and the park's visitor center is just off the hotel's lobby. The hotel itself is an historic landmark, having originally been built in 1909 as a warehouse for the adjacent cannery (it was later turned into a general storehouse where William Randolph Hearst stored a number of items later displayed in San Simeon while his castle was being built). The location is exceptional: on the wharf and within walking distance of Ghirardelli Square and the Hyde-Powell cable car terminus, but far enough from the tourist buzz that it's remarkably peaceful.
The decor of the hotel is intended to mimic the atmosphere of a luxury cruise ship, and the public area's maritime artifacts (on loan from the NPS), padded lounge chairs, whimsical murals, wood floors, and a check-in desk designed like a steamer trunk all add an air of authenticity to the ocean theme. And because the hotel is new, everything's in ship-shape condition. The nautical theme (more homey than over-the-top) extends to the average-size guest rooms, which are done up in cheerful primary color schemes; some have the building's original brick walls. The beds are incredibly comfortable if a tad short (six "Tall rooms" with extra-long beds are available. Amenities are first rate, including flat-screen Sony Wega TVs, DVD and CD players, Aveda toiletries in the bathrooms, Web-TV access (with a very odd pricing scheme), and leopard-spotted bathrobes (a little jarring in a ship-themed hotel). If it's in your budget, I recommend you opt for a View room -- mine offered a magnificent vista of Alcatraz. The 13 suites toss in separate soaking tubs and showers, fabulous views, and telescopes to give you an even better look at the bay. A strange note: The bathroom doors are pocket doors that don't have locks on them, an inconvenience to privacy if you have little kids walking around.
Children, who are generally enthralled by the ship theme, are catered to at this hotel; little ones get a chance to select a toy from a "treasure chest" at check-in and king rooms offer pullout couches for those traveling with their offspring. Families can opt to dine at wooden picnic-style tables inside the (what else?) nautically themed and award-winning Blue Mermaid Chowder House & Bar. Adults will appreciate the free WiFi access and evening wine receptions in the lobby. Fitness nuts can use the hotel's exercise room, or work out in-room while watching the yoga channel. The hotel's staff is incredibly gracious and helpful -- the concierge scrounged up tickets for a last-minute trip to Alcatraz when you couldn't find them anywhere else. And the price is right: doubles start at only $159.
Touring the City: The Good
There is a good deal to recommend about the city, the fifth most visited in the United States. I don't need to tell foodies it's a dining mecca that ranks among the top cities in the world for a good meal. And for those with a sweet tooth, a pilgrimage to the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain (www.ghirardelli.com/shops_flagship.html) for a hot fudge sundae, even at a pricey $6.50 plus tax, is a must.
When you need to work off all of those calories, the city's municipal parks are among the most beautiful and wide-ranging in the country. This New Yorker thought -- sacrilege! -- Golden Gate Park and the Presidio even better than Central Park. Should you prefer your outdoor experiences with a touch more wilderness, the beauty of the Pacific coast and the majestic redwoods of Muir Woods (www.nps.gov/muwo) are all within easy driving distance. Want a spectacular view of the city (though you'll end up a trifle wind-blown)? Head up to Twin Peaks, where you'll find an incredible panorama of San Francisco spread out beneath you.
If a city stroll is more your thing, there are any number of interesting walking possibilities available, from the city's famous Chinatown -- undoubtedly, the country's best -- to its historic neighborhoods, chock full of picturesque Victorian homes (though you'd better be fit to tackle the city's famous hills or a stroll might have you feeling as if you're climbing Everest).
And then there's the weather. Once you discount the morning fog and the swirling (and chilly) evening winds that, even in summer, send visitors scurrying into souvenir shops to load up on warm sweatshirts, the climate is exceptional. I certainly didn't miss trading in home's heat and humidity for San Francisco's almost too perfect mixture of sun and clouds.
The Bad (and not so bad)
If your vacation interests trend more towards museum- and attraction-hopping, or if you prefer to party late into the night, you'll find San Francisco something of a letdown. There are museums, but most of them can't compete with those in other major cities. The best in town: The California Palace of the Legion of Honor (www.thinker.org), where the permanent collections include works by Monet, Picasso, Gainsborough, Rodin (including a casting of his famous Thinker), and Rubens; a wonderful assortment of decorative art; some masterful drawings by artists such as Kandinsky and Gaugin; and an exceptional array of graphic art. And the setting itself is memorable, a three-quarter-scale adaptation of the Paris's Palais de la Légion d'Honneur set atop a cliff in Lincoln Park with a breathtaking view of the bay. Best of all, admission is free every Tuesday.
Most of the city's popular attractions are either tourist traps or bland. It says something when one of the most visited (and promoted) spots in a city is a schlocky boardwalk infested mostly by tacky souvenir shops and overpriced tourist traps. The best thing about the city's famous Pier 39 is the group of sea lions who lounge there. Stick to watching the sea lions and don't bother with the over-priced and underwhelming Aquarium By the Bay. And though the city's famed cable cars are worth a ride, be prepared to wait up to an hour to board one.
The city's best manmade attraction still has an element of the outdoors to it: Alcatraz Island (www.nps.gov/alcatraz), is home to arguably the country's most famous prison, but is also a wildlife and natural refuge overseen by the National Park Service (don't even think about trampling the plants or feeding the birds). Be sure to buy tickets here as early as you can because the ferries here sell out days (sometimes as much as a week) in advance. After the long climb to the top (the equivalent of scaling 13 stories ... you didn't think it would be easy getting in and out of Alcatraz, did you?), be sure to take the fascinating audio tour of the atmospheric cellblocks and visit the quarters that housed Al Capone, among others. While you're up there, don't let the windy conditions deter you from venturing into the prison's old recreation yard, where you'll be treated to one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge (albeit through the barbed wire lining the walls). The island also offers the city's corniest souvenir: In order to help its conservation and restoration efforts, and with tongue firmly in cheek, the NPS sells small pieces of the long-crumbled prison structure in gift shops, exhorting visitors to "get a piece of the Rock." Tip: Bring bottled water and snacks along with you as you can't get them on the island and the prices on the ferry to Alcatraz are predictably high.
When you're done touring for the day, the city's nightlife is surprisingly limited. One local confessed the city pretty much rolls up its sidewalks around 11pm and I can attest to the truth of his words; even the tourist schlock havens were hardly homey to night owls. And though there is a burgeoning café culture of the sort most often seen in Europe -- indeed, San Francisco has the most European flavor of any of the many U.S. cities I've explored over the years -- it's somewhat narrow in scope.
Perhaps most jarring thing I noticed while combing the city was the significant number of homeless walking the streets, some of whom were clearly in need of medical or psychiatric assistance. That's nothing new to someone who remembers what Times Square was like before it was given a makeover in the 90s, but the aggressiveness of the panhandlers and vagrants was something of a surprise. I've never encountered anything like it in any other city. A friend and I were warned to stay out of certain areas (especially the Tenderloin) at night and even, in some instances, during the day. By and large most visitors didn't seem all that worried, though many fellow travelers did admit to taking notice.
Still, despite all of its drawbacks, I must admit that for a traveler like me -- the one who takes trips, and ends up needing a vacation after she's just had one -- the forced relaxation of San Francisco's laid-back pace was something of a wonder. I didn't leave my heart high on one of the city's hills ... but it wasn't a bad place to visit.
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