San Francisco has many reputations: its pea-soup fog is renowned, its Gold Rush history exciting, its hills and clanking trolley cars iconic, while infamous Alcatraz and the towering Golden Gate Bridge stand prominently apart, but famously part of the whole.
It’s also one of the most urbane, progressive cities in the US – a magnet for international tourists and tech entrepreneurs (as well as down-on-their-luck Americans), all attracted to its benign climate and a diverse, cosmopolitan population that has given rise to a thriving arts and culture scene.
The morning I arrive the sun is blazing and there’s not a wisp of fog in the air. My accommodation is lofty both in geographic terms – standing near the top of the steep but stylish Nob Hill district – and in its position within the upper echelons of the hospitality sector. The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco is the city’s only AAA Five Diamond-rated hotel, housed in a gorgeous neoclassical edifice built in 1909. Looking down California Street, a sliver of glittering water and a slice of the Bay Bridge can be seen between the skyscrapers.
The Ritz-Carlton’s interior was renovated a couple of years ago, refurbished with a palette of steel blues and grays representing a weather theme for this city with its own unique microclimate. Lunch at the hotel’s Parallel 37 restaurant is a stomach-bulging affair in the private dining room – Chef Michael Rotondo knows how to craft contemporary American dishes with a dash of panache.
As the jet lag hits, we retire to the hotel’s Spa L’Occitane by the Bay, opened late last year and the brand’s very first in America. A soothing traditional massage is the perfect antidote to a long and tiring, 16-hour transpacific flight.
The Streets of San Francisco
A walking tour of the city doesn’t have to involve incessant hill climbing. We begin ours on a downhill stretch to Chinatown, North America’s first and still its largest. Oriental gateways and hanging red lanterns let you know you’re in an Asia-centric district, as do the packed sidewalks and kitschy souvenir shops.
Just south of Nob Hill is the shopping utopia of Union Square, and on the far side of Market Street we make time for the city’s newest museum – the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (sfmoma.org) – which opened last year, a hotspot for tourists and artistic locals alike.
Back on Market Street we queue for the Powell & Mason cable car that will take us up and over the hills to the north shore. A Citypass (citypass.com) is the way to go here: for just $89 you get free bus, train and cable car rides for seven days, free admission to four top attractions and discounts on dozens of sites and cruises.
The cable car clanks and rattles as it negotiates the steep hills – amazingly it still uses hand-cranked wooden brakes – and we alight at the top of a short but absurdly steep and winding section of Lombard Street. Within little more than 600 feet it makes eight hairpin turns through carefully manicured greenery – it’s one of the city’s most photographed landmarks.
The north shore’s Fisherman’s Wharf dining and entertainment district (fishermanswharf.org) buzzes with energy – except at one spot on Pier 39, where dozens of large California sea lions lounge lazily on floating wooden platforms just feet from the pier. They grunt and bark at each other, and seemingly the world in general – a strangely captivating sight that has us lingering longer than we intended.
Any visit to the City by the Bay must include a trip out to “The Rock” – Alcatraz Island (nps.gov/alca), which served as the US’s most infamous maximum security prison for around 30 years in the mid-20th century. Al Capone, Robert “the Birdman” Stroud, Machine Gun Kelly and other nefarious individuals were locked up here, and the audio tape-assisted tour exceeds expectations, narrated by former prison guards and inmates who take you on an evocative journey through the cells and corridors of this forbidding place.
Out to Napa
A new day brings a new adventure, as we drive across the famous Golden Gate Bridge and head north, past the towering redwood forest of Muir Woods, toward the US’s most famous wine country. The Napa Valley (visitnapavalley.com) holds the title and prestige of being America’s greatest exporter of fine wines. Labels such as Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate are globally renowned, but sun-kissed Napa is home to hundreds of wineries.
We drive north past broad fields of neatly rowed vines and equally neat towns. In near proximity to one such town, Rutherford, we turn up a long, straight driveway to find the Round Pond Estate’s cellars, tasting rooms and restaurant.
Under a high, vaulted ceiling with thick wooden beams we meet Tim Byer, who will talk us through the estate’s wines. “Round Pond spreads out over 470 acres of contiguous valley floor, with lots of soil types,” he enthuses while rustling up a tasty salad for us using Round Pond’s own delicious olive oil. “Eighty-five percent of our grapes are Cabernet – Cab is king in Napa – and we produce 35,000 cases a year, but we also have one of only two olive presses in the region and our artisanal olive oils are famous.”
Over lunch we taste three complex reds and a crisp white, before Tim takes us on a quick tour, stopping off at the olive oil press where I have my first tasting session of olive oil – an eye-opening experience that’s just as intricate as wine tasting. Some of the oils are so pure and strong that I find myself coughing like a first-time smoker, while others are smooth as butter or infused with fruit essences.
Back at the main building we sample some of Round Pond’s best vintages (2012 was a great year), before picking up a bottle or two to take home – along with gift packs of small, round bottles filled with delicious olive oil and piquant red wine vinegar to wow friends and family.
Nature in Luxury Mode
Our next stop proves that Napa has far more to offer than just wine. Meadowood (meadowood.com) is a luxury resort in a stunning location, built into 250 acres of forested hills and boasting its own three-Michelin-star restaurant, a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, an all-suite spa, fitness center with pools – even a manicured croquet lawn.
Guest cabins are scattered throughout the rambling property. All the modern conveniences are present, but the focus here is on seclusion and indulgence in your surroundings – nature in luxury mode.
Over a delicious dinner created by estate chef Alejandro Ayala, director of PR Jennifer Chiesa explains the resort’s vision: “Balance at Meadowood is key, and when one works hard, one should be able to play hard. We want each guest to feel their time on the estate is theirs to do with as they wish. Many come here simply to rest and decompress from busy and hectic lives, but it’s also an ideal destination for incentive corporate trips, directors’ meetings, private events and the like.”
Meadowood puts on a number of events and activities for guests, group teambuilding and incentives, such as cooking or cocktail-making classes, sommelier-led wine experiences or golf tournaments. We are lucky enough to have a croquet lesson from the resort’s resident pro, Mike McDonnell. While many imagine this game as merely backyard fun, there’s much more to it should you wish to get serious.
On Meadowood’s pristine, putting green-quality lawn, with everyone dressed in regulation croquet whites, Mike coaches us in how to hold the mallet and hit the ball, explains the resort’s simplified tournament rules, pours us a glass of sparkling wine and lets us loose.
By the time we finish half of us are hooked, pledging to seek out a croquet club in our respective hometowns. We leave Meadowood reluctantly for the drive back to the city, reminiscing already over this land of plenty, and plotting our return.
Editor’s Note: As we go to press, the tragic wildfires in California continue to burn. At this writing in mid-October, none of the areas mentioned in this feature had been affected, but many homes and businesses had been destroyed or badly damaged. If you plan to visit this region in the near future, we suggest you contact your travel arranger or local authorities in California prior to travel.
By Jeremy Tredinnick