By Aidan Goldstraw
Tony Bennett famously left his heart there - one trip to San Francisco may leave you understanding his apparent carelessness.
The City (note the capital C), as its residents and visitors alike learn to call it (it’s never San Fran and Frisco might just get you lynched) sits in the stunning Bay Area of northern California. Despite the fact that it’s a notoriously geologically unstable part of the world (my own first visit coincided with the major earthquake of 1989), it’s such a glorious setting that you instantly see why despite the risks, San Francisco’s citizens resolutely stay put.
San Francisco was the first stop on a two-week American road trip for myself and my wife Vikki. After picking up a car from the airport, we were pretty glad to have brought along a satellite navigation device as we entered the city’s bustling freeway system.
That got us safely to our home for the next three days, the Holiday Inn at Fisherman’s Wharf. While not outstandingly luxurious, the staff are very friendly, there’s on-site parking and it’s only a step away from the heart of the tourist area.
Part of San Francisco’s attraction is its sense of difference from other large American cities. It’s not a sprawling grid set out on a flat pancake of land. This is a city of intimate streets - and plenty of hills.
It was these hills, and the danger they posed to horses, that first led San Francisco’s city fathers to install perhaps the city’s most instantly recognisable icon, the cable car. Although nowadays reduced to only two lines, they still play an important part in the city’s public transport infrastructure (along with trolley buses, trams and the BART underground system). Avoid daily commute times if you just want to play cable cars, as we did.
Like most of the world’s major cities, you could spent a month in San Francisco and still not see everything. As always, prioritise before you go.
One thing most people won’t want to miss is a cruise around the Bay, to take in the views of the famed Golden Gate Bridge and the stunning city panorama. Head down to Fisherman’s Wharf and you’ll find dozens of options - most cruises take you up to the bridge (where you’ll start to feel the rather more rigorous swell of the open Pacific!) and around the former prison island of Alcatraz (pictured).
A couple of the cruise lines actually take people out to this notorious island for a look around what’s left of the prison, but booking in advance is well advised here - these trips get booked up very quickly, particularly in the summer.
The oceanfront at Fisherman’s Wharf and its piers will inevitably be on your list. It’s certainly tourist-oriented (though not ridiculously so) and there’s plenty to see at Pier 69 in particular, including the playful, noisy (and rather smelly) sealions who live down there (pictured).
Fisherman’s Wharf is where you’ll also find the impressive Aquarium of the Bay and the Boudin bakery, home of San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread.
After our first couple of busy days taking in sights such as these, Vikki and I were ready for something rather more relaxing, so we rescued the car from the hotel’s garage and headed north over the Golden Gate Bridge for the Sonoma Valley.
Sonoma’s neighbour Napa may be a more familiar name on wine labels but it’s westward neighbour has a distinct charm and character of its own, with rolling, green hills and small, intimate wineries which are generally quieter and more intimate than most of the Napa’s.
Our first stop was the Viansa winery, the brainchild of Sam and Vicki Sebastiani (Viansa is a contraction of “Vicki and Sam"), who left the family winemaking dynasty to create their own temple to food and wine.
Drawing heavily on their Italian heritage, the character of most of Viansa’s output has a distinctly latin flavour, including an outstanding and unusual red made with the “Aleatico” varietal of grape, producing an intensely fruity and even slightly sweet sensation in the mouth.
The Benziger winery around 25 miles north is also a small family operation but a huge testament to vision and determination. Barely 20 years ago the natural volcanic bowl on which the winery sits was uncultivated scrub. The Benziger family had a vision of turning it into a world-class winery and that’s precisely what has been achieved.
Benziger produces red and white, but it’s dominant colour is green. It uses a method of organic farming Benziger has christened (and trademarked) as Biodynamic. The result is a fine range of pure and delicious wines, including a Petit Syrah which despite the varietal’s name is an enormous mouthful of taste sensations.
After two wineries (and with me driving), we thought it prudent to seek out new sights, so in the afternoon we headed west to the Marin headlands to Muir Woods, home of the huge coastal redwoods. These magnificent trees produce a cathedral-like environment for walkers on the trails below, as shafts of sunlight penetrate into the dense, quiet forest. Yosemite’s sequoias are larger in terms of girth, but the coastal redwoods are taller and quite breathtaking.
We headed back to San Francisco relaxed and happy. The next day we were heading 300 miles inland for the next part of our American road trip!