Stopping to lean against the rust orange railings, we feel the vibrations of hundreds of cars thundering by. The sharp wind blows strong at this height, and the fog, like a living beast, rolls and claws its way across the dry hilltops opposite. Far below, seemingly tiny sailboats skim across the choppy water. Too chilled to linger more, we hop back on our bikes – and suddenly, as we roll down into the quaint seaside town of Sausalito, we enter a different microclimate, where the wind dies down, the sun shines warm and we can sit with cappuccinos by the bay.
It’s an understatement to say that biking across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is a dramatic experience. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the city’s most famous icon in pictures or on TV. Looking up from the bicycle lane at the 746-foot high twin towers anchoring the massive single suspension span, you can’t help but be awed at this amazing engineering feat.
If you think you’ve “done” San Francisco, think again. There are many layers to peel. And each time you visit, the city reveals new and different facets to discover. On this northern California getaway, we want to indulge in the city’s food and wine. (Hey, San Fran started the “eat local, eat fresh” movement, and it’s hailed as one of the best food cities in the world.) And then we want to indulge some more on a side-trip to Sonoma. But staying somewhat active is important to us too. And we want to experience something more edgy than simply visiting the usual touristy sights.
Courtesy of Fog Harbor Fish House
We reflect on this over dinner one night at the Michelin-starred SPQR on eclectic Fillmore Street. Tiny SPQR packs them in with Chef Accarrino’s inventive and exquisite pastas, like his buckwheat tagliatelle with braised suckling pork and smoked fettuccine with sea urchin, bacon and quail egg. We ponder this some more another night at Fog Harbor Fish House at Fisherman’s Wharf, as we crack whole garlic-roasted crab, soaking up the delicious buttery garlic sauce with crusty sourdough bread. And we think on this further at Le Colonial, where rattan furniture and lazily turning fans transport us back to 1920s Indochine, as we sample delicate Vietnamese offerings.
Courtesy of Le Colonial
Perhaps we should slip in a run on our visit? Explore San Francisco offers a new sightseeing “Art in Nature” running tour. The six-mile run starts from the DeYoung Museum and winds through the Presidio’s man-made forest, incorporating several hills and viewpoints. For something less strenuous, Urban Hiker offers a five-mile urban-jungle jaunt climbing quaint staircases and an unmarked trail to the summit of Twin Peaks.
Courtesy of Adventure Cat
We choose, however, to walk, walk, walk everywhere. And we opt for a sailing trip on a large catamaran with Adventure Cat that whisks us past the rocky prison island of Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge. This is no gentle sightseeing granny cruise. We’re under sail 90% of the time, blasting through white caps on the bay. It’s exhilarating and gives us a real feel for being out on the unprotected Pacific. To excite the soul, we’re told the new all-glass and state-of-the-art SF Jazz Center blows the roof off with performances by the Alfredo Rodriguez Trio and 14-time Grammy winner Herbie Hancock (but that will have to wait for our next visit).
Courtesy of Coqueta
Later, we return to the goal of eating our way through more of San Fran’s great restaurants. And with somewhere between 4,000 to 5,000 restaurants, there’s no lack of choice. Of the new ones to hit the culinary scene, the re-invented Tosca Café in North Beach reels in the crowds with its crispy pig tails appetizer and cream-cloaked lumaconi pasta topped with lemon breadcrumbs. Coqueta is also much-hyped. On the Embarcadero waterfront, this 50-seat show-stopper, with wood floors, cowhide rugs and views of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, features a Spanish-influenced menu of tapas like duck-and-pork meatballs and grilled razor clams with salsa verde, along with paella.
Then, before we know it, we’re in Sonoma.
Courtesy of Sonomawine.com
About an hour north of San Fran, the Sonoma wine-growing region is more laid-back and less visited than neighboring Napa (where you rub shoulders with up to 25 people at a time, compared to only six to ten visitors in Sonoma’s wine tasting rooms). Still, Sonoma’s more than 350 wineries pack an intoxicating punch.
Up first? A sip-n-cycle tour with Getaway Adventures up the long finger of Sonoma’s bucolic Dry Creek Valley, where the sun-baked hills are reminiscent of Provence or Tuscany. Bike intensive or wine intensive? We opt for wine intensive. So on our ten-mile pedal on quiet country roads, we stop often. In red-earth vineyards, our guide explains how the small bonsai-style tree vines, which produce the rich jammy Zinfandel wines for which Dry Creek is famous, are from 30 to 100 years old. They’ll yield fewer grapes than young vines, but the wine will be finer and more focused.
We taste-test different Zinfadels and other varietals at several wineries this day and the next, cycling out on our own. At Zichichi Family Winery, we love the mouthburst explosion of red currants and wild cherries of their Old Vine Zinfandel (from vines planted in the 1920s). Bella Winery enchants us with its tasting room in a cool, candlelit, cave cellar. Preston Vineyards has an organic farm and country store too – we sample sourdough bread (which the proprietor bakes fresh each morning in a wood-fired oven) while sipping their flagship Sauvignon Blanc in a farmhouse tasting room filled with antique farming implements.
After all that “hard” bicycling, a spa treatment is in order. The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa boasts the grande dame of all Sonoma spas. Its swank 40,000 sq. ft. Willow Stream Spa has a set of cold and hot mineral pools for a bathing ritual that’s included with any treatment. What to have? A lavender facial? Grapeseed body scrub? Chardonnay, olive oil and sugar polish? Too many choices – we settle for a massage.
Another day, we explore by car. We cruise down into the lush Russian River Valley, where vineyard fields flourish below pine-covered hills. At Armstrong Woods State Park, we venture on a short hike through a magnificent forest of ancient coastal redwoods, the world’s tallest and oldest living things. Just imagine. The “Colonel Armstrong” tree – named after the early logger who recognized the value of these primordial trees and made it his personal mission to preserve them – is 1,400 years old.
We continue to the Pacific coast. Here, the surf crashes over gigantic black boulders through thick fog, and gnarled wind-slanted trees grow at a 45 degree angle. A totally different, permanently misty world, and only 45 minutes from wine country!
Looping back, we hit Coleman Valley Road. Truly a road less traveled, it must be one of the world’s most beautiful drives. While paved, its one lonely lane is more of a snaking past arbutus trees, shaggy cows and a magical palette of sunlight-diffused colors. It connects with the Bohemian Wine Trail, 11 miles of asphalt meandering by the pastoral hamlets of Occidental and Monte Rio, with their organic markets, cheese boutiques and funky wine shops.
Courtesy of Chateau St. Jean
Of course, we have to finish off at one more winery. This time, we hit Chateau St. Jean near the town of Sonoma. Founded in 1973, the winery first caught the attention of wine buffs with its stellar Chardonnays. It has since expanded to add reds to its repertoire of pours. Now Chateau St. Jean is most famous for its Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon – a Bordeaux-inspired blend (luscious!) and the first Sonoma wine to be chosen by Wine Spectator as its “Wine of the Year.” The winery estate is also winning. The tasting room is in the restored “chateau,” built as a grand summer home in 1920 for an iron mining magnate. Listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it’s open to the public. And there are plenty of shaded spots to picnic on artisanal cheeses from the onsite deli (along with a glass of wine, of course) among the white roses and tightly-clipped hedges of the elegant chateau gardens.
Courtesy of Dry Creek Kitchen
And what about Sonoma’s restaurants? They rival those in San Fran. Lovely Healdsburg – awash in magnolia trees, high-end boutiques and art galleries – is particularly well-known for its top-notch eateries. There’s Dry Creek Kitchen, one of celebrity chef/owner Charlie Palmer’s restaurants. Its curry-spiced, purple cauliflower soup poured over plump deep-fried shrimp rockets us into gastronomic heaven. Zin’s fried green tomato salad uses veggies pulled from its garden, and its hot peach-and-pear crisp gets rave reviews. And now the new Chalkboard, which opened in May, 2013, tantalizes diners with a daily-changing menu of small plates like buttermilk-fried quail with parsnip puree and a radiatore pasta of lamb and brussel sprouts.
Courtesy of Fairmont Hotels
Courtesy of Fairmont Hotels
Our last night is saved for Sante, the Fairmont’s fine dining restaurant. Its wine list features over 600 different wines, but for a reasonable $25 corkage fee, you can tote in any of those interesting bottles you’ve bought from your wine tasting in the area. Sante has snagged both AAA Four Diamond Award and Michelin star honors. Devouring the OMG mac-and-cheese with succulent lobster and black truffles, we understand why. Mixing up the tried-and-true with the unexpected is a genuine pleasure, just like our northern California getaway.
Written by Janice and George Mucalov. Originally published in Black Tie Magazine Summer 2014 issue.