An appetite for West Coast living is fed in and around San Francisco A TASTE OF California

October 16, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

We had little more than a week to fulfill a recurring dream -- taste Northern California living. We decided we could absorb the most from the coast by dividing our meal into four courses.

The main course would revolve around our vacation capital of San Francisco, where we planned to spend about half of our time. We would devote the remaining days to the wine country of Napa Valley, the coastal city of Carmel and Marin County, which is connected to San Francisco to the north by the fabled Golden Gate Bridge.

On the first leg of the trip, we stayed with friends who moved several years ago to San Francisco from Baltimore. Besides saving us several hundred dollars in lodging expense -- the cheapest places in town charge in the $70-$80 range per night -- they came in handy as tour guides, steering us away from the well-traveled paths of other tourists.

Upon our arrival, we learned firsthand about some staples of city living, namely summer fog, wind, cool, variable temperatures and a landscape of steep hills that provide vistas everywhere. There is no better place for such an introduction than Twin Peaks, located in the city's center, nearly 1,000 feet above sea level.

At the airport, the temperature was 60 degrees, a pleasant departure from the Baltimore heat wave we'd escaped. But by the time we reached Twin Peaks, we needed sweat shirts and jackets to brace ourselves against the wind-chilled, 45-degree air. People we assumed to be natives wore parkas while peering through telescopes to get closer views of the city. And what views they were, clear to the San Francisco Bay in the north and east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

Our friends reside in the Richmond district, an ideal spot located in the city's northwest section. Just to the south is 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park, San Francisco's more intimate answer to New York's Central Park. A five-minute drive west puts you on the Pacific Coast.

Our first full day greeted us with fog and morning chill, and we set about exploring Richmond on foot. We checked out the ornate Victorian homes (another city staple) in Richmond, then sampled some of the strongest, richest mocha java we'd ever tasted in one of the city's hundreds of inviting coffeehouses. After that pick-me-up, it was time to ride.

We rented bikes, and rode to the coast, specifically the section of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area that lines the South Bay, which flows into the Pacific. The overlooks along China Beach and Baker Beach provided us with wonderful stopping points. Then it was onto the hiking/biking trails that wind through Land's End in Lincoln Park, where we broke for lunch.

The temperature had risen a bit, and the fog had begun to break. As a result, we could see most of the Golden Gate Bridge to our right. At Land's End, we decided to carry our bikes up a steep hill, where we reached a series of rocks that seemed a perfect setting for the lunch we'd packed in the morning. For the next hour, we refreshed ourselves and rested, while watching sea lions frolic in the bay below as the fog dissipated. The sun gradually broke through. A chilly, gloomy morning had given way to a gorgeous day.

We spent the rest of the afternoon meandering through Golden Gate Park, where cars, joggers, bikers and in-line skaters jockeyed casually for room. The park is loaded with visual treats. The ones that especially grabbed us were the Japanese Tea Garden, a four-acre village of small ponds, streams and flowering shrubs; and a large buffalo paddock, where we went eyeball-to-eyeball with these massive beasts.

A visit to San Francisco eventually must include shopping and browsing, so we decided to devote our next day to the northern waterfront. We started at Fort Mason and walked east along the waterfront to Fisherman's Wharf, a shopper's paradise. Don't miss Ghirardelli Square, once the brick factory where the famous chocolate was made and now the home of an inviting collection of shops, restaurants and galleries.

On the wharf

The wharf food is outstanding. The seafood restaurants come highly recommended, but on a sunny, 70-degree day, we sampled sidewalk crab counters that offered take-away shrimp and crab cocktails. We then made our way up to Pier 39, one of the wharf's more popular stops. We watched migrating sea lions basking and playing on an enclosed part of the pier. During mid-winter, several hundred often show up.

For $11, we took the ferry across the bay to Sausalito and Tiburon, located at the southern end of Marin County. There, some of Northern California's most expensive Victorian mansions dot the bay's shoreline. After a brief taste of Marin County -- a memorable snack by the bay, followed by a stroll through the Sausalito streets that led us to the town's picturesque yacht club, we resolved to explore Marin in more depth the next day.

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