As I attended elementary school, my family and I lived in a suburb of Oakland, California - across the bay from San Francisco. Several decades later I returned to this beloved area for a jam-packed visit.
After a press tour through Sonoma, I gifted myself one day of solo time in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. With only 24 hours on the clock before I returned to the airport, I arrived at the Best Western Tuscan Inn, where the valets looked like gondola pilots in their black and white horizontal-striped shirts and black straw hats.
The hotel lobby resembled a casual and cozy Italian manor, with a rear window that looked out on a multi-level terrace full of potted flowers and greenery, and small trees. A sign reminded guests about the free happy hour offered every evening, and I vowed to return from my adventures in time to socialize.
I pulled on my warmest jacket against the February chill and set out on foot. The smell of salt water, and uncharacteristically blue winter sky, lifted my spirits. I explored Pier 39 and then headed to the other end of the Wharf where I met a writing acquaintance and local resident, for a private wine tasting at a new wine store.
Fueled by great food and drink, I returned to the streets with stops at Ghirardelli Chocolate Company and several other food purveyors.
As the sun set I walked briskly towards the hotel again, where I joined a large crowd of ruddy faced guests before a roaring fire, still wearing fleece and scarves as they sipped wine and munched on freshly made bruschetta.
Conversation flowed as it often does in a room full of strangers without agendas or previous connections and I found myself talking with a couple visiting from Ireland. She, and I, talked for nearly an hour beyond the last guest’s departure. Only then did I realize how good my comfy bed and soft pillow sounded.
It was late morning when the smell of freshly baked bread drew me to Boudin Bakery, within view of San Francisco Bay. A street musician created sonorous music as he tapped enthusiastically on a twin pair of over-sized bongos, and raucous gulls swooped across parking lots and buildings.
Inside the bakery, more than 150 years of history coalesced in dozens of fresh sourdough loaves, paying homage to a tradition that began when the Gold Rush '49ers merged traditional French baking techniques and 'sour' dough. In fact, today's loaves are still made with a portion of the original 'mother' dough, which has been divided and replenished with flour and water each day since the first batch was made.
With a crunchy crust and a chewy center, a 24-ounce loaf only cost about $4. If I hadn't been so full, from breakfast, I might have grabbed lunch in Bistro Boudin, the company's first full-service restaurant. And if I hadn't been so pressed for time, I would have toured the company's on-site museum - full of city history and antique photos - or stopped by the demonstration bakery.
But, sometimes, it's also nice to have things you can look forward to during your next visit.
Fishermen still moor their boats and unload their catches daily at Fisherman’s Wharf. I walk along Jefferson Street in the early morning and see tanks full of live crabs at Alioto-Lazio Fish Company, one of only two commercial fish-processors and sellers here.
It’s also one of less than two dozen companies at the Wharf that still catch and process their own fish. The family-run operation opened in 1940 and offers shipping services throughout the nation.
Hours later, I walk back towards the docks for dinner. Classic fish stands line the sidewalk where vendors extol the virtues of their enormous shrimp, plump Dungeness crab, succulent swordfish and glistening oysters as hundreds of visitors stream past. Stomach growling, I enter Nick’s Lighthouse - a seafood institution since 1934.
Gingham-checked vinyl covers the tables, fake grapes hang from the ceiling and model ships and thousands of Christmas lights line wooden walls. I seat myself as Sinatra croons and order linguine with crab and tomato sauce. Huge bits of crab are tossed in a chunky light tomato sauce and tiny shrimp pile high on my house salad. I order a crisp chardonnay, dig into my pasta and wonder if the crab came from the Bay this morning.
After walking for 20 minutes through chilly, fog-shrouded morning air, The Buena Vista Café and its legendary Irish coffee beckon me. When I order the signature beverage my server simply says, “Make me one.”
Legend has it that in November 1952, then-owner of the cafe, Jack Koeppler, and international travel writer, Stanton Deleplane, tried to re-create the popular beverage served at Shannon Airport in Ireland, without much success.
But Koeppler was so determined that he visited the Airport to taste the real thing and, many tastings later, he nailed the iconic coffee and whiskey mixture. A local dairy owner helped him recreate the foam.
As the fog thins, cable cars spring to life, cars dim their headlights and dedicated cyclists challenge the city's famed hills. The foam on my Irish coffee lasts for more than 20 minutes in its special six-ounce glass – enough time to make a major dent in a steaming plate of Crab Eggs Benedict. It's worth $7.50 to taste a bit of history with my meal.
Welcome to Visual Traveler.
I love crafting stories about fantastic food & beverages, must-visit destinations & eco-friendly topics. I wrote a 350+ page book about Kansas. And I've worked with dozens of additional clients - from Fodors.com & AAA magazines to USAToday.com & WanderWithWonder.
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In summer 2021 I shut down several old blogs after retrieving some favorite posts. Then I reclaimed my favorite name - Visual Traveler.
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