When you think of Northern California, Napa is probably the first thing that pops into your head. Visions of the greenest rolling hills with plots of your favorite grapes growing in the valleys instantly captivate your thoughts. But beyond the pine and vine, there is beauty, romance, and the freshest food your tongue has ever tasted awaiting you with open arms. I offer you a weekend tour that loops you through San Francisco, the wine country and the pristine coast. Just as Tony Bennett sings, you’ll leave your heart, or at least a piece of it, here.
To explore this culturally rich and heavenly gastronomic region, you’ll need four days, a decent budget, and a person you love to talk to. No heels or suits required—this is a casual getaway.
Friday: Sites in the City
Your journey begins in the city by the bay. Touring the countryside will involve driving, so you’ll need to rent a car upon arrival. If the weather is nice, I recommend a cute convertible or Jeep Wrangler so your hair can fly in the wind when you hightail it out of town tomorrow. Every hotel chain has a San Francisco location, but the St. Regis in Soma/downtown offers modern décor, floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the city, a spacious bathtub, and a popular bar, which is all you’ll need for your one night. Other recommended downtown hotels are the W San Francisco (Starwoodhotels.com) and the InterContinental (Intercontinentalsanfrancisco.com).
The culture in the city is richer than marscarpone—you could spend years getting to know the intricacies. In one day, you’ll have time only to skim the surface, so hop in your car (even better, hire a driver) to explore the distinct neighborhoods. Plot a route because one-way streets run rampant among the steep hills.
But first things first: Lunch. If you’re starving, walk to Salt (Salthousesf.com) to introduce your palette to what fresh-from-the-farm food actually tastes like.
Otherwise, grab a bite in one of the neighborhoods you visit. Pane e Vino is in the Marina area where the trendy, young yuppies live and shop. Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio is upscale and close to the “Rodeo Drive” on Maiden Lane in Union Square. In Haight-Ashbury, you’ll get to see where all the cool kids hang out, such as Magnolia Pub (Magnoliapub.com). From there, take a stroll through Golden Gate Park.
Eventually make your way up to Twin Peaks, where you can see the expanse that is San Francisco. Take a breath—this view is priceless (as in the picture above).
Finally, your day ends in the Mission District. You have two casual options that both serve delectable California cuisine and require a reservation: a patio table at Foreign Cinema (foreigncinema.com) that projects a silent movie while you dine, or any table you can get at Range (Rangesf.com), home to chefs Phil and Cameron West, who just might win the next James Beard Award for their menu.
Saturday and Sunday: Pour the Wine, Please
Rise and shine—early! You’re not meant to start this day without coffee. Don’t settle for Peet’s; go to the Ferry building, home to a true farmers market as well as fine boutique eateries such as Blue Bottle Coffee (Ferrybuildingmarketplace.com), which serves up cappuccinos like you’d find in New York. Once the perfectly frothed milk hits your lips, you’ll be ready to head to the hills for wine. Pack yourself up in the car and take the Golden Gate Bridge north past Alcatraz, Sausalito, and Marin County, where some of the wealthiest people in the world seclude themselves. Taking the 101 to the CA-12 takes a little longer, but the scenery is worth the extra thirty minutes.
Settling in for the weekend, I recommend a casita at the Solage (Solagecalistoga.com) for peace and quiet accompanied with a trendy pool, sensual spa, and Michelin Star restaurant. If you want to up your game, head to its sister property, the Auberge du Soleil (Aubergedusoleil.com). Even if you don’t stay here, one night you must savor the Michelin menu and breathtaking view. Other recommended accommodations include the Meadowood (Meadowood.com) and the Calistoga Inn (Calistogainn.com).
Once you see a map of the vineyards, you’ll recognize many brands, and I encourage you to try the ones you don’t. Sterling has an amazing view, and I think you would enjoy the authenticity of Cuvaison or Round Pound. My advice is to figure out where your favorites are and then try a few unknowns in between. Or dive around and pull in when you feel compelled. The towns of St. Helena and Yountville are cute places to stroll hand in hand and nibble on fresh pastries, cheeses, and chocolates.
Dining in the valley enhances the wine. And gentlemen, you don’t have to throw on more than a polo and khakis to go out for dinner. Favorites include the famed French Laundry (Frenchlaundry.com) and the chain Bouchon (Bouchonbistro.com). Another night, go local and experience the fare the region thrives on. Press (Presssthelena.com) and Cindy’s (Cindysback streetkitchen.com) serve veggies that taste like they’re straight from the garden and savory meats that won’t leave you stuffed.
Monday: Before You Go …
Enjoy every second you have left by taking the four-hour scenic route down Highway 1. Most of you have heard of the Pacific Coast Highway that runs alongside the crashing waves and white beaches in the south. The northern coast is much more serene and harbors small towns, steep cliffs, rolling grass hills, and plush farmlands. Deep conversation and hearty laughs come naturally on this drive. Glance over your right shoulder to the glass-top bay scattered with sailboats and you’ll really feel like you’re driving through heaven. Following a twisted one-lane highway soaking in different topographies, you’ll feel as though you’ve visited four different countries.
All of these bends and turns will lead you back to SFO, but if you close your eyes ten years from now, you’ll be able to see where you left your heart by the bay.
(My article was published in The Houston Chronicle on July 21, 2010.)