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Weekend Traveler

The wonders of the historic San Francisco waterfront

Mezmerizing view from the Fairmont Heritage Place (photo: Bo Links)

As locals, it’s easy to take San Francisco’s natural beauty for granted. Its prime location means the waterfront offers one knockout view after another. From the pristine Presidio to the Embarcadero, enjoy vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, the Bay Bridge, and beyond. And steep yourself in history along the way.

Settlers from Northern California missions in 1835 created the port of Yerba Buena. During the Mexican-American war in 1846, California was declared part of the United States, and a year later, the port’s name was changed to San Francisco. Initially, the edge of the city was filled with a collection of docks and other buildings built on ships’ remains that often fell into the muddy bay waters.

Today, there’s still work to be done to restore crumbling piers, but the waterfront remains a bustling destination for locals and tourists alike. Recently my husband and I explored some of what San Francisco’s waterfront has to offer.

STAY

The Fairmont Heritage Place is nestled in historic Ghirardelli Square. This high-end private residence club offers luxury two- and three-bedroom suites with fireplaces, full kitchens, spacious bathrooms and all the personal service you can imagine. Many rooms incorporate original brick walls. All have big windows with views that don’t quit.

This property offers ownership opportunities, so you feel like you’re at home. Attention to detail is over the top: Staff will make arrangements for whatever you need (groceries stocked before you arrive), book fun things to do (try tasting caviar), and secure reservations at coveted restaurants.

At 5 p.m., join other guests for wine and cheese in the lounge. And in the morning, an array of hot and cold breakfast foods fuels you for the day (415.292.1000, fairmontatghirardelli.com/).

The Argonaut is a boutique hotel in the Haslett Warehouse, another San Francisco landmark. Built in 1907 as part of the Cannery, the warehouse once housed fruits and vegetables. Exposed brick, lots of wood, and of course, everything nautical are integral in the hotel’s design. The lobby even boasts decks chairs.

Most of the rooms have scenic views; all are decorated with a blue and white theme. For yoga enthusiasts, there’s a mat and a dedicated TV channel. The Argonaut welcomes all sizes and shapes of pets, so don’t leave yours at home. Every evening relax with hosted wine in the lobby (415-563-0800, argonauthotel.com).

Argonaut's view of the waterfront (photo: Bo Links)

Inn at the Presidio is located in historic Pershing Hall, built in 1903 as quarters for Army officers. The building has maintained an intimate feel with a common living room and “mess” hall where guests gather for breakfast and for wine and hors d’ouevres in the afternoon. Find porches and rocking chairs on both the ground and second floors in the front of the building. There’s a deck and fire pit in the back.

Enjoy the waterfront from the Inn at the Presidio (photo: Bo Links)

The inn is LEED Gold certified and aggressively embraces a green and local business philosophy. The modern rooms feature warm colors and comfortable leather furniture throughout. The decor incorporates photos and other memorabilia from military days (415-800-7356, innatthepresidio.com).

PLAY

This trip we focused exclusively on wine tasting and history and uncovered many treasures. The miles of trails and paths along the waterfront are saved for a day of hiking, biking, and walking.

Ghirardelli Square was built in 1893 as the home of the Ghirardelli family’s burgeoning chocolate business. The buildings are well known: Clock Tower, Chocolate Building, Woolen Mill, and more. Today it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places (415-775-5500; ghirardellisq.com/).

We started at the Wattle Creek tasting room. The winery, located in Cloverdale, produces small-lot wines almost exclusively from their Alexander Valley estate. Make yourself comfortable at the bar inside or at a table on the patio. Either way, you’ll find great wines, like the 2011 Triple Play (Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Viognier) and these 2010 Vintage Selects: Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon (415-359-1206; wattlecreek.com).

Next door to the Argonaut is the Winery Collective. This tasting room offers an array of varietals from more than a dozen California wineries. Sample wines from small-lot wineries without ever leaving San Francisco. Highlights include the 2011 Canihan Family Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and the NV VIE Mélange Maison II, a Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre blend (415-929-9463; winerycollective.com).

The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is a great place to learn about San Francisco’s past: Tour legendary vessels along the Hyde Street Pier, spend time in the Maritime library, explore the visitor center’s hands-on exhibits and relax in Aquatic Park (415-447-5000, nps.gov).

The waterfront from the iconic Hyde Street cable car (photo: Bo Links)

The Presidio is a historic gem. Before 1776 when it became a Spanish military outpost, the area was home to American Indians. The verdant land passed through Mexican occupation before being declared a post of the United States in 1847. In 1994, it became part of the National Park Service, and in 1996, the Presidio Trust was established as the steward of the land (415-561-5300, presidio.gov).

DINE

The Presidio Officer’s Club is home to Arguello. This restaurant delivers with a casual vibe: Fantastic Mexican cuisine, superb lineup of tequilas, and decor (both inside and out) that pays respect to the Presidio’s heritage.

Cozy interior at Arguello in the Presidio (photo: Bo Links)

To start, margaritas: We savored the smoky Oaxacan with mezcal and the Clasica with pueblo viejo blanco tequila. The house-made chips are the perfect accompaniment to tangy guacamole and kicked-up salsas. The jicama salad has great flavor and texture and the tasty shrimp-squid-scallop ceviche is served in a spicy sauce. The whole shrimp al ajillo (with garlic and guajillo chilies) with cilantro rice is not to be missed. Our sweet ending was a luscious passion fruit curd (415-561-3650, arguellosf.com).

Housed in the same historic warehouse as the Argonaut, the walls of the Blue Mermaid Chowder House are decorated with replicas of labels found on myriad products in the old Cannery. The restaurant follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guidelines for sustainability. With six house-made chowders on the menu, we had an interesting tasting: Dungeness crab and corn; New England, Manhattan, and California clam; mussels and andouille sausage; and shrimp and red pepper (415-771-2222, bluemermaidsf.com).

Forbes Island is an ideal location for a waterfront view of the city and the bay. A quick ride from Pier 39, the interior is laden with rich woods, nautical features (think gleaming brass and portholes) and offers a mellow vibe with its jazz vocalists crooning in the background. The island offers distinctive underwater dining rooms and relaxing areas at sea level. The Canadian salmon was moist and flaky and the luscious tarte tatin had vanilla ice cream melting over richly caramelized apples on flaky pastry dough (415-951-4900, forbesisland.com).

The waterfront view from Forbes Island is stunning (photo: Bo Links)

OTHER ESSENTIALS

San Francisco Travel: sanfrancisco.travel

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Patty Burness can be found on Twitter at @pattygb or reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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