Town and Country: A San Francisco Vacation

A San Francisco vacation offers up a bounty of vacation options. On the one hand there’s the city of San Francisco itself, one of the culinary and cultural capitals of the world. Rich with history and a treasure trove of diverse neighborhoods, this exhilarating city promises endless sights and scenery to explore. On the other hand, just over an hour north of town there’s Sonoma Wine Country a major wine-producing region whose meandering country roads, scenic vineyards, tasting rooms and fine dining present the perfect ingredients for an idyllic getaway.

It certainly makes it difficult to decide how to spend your San Francisco vacation! Fortunately, you don’t have to pick just one. With San Francisco vacation timeshare rentals (Ask about availability) strategically located in both town and country, I can help you enjoy the complete package.

Our San Francisco Vacation begins: The City by the Bay

As our plane begins its approach to one of the greatest cities in the world, my thoughts turn to our destination. There’s so much to love about San Francisco — culinary riches, a happening theater scene, symphony, opera, jazz, eclectic architecture, shopping, museums, world-class parks, the waterfront, iconic Golden Gate Bridge and a history spanning several hundred years. Our San Francisco vacation has begun...but where do we start?

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Pulling up to WorldMark San Francisco (590 Bush St, San Francisco, California 94108), perched on one of the city’s hills at the corner of Bush and Stockton streets, I’m glad we've chosen such a central location for our San Francisco vacation. A one-block walk down Bush puts me at the ornate Chinatown Gate, the official entrance to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. A one-block climb up Bush takes me to the historic Hyde-Powell Cable Car Line where I can ride to Market Street and the SoMa (south of Market) neighborhood in one direction, or Nob Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf in the other.

While you're in Fisherman's Wharf, be sure to go see the World Famous Bush Man!

A two-block stroll along Stockton transports me to retail heaven — Union Square. All I need now besides my own two feet is a three-day Muni Passport and the city — with all its unique history — is mine. (For $20 I get unlimited use of the buses, street cars and cable cars, a good deal considering the cable cars are $5 a pop every time you board one.)

Chatting with Eddie Ramos, assistant resort manager, I discover that even the resort has a story to tell. Situated in a historic 1908 building that housed the Hotel Juliana before WorldMark took ownership, it was originally built as the Hotel Victoria two years after the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire. Standing here in the intimate lobby, I can almost feel the pride and excitement of those dauntless citizens who rebuilt their city, even grander than before.

By the time I unpack and take a short breather in the hotel-size unit, equipped with mini-fridge, minisink, coffee maker and microwave, it’s time to decide on dinner. Again, I’m not sure where to begin. At last count the city was home to more than 4,300 restaurants, one for every 179 residents! I turn to Lois Caldeira, guest services manager, for recommendations. A native San Franciscan, Lois is a font of information. As she runs down the list, Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant (9374 Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94104 415-421-0594) — “it’s over 100 years old” — catches my attention.

Located just past the Chinatown entrance at the corner of Belden Place (an intriguing collection of French, Italian and Spanish café-style restaurants), Sam’s origins stretch back to 1867 when it opened as an oyster stall in an open-air market at the base of California Street. The restaurant has operated at its present location since 1946 and has a loyal following. I enjoy the prawns, scallops and wild Dungeness crab legs sautéed in a light white-wine cream sauce with fresh mushrooms, shallots and garlic. (I later discover that Sam’s is consistently voted one of the Bay Area’s top 100 restaurants.) Half a loaf of San Francisco’s signature sourdough bread puts the finishing touches on a meal prepared in the fine tradition of what has been coined “California cuisine” — the distinctive blending of ethnic culinary traditions with fresh, local ingredients that has its roots across the bay at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse.

Neighborhoods with Character

Having “done” the popular tourist attractions on my San Francisco vacation must-do list like the Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square and a ferry ride to Golden Gate Bridge on previous stopovers, I’m ready to dig deeper and get to the core of what San Francisco’s all about — its neighborhoods. Lois has tips for that as well: “The best way to experience the city is walking tours.” She recommends San Francisco City Guides, a nonprofit that shares the city’s history and legends through tours of fascinating landmarks and culturally diverse districts. “They cover so many unique parts of the city, and the tours are free.”

As I begin my journey it doesn’t take long to figure out that in San Francisco, everything revolves around food. My first tour takes me through Union Square to Market Street, where I hop onto one of the historic streetcars headed to the Embarcadero, site of the restored 1875 Ferry Building. I’m fortunate to arrive during the thrice-weekly Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, where local and visiting foodies can enjoy farm-fresh, organic produce, or sample artisan cheeses, meats, mushrooms, chocolate and other locally grown and produced gourmet treats at the indoor Marketplace. (“Locavores” love it here!) While scoping out the shops and cafés housed within the arches of the original ticket offices and luggage bays, I order lunch from the cheese-centric menu at Cowgirl Creamery (1 Ferry Building # 17, San Francisco, CA 94111 415-362-9354). (Who knew a grilled cheese sandwich could taste so good?)

I’m most intrigued by our stop at the intersection of Market, Bush and Battery streets, where a tablet marks the original shoreline of San Francisco Bay in 1848, before Gold Rush ships were scuttled in Yerba Buena Cove to later provide landfill for rapid expansion. Many of the immigrants who poured into the settlement during this time stayed to open the city’s first restaurants, leaving behind a wealth of gastronomic creations still celebrated today.

Tasty Treats on Our San Francisco vacation

Intrigued by my brief introduction to Little Italy, I decide to take advantage of knowledgeable guides to further explore the epicurean treasures of San Francisco’s neighborhoods. Local Tastes of the City Tours sounds interesting — they invite me to “spend time with local artisans as they practice their crafts while on my San Francisco vacation” — so I reserve a spot on their Chinatown/North Beach tour for that evening.

My outing begins at Chinatown’s Dragon Gate where I locate our guide, John. Entering a whole new world, we wind our way past colorful storefronts and ornate pagoda-style roofs to Eastern Bakery (720 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 415-982-5157). Open since 1924, it’s the oldest Chinese pastry shop in the U.S. As we approach our table, John announces that we’re in for a special treat — dim sum. Since my San Francisco vacation thus far seems to be all about food, I welcome his running commentary as we sample char siu bao (steamed pork bun), jin doi (deep fried sesame ball), pork sui mai (steamed pork dumpling) and shrimp haa gau (shrimp dumpling). It was delicious!

Our next destination — the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory — takes us through mural-lined Ross Alley, a popular backdrop for Hollywood movies. This is the only bakery in the city that makes fortune cookies by hand using vintage machines. Visitors can watch while workers shape and pack the cookies — 10,000 or more a day.

Overheard while exiting a North Beach cafe:

"It’s nice being able to have any type of food you want. You can have food from all over the world here."

The final stop in Chinatown is for a tea tasting at Vital Tea Leaf (four locations in San Francisco), where participants are invited to sit at the counter and sample a variety of loose leaf teas while learning about their history and benefits. The store carries an impressive inventory of more than 400 teas from China, Taiwan and Japan. Next we head into North Beach. While the tour company’s daytime excursion focuses on food, the afterdark version explores favorite haunts of 1950s Beat poets, writers and artists such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Our “beatnik walk” takes us to Vesuvio (“one of the great Bohemian artistic bars on the planet” according to John), City Lights (261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133 415-362-8193) — a “happening scene” in the late 1950s and still one of the city’s best bookstores — and Caffe Trieste (609 Vallejo Street, San Francisco, CA 94133 415-982-2605 ... plus two other locations in San Francisco), the archetypal beatnik coffee house.

The tour wraps up at Cinecitta (663 Union Street, San Francisco, CA 94133-2811 415-291-8830), a small neighborhood café where we indulge in Roman pizza and Spanish wine. Our waiter is enthusiastic, especially when describing the fresh ingredients and their local sources for each.

The Great Outdoors

Clear skies and 70-degree weather combine to make the great outdoors an irresistible choice for the last doay of the city portion of my San Francisco vacation. Again, the options are numerous. World-famous Golden Gate Park is tempting. Known as the city’s backyard, its thousand-plus acres are home to dozens of attractions including the California Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, Conservatory of Flowers (built in 1879) and the Japanese Tea Garden — not to mention nine lakes, Dutch windmills, botanical gardens, Ocean Beach and more than a million trees.

But I can’t resist the lure of the bay and the prospect of an up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I pick up the #30 bus to the Marina district where I spend half an hour wandering among the massive columns of the Palace of Fine Arts (3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco, CA 94123 415-563-6504)— an architectural gem built on a lagoon for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Moving on, albeit reluctantly, I skirt the northern edge of the Presidio (military post turned national park) and head to the city’s front yard, Crissy Field. Joining hundreds of city-dwellers as they take pleasure in a beautiful day — pushing strollers, riding bikes, walking dogs and jogging — I stroll through quiet marshlands and along the three-mile Golden Gate Promenade, taking pictures and enjoying the sights. Prime among these are the Golden Gate Bridge high above and the crashing waves below, which I relish while drinking a cup of hot chocolate from the Warming Hut (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, 983 Marine Dr, San Francisco, CA 94129).

Country Roads

After saying farewell to the incredibly helpful resort staff I drive north in my rental car, which I picked up earlier that morning just a few blocks away. My journey to Wine Country begins with an exhilarating crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge (my first) and a side trip up the Pacific Coast via California 1 and the Panoramic Highway. After brief stops at Muir Woods National Monument to see the Bay Area’s only virgin redwood forest, Muir Beach Overlook for a peek at the Pacific waves below, and the well-stocked Stinson Beach Market for lunch, I continue northward through Olema Valley before I turn east and follow Point Reyes-Petaluma Road toward Sonoma.

Wine Country Central

Before long, my San Francisco vacation has taken on an incredibly tranquil feel. I’m on California’s historic Highway 101 for the final leg north to WorldMark Windsor (1251 Shiloh Road, Windsor, CA 95492), my Wine Country headquarters for the next day-and-a-half. The resort’s northern Sonoma County location — less than a mile from the highway and within an hour’s drive to three prominent grape-growing regions — couldn’t be better. Between them, the Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys are home to some 40,000 acres of vineyards and more than 150 award-winning wineries. Farther out, the resort provides easy access to the full bounty of Sonoma Country’s 300- plus wineries, and several hundred more in Napa Valley.

As I approach the front desk, my head overflowing with questions, the staff is quick to offer advice and help me narrow my focus. With only a few hours left before the tasting rooms close, I decide to check out Kendall-Jackson today. Circling their recommendations on a large Wine Road map, staff members pull out complimentary wine-tasting cards for each. (As it turns out, just a mention that I’m staying at WorldMark seems to be enough for this special treatment.)

They also load me up with handouts on more area attractions. (Apparently it’s not all about wine.) These describe shopping and antiquing in charming small towns like Windsor, incredible eateries, spas, concerts, theater, museums, art studios, farms and farmers’ markets, and an array of outdoor activities from hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking to golfing next door at Windsor Golf Club.

Three keys to a perfect San Francisco vacation: Wine, Cheese, and more Wine

A short drive south on 101 brings me to the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center (5007 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95439 707-571-8100). While standing at the tasting counter getting the lowdown on full-bodied red wines, never my favorite, Will mentions that in the Old World grapes were grown to complement a region’s foods. In fact, wine is the only beverage made specifically and exactly to accompany a meal. I decide to explore this idea further and ask about their wine and food pairings. I choose a $20 pairing of artisanal cheeses from Sonoma and Marin counties with a selection of six limited release wines.

A great way to relax on your San Francisco vacation

A large deck overlooking the valley provides the perfect spot to eat my lunch with a glass of wine from the tasting room, which features award-winning wines from Sonoma County and estate vineyards.

As the only one signed up, I’m treated to a personal 45-minute session with the chef. It’s the highlight of my San Francisco vacation! Outside on the patio Matthew introduces each farmstead cheese, which is served with a wine that complements its flavor and texture, plus an accompaniment he’s created from the estate’s culinary garden to enhance the pairing. Following his instructions on the proper order of sampling — “wine, cheese, wine” — I’m amazed by how each brings out the flavor of the other when effectively combined. (My favorite pairing: the 2009 Vintner’s Reserve Reisling, a buttery Jersey cow’s milk cheese from Bellwether Farms, and golden raisins with fresh fennel jam.) I walk away with a few simple pairing guidelines and a newfound appreciation for some of the less bold reds, which I’ll never sip solo again.

I top off the day with a leisurely stroll through the town of Healdsburg — located about 10 minutes north of Windsor — and dinner at Willie’s Seafood & Raw Bar (403 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, CA 95448-3814 707-433-9191). (Their green bean and cashew salad with goat cheese ranch and pickled onions is out of this world.) Before returning to the resort, I spend some time exploring the boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, tasting rooms, bookstores and five-star restaurants that surround the quaint town square, which plays host to numerous summer concerts and fairs.

Swirl, Sip, Savor

Next morning, Wine Road map in hand, I head north on 101 and exit at Dutcher Creek Road where I continue south, first through Dry Creek Valley — renowned for its Old Vine Zinfandel planted in the early 1900s — and then Russian River Valley, where the cooling marine conditions are ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

The winding roads, lovely terraced hillsides and rural environment are perfect for a relaxed day of wine tasting. My first stop, Truett Hurst Winery (5610 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448-8210 707-433-9545), bears out the reputation of Sonoma tasting rooms for being more laidback than in Napa. And like the other wineries I visit that day, they too offer a unique tasting experience — as individual as their handcrafted wines.

Arriving at Truett Hurst before the weekly Saturday afternoon barbecue kicks off, I spend some time with Sal sampling reds and learning about their vision to create world-class wines using biodynamic farming principles. He encourages me to wander the extensive grounds, so I take my glass past the olive grove and gardens down to comfortable chairs set along the bank of Dry Creek, where spawning coho salmon and steelhead trout run while I swirl, sip and savor. I don't want my San Francisco vacation to end.

But, as much as I’d like to stay awhile, I get back in my car and drive until I come upon Dry Creek General Store (3495 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448 707-433-4171). I can’t resist stopping to pick up lunch. Established in 1881, the combination deli-bar-general store is jam-packed, but it’s worth the wait for my freshmade olive tapenade, Gruyère and tomato panini. Next stop is Armida Winery (2201 Westside Rd, Healdsburg, CA 95448-9342 707-433-2222), which is housed in a geodesic dome. A large deck overlooking the valley provides the perfect spot to eat my lunch with a glass of wine from the tasting room, which features award-winning wines from Sonoma County and estate vineyards.

Back on the road, it’s readily apparent that I’ve just entered the lush Russian River Valley. Tall redwoods shade the two-lane roads that wind through this scenic area. I’m intrigued by the architectural oddity on my left, Hop Kiln Winery (6050 Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448 707-433-6491), and stop briefly to check out the riverside picnic area, rose garden, gourmet deli case, gift shop and tasting room featuring estate-grown Pinot Noir — all housed in a historic landmark that processed hops until 1950. Arista Winery, too, offers a relaxing venue for tasting some of the Russian River Valley’s finest Pinots and other boutique wines. Unfortunately the afternoon is slipping away and I have to continue on to Korbel Champagne Cellars (13250 River Road, Guerneville, CA 95446 707-824-7000). Although the day’s last tour of the antique cellars and history museum is over, it’s not too late for a complimentary tasting of four of the winery’s finest California champagnes. I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that Korbel makes sweet champagnes. The Riesling and limited release Moscato Frizzante are delicious!

My wine-tasting adventure comes to a close at twilight among the towering redwoods of the Armstrong grove. Standing there as the light dims, I ponder the vast assortment of wines and tasting experiences still left undiscovered… and bid Sonoma a heartfelt à bientôt.

I promise myself that my next San Francisco vacation will longer. Much longer.

When to go on your San Franciso vacation

When it comes to extraordinary Northern California and San Francisco vacations, late summer is one of the best times to visit. The summer festival season is in full swing, the weather is fine, and the grapes are heavy on the vine awaiting harvest. All of this makes WorldMark San Francisco and WorldMark Windsor very popular destinations, so be sure to plan your San Francisco vacation and book well in advance.

This article about San Francisco vacations is based on an article from our Owner's magazine.

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