Monday, June 29, 2009

Geyserville Summer Nights

Just a few minutes north of Healdsburg on Highway 101 is the Sonoma wine country burg of Geyersville which has managed to keep its low-key farm town atmosphere as its better-known neighbor a few miles south gets tonier and tonier. I checked out a few places to stay on weekend getaways last week, each one different from the other so that you get a wide variety of options even in such a small place.
Those who are looking for some elegant comfort in a hotel environment should head to the Geyserville Inn, which, despite the name, is actually more of a resort-like hotel. There is a swimming pool and 38 rooms, many with fireplaces and balconies. Most have nice views of the vineyards. It's a modern place with a charming bit of Sonoma history attached -- the Hoffman House, an early 20th century farmhouse transformed into a restaurant with full bar.
Nearby is something completely different: the Hope-Merrill House (left), a lovely Victorian bed-and-breakfast inn whose rooms are lavishly romantic and accented by silk-screened wallpaper by Bruce Bradbury. An incredible five-course breakfast is served each morning. And, there's a beautiful swimming pool surrounded by lush landscaping and vineyards. Check out the first floor Sterling Suite with its own private entrance for the ultimate in extravagance (priced under $300, a good rate for such a luxury accommodation).
Finally, I visited Alexander Valley Lodge, a former B&B (photo above and below) on a hill overlooking the valley. It has been turned into a vacation rental by owners Danielle and Scott Alexander who live in their own house a few hundred yards uphill from the property. This is a six-bedroom, five-bathroom lodge-like home with a pool, Tiki bar and hot tub that is ideal for family reunions, girlfriend getaways and retreats. Danielle told me that, with the economic recession and the trend to "staycations," their business is good this year as families and friends look to save by going in on a house rental and cooking meals together.
The views from the house -- of Geyser Peak and the Alexander Valley -- are phenomenal, particularly at sunrise and sunset when the area takes on a warm glow (especially after a glass of the local zin). You're on your own for meals but the Alexanders can arrange for a local chef to cook dinners and for a masseuse who can provide poolside massages. The Alexanders also give guests tours of the 53 acres of vineyards and wooded terrain they own on this hilltop by a "mule," an ATV-type vehicle. And, of course, they offer plenty of suggestions for wine tasting. However, in a spot like this, guests may never want to leave.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Ferry Building, Upstairs

I've been spending a lot of time at the Ferry Building (more on that in a couple of weeks) and, to get to know it better, I took one of City Guides' regularly-scheduled free walking tours. In 45 minutes, you get a good idea of the role this landmark played in the history of San Francisco from the day it opened in 1898 to today.
For one, the building and its 245-foot clock tower are two extremely resilient structures, especially when you consider that they rest on the same 5,000 pilings of Oregon pine trees that were placed into the ground as support in 1898. The building has survived two major earthquakes, years as one of the world's busiest transportation hubs and, after years of decline, it emerged from a massive renovation, revived as a major foodie mecca.
For the first time, I went upstairs to the Grand Nave, which is stunning. This 600-foot long hall is topped by a long continuous skylight that illuminates the marketplace below. At the height of ferryboat travel -- before the bridges went up -- thousands of passengers every day boarded and disembarked here from upper decks of boats, which docked right up against the Ferry Building. The first floor, where the marketplace stands today, was used to load and unload cargo.
During the 1990s renovation, the stone arches and beautiful mosaic floor (upper right photo) from 1898 were brought back to life. You can't miss the seal of California, with the state's black bear, the goddess Minerva and the depiction of the California coastline when the Spanish explorers arrived.

It's quiet up here and hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of this area when an estimated 50 million people a year crossed this floor. But if you stand at the railings and look at the often-packed marketplace below, you get a sense of it -- and a feeling that the Ferry Building has come full circle as one of the most vibrant places in San Francisco. The City Guides tour starts at the front of the building every Tuesday and Saturday at noon.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Museum Named Railway

I stumbled onto the San Francisco Railway Museum the other day for the first time. It's only a half a block from the bustling Ferry Building but, possibly because it's tucked away in a little alley, it doesn't seem to get even a fraction of the visitors as that major city landmark.
The small museum, open just two years, is dedicated to San Francisco's surprising and fascinating long history with streetcars -- not to be confused with cable cars; that's another museum -- and occupies a space at the rear of the hip Hotel Vitale.
Its entrance is on block-long Don Chee Way, an alley off of Steuart near Mission Street. Appropriately, the historic streetcars of MUNI's F-Line rumble right outside its door.
This is the place to visit for background on all those charming old streetcars that make their way up and down Market Street and to Fisherman's Wharf.
It turns out that San Francisco has one of the most diverse collections of those vehicles in all the world -- some 90 in total, half in service at any given time. I've always been partial to the creaky orange ones from Milan (above).
The museum's exhibits include old photos of bygone places that San Franciscans love to reminisce about: Playland, Seals Stadium, Sutro Baths, Fleishhaker Pool, among them. And, if you've ever wanted to know the difference between a streetcar and a cable car, it's all described in delightful detail (hint: among the differences, cable cars do not have overhead wires and streetcars do).
I also enjoyed the one-of-a-kind merchandise, especially the postcards, notecards and posters of the streetcars that depict them in neighborhoods with landmarks such as the Castro Theatre, the Chinatown Gate and Grace Cathedral in the background. This is a terrific place to buy souvenirs -- and proceeds go to a good cause.
The museum, open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., is run by a nonprofit organization called the Market Street Railway, which promotes education and expansion of historic streetcars in San Francisco.