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San Francisco as the Locals See It?

One of the great advantages of traveling through a homestay network is being guided to places most tourists don't go. We spent a glorious June day in San Francisco, exploring some of those magical places.

The evening of our arrival, our hosts—who live in the very pleasant Inner Sunset neighborhood that we'd have otherwise never seen, in a large, gracious, well-built 1932 house—took us a short distance to the Twin Peaks overlook, with a magnificent view from high above of downtown San Francisco, the Marin hills, and the Oakland waterfront. Marred by a fairly serious litter problem, it's still very much worth the trek. Our host told us he first fell in love with San Francisco when his future wife took him there.

The following morning, we set out, following their instructions, to Crissy Field: a former airstrip that's now a major recreation area, running along the edge of the bay waterfront from the old Palace of Fine Arts (now the Exploratorium) to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were unusual in that we didn't have a dog, a bicycle, or in-line skates; the considerable population of this walkway and beach was almost entirely local, even though it's operated by the National Park Service. Swimming is permitted at your own risk. About a mile down the trail, just before the bridge, you'll find a "warming hut" with an organic café and a NPS bookstore—as well as a much-used fishing pier.

Returning to our car, we drove the beginning of the 49-mile Scenic Drive and then through the Seacliff mansion district, arriving at a splendid art museum I'd never read about: The Legion of Honor museum. The locals certainly know about it, though; it took us ten minutes to find a parking place, and inside, the wonderful special exhibit on Monet in Normandy was thronged. There's also a very strong ancient art collection, emphasizing Egyptian and Greek.

The same ticket gets you in to the much better-known DeYoung Museum, in Golden Gate Park, but we chose other pleasures; the weather was too nice to spend the whole day in museums. Instead, using a guide to cheap restaurants our hosts had lent us, we selected the Twilight Café, on McAlister just off Stanyon. This rather unassuming and unatmospheric café features authentic Middle Eastern and Greek food at very reasonable prices, including some of the best dolma (stuffed grape leaves) we've ever had anywhere. Our hungry family of four enjoyed vegetarian moussaka over an ample bed of rice, houmous with foul madamas (a fava bean dish), and a spinach-cheese pie called pieroshki—but nothing like the Eastern European dish of the same name. Total cost including tax but not tip: $28.

OK, so it is on the tourist itinerary, at least for tourists with roots in poetry—but we can't go to San Francisco without going back to North Beach, San Francisco's Italian and beatnik neighborhood. I've been to City Lights Books every time I've been to the city, and this time I noticed a lot more political books among the vast array of poetry and literature, and also somewhat better representation from the largest publishers (though not, by and large, their mass-market mainstream books. I noticed copies of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, a multicultural memoir of India and the US, and Kite Runner, a stunning novel of Afghanistan that somehow made it to the best-seller list. I've read both of these books, both of which have well-known publishers, and both of which deserve whatever acclaim they manage to achieve. But at City Lights, founded in the 50s to publish and sell the likes of Ginsburg, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti (who founded the press), you're not likely to find the Dan Browns and Stephen Kings of the world. Instead, this may be the only bookstore in the world to devote about six feet of shelf space just to Charles Bukowski.

But the Italian influence in North Beach is as much fun as the Bohemian. Caffe Trieste, which I first discovered in 1976, still serves its strong coffee, as do a dozen or more other long-established places. It is here, and in Greenwich Village, New York, that Americans were introduced to real coffee. Starbucks was decades later, but these caffés (I'm using the Italian spelling on purpose) never had dreams of going national. But they fueled the Beatnik revolution, providing a coffee house scene where people could stay up late discussing philosophy and politics.

Amazingly enough, an old-fashioned shoe repair store survives on Columbus Avenue, the main street of this neighborhood, in the midst of assorted pricy and atmospheric gourmet Italian restaurants and bars. We had a meal at the Mona Lisa, a Florentine restaurant offering traditional fare in a busy atmosphere filled with Italian art reproductions (even on the ceiling) and some bizarre variants like the topless Mona that we could see from our table. The selection (and the portion size) is huge here, with even 40 or so dishes for the vegetarians; the food is decent but not exceptional.

Across the street, you'd expect Z. Cioccolato to be either a very chi-chi chocolatier or an old-country candy shop from Europe—but inside, you'll find mostly American traditional treats like homemade fudge (of far higher quality than along most of America's beaches) and salt water taffy. One block up from the candy store is the National Shrine to Saint Francis, which is an active Catholic church; a block down is a tiny truffle shop that claims to have been rated among the world's best.

Making our way back to Inner Sunset, we happened to drive along Union Street. We liked the look of the trendy Caltown/Pacific Heights boutiques, so we got out for a little explore. My favorite find was a furniture store owned by a gentleman from Hong Kong, featuring beautiful Chinese antiques.

Our last stop of the day was 9th Avenue, just south of Golden Gate Park. Plenty of restaurant choices here, from around the world, but we had a specific destination, again recommended by our hosts. We can get Indian, Thai, and the rest of it at home—but we have nothing like Café Gratitude, just south of Irving. An unassuming storefront that's easy to miss, next to Milano Pizza, the Gratitude is an experience. All the food is vegan, most of it is raw, and every dish is named for an affirmation: "I am Vivacious" (avocado stuffed with chipotle sunflower paté, with mole sauce and cashew sour cream), "I am Insightful" (raw-food samosas), etc. When the waiters arrive with the food, they give you back your affirmation: "You are magical" (stuffed mushrooms). The menu's probably available at the restaurant website. Oh yes and the bathroom door affirms, "I am the washroom." Food was quite tasty and attractive, by the way. Around the corner on Irving, we chose excellent desserts at Tart for Tart. We brought back an assortment to share with our hosts; my favorites were a decadent chocolate-rum square and a wonderful apricot-almond tart.

Of course, we're not above doing tourist things. On a different day, we parked a few blocks away from Fisherman's Wharf, on Pier 23; there are a few small parking lots that charge $11 and $12 for a full day, compared with $28 in the heart of Touristown. We walked, but you can also take the trolley line that runs right along the Embarcadero, with a parade of antique but functioning trolleys from the 20s and 30s and 40s. Pier 39 is the most crowded, with the aquarium, dozens of shops and restaurants, and hundreds of tourists. The day was clear, affording great views of Alcatraz, the Marin highlands, and the Golden Gate Bridge. You can also catch a ferry to Alcatraz or Marin here.

But Pier 45 is more interesting. You can tour two vintage fighting ships (a submarine and a WWII Liberty Ship), and enjoy the free Musée Mécanique (note that the location on that web page is obsolete): a fascinating collection of music-playing devices, mechanical fortune-tellers (remember the movie, "Big"?), pinball games, and so forth, some of them over 100 years old. And seemingly all of them in working order, yours for a few moments with the insertion of a few quarters. This big old building is filled with the sounds of competing steam-organs and so forth; you can even take home a CD.

Outside the little park at the base of Hyde Street, at the cable car terminus, Chinese street vendors offer stunningly beautiful jewelry at giveaway prices; my wife spent $11 for a cinnabar necklace and matching earrings Two former factories, now upscale shopping malls, are just a few blocks farther: The Cannery, once canning fruit for Del Monte, and of course, Ghirardelli Square (which still has three company-owned stores: two chocolatiers, with free samples, and an ice cream shop). Exit from the Beach Street entrance of the Ghirardelli complex and turn left to visit the National Maritime Museum.

Fort Mason is next along the waterfront, with a beautiful park unlike any other former military installation I've seen. Past the park, on the piers, are several art galleries, The Greens (San Francisco's trendiest vegetarian restaurant; we loved the ravioli and an elegant salad featuring fresh figs, an excellent chevre, and extremely fresh hazelnuts; we were less pleased with the quesadilla), a charity book donation center, and some small industries. The Youth Hostel is also within the fort.

Recommended guidebook: San Francisco as You Like It, by Bonnie Wach—a unique look at San Francisco by interest group: suggested itineraries for hippies, fitness buffs, foodies, shoppers, etc.

Side Trip: Point Reyes

The small hamlet of Point Reyes Station, in western Marin County about an hour from the Golden Gate Bridge (going the fast way, up Highway 101) has only abut 350 residents, yet boasts a small supermarket, healthfood store, bookstore, community radio station, and a kind of hippie/outdoorwear general store. It's an easy jumping-off place to explore Point Reyes National Seashore, a beautiful and expansive park with many hiking and horse-riding trails, a well-equipped visitors center, informative short walks through the San Andreas Fault and a rather vague attempt at recreating a Miwoc Indian village. Stunning views of the ocean and Tomales Bay, great birding, and a very pleasant place for some R&R.

Shel Horowitz is editor of Global Travel Review and has been a homestay traveler and host since 1983. For more on the homestay experience, read Shel's article on ten memorable travel moments thanks to the homestay network (scroll down). The network that Shel and his family are part of is called Servas. The international organization, with hosts in over 100 countries, can be found at http://www.servas.org; the US branch is at http://www.usservas.org.


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