Usually when you smell something before you see it, it’s a bad thing. But with the Inn at the Presidio in San Francisco, it’s awesome.
We’d hopped an afternoon flight to SFO and rode BART to a free (if you’re with the hotel) shuttle. Suddenly the air changed. The City by the Bay’s standard odor of unwashed inseam and fish parts vanished.
Eucalyptus. Damp freshness. The sensation that hits you when man-made gives way to nature-made.
A friendly co-shuttler gave us the history: covering 2.2 square miles of forest in San Francisco’s northwest corner, the Presidio was originally a military base. Established by the Spanish just months after the United States was born, it passed to the Mexicans, then the Americans, and in 1994 it became part of the park service.
Thus, it never citified. Hundred foot-tall trees, sprawling lawns, historic buildings, hills, and a population density more on par with Wyoming than one of the largest metropolitan areas in the US.
Our new friend escorted us up a gentle slope to The Inn, a three-story manor once home to bachelor soldiers. Now it’s anything but a bachelor pad. The rooms own a rustic elegance that places comfort above all. Club chairs. Swallow-you-whole sofas.
Our Classic King Tier Two room had windows on both ends. The front spied a rocking-chaired porch; out the back we saw a fire pit, and beside it the kitchen, where guests frolicked, enjoying free hors d’oeuvres and wine.
CUT TO: Us in that kitchen, power inebriating with three glasses of vino each. We followed our grape and brie binge with outdoor exploration.
The Presidio at night is quiet and romantic. We passed retired cannons, a sleeping museum and yellow street lamps, all to a soundtrack of breezes in the treeses (perhaps that’s the wine talking).
The night clerk had mentioned a bowling alley, and we threw a few frames among a cross-section of families, hippies, hipsters and Zuckerberg disciples.
We ate chicken fingers. We bought more wine. We felt great. When the bottle was dry, we retired homeward to rest in a king bed with the kind of supportive softness your own mattress will never provide.
The next morning I looked out the front window and there it was: the Golden Gate Bridge. It spoke to me: ‘Get up, idiot. Snag some ham, cheese and croissants from the Continental breakfast and hit the town.’ It then handed me the following touristy (but fun) itinerary I insist you duplicate.
Take a 10-minute walk to the Palace of Fine Arts, an extravagant neo Classical remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition. Walk the pond. Hand-feed Cheez-it crackers to dinosaur-size swans. Next, hop a Uber to Fisherman’s Grotto at Fisherman’s Wharf. Eat clam chowder from a bread bowl. Wander next-door to Musee Mecanique, a collection of Boardwalk Empire-era games and attractions including naughty 1920s Queen of Sheba peep-show nickelodeons. Bring coins.
Stroll the waterfront to the back-left side of Pier 39 and watch hundreds of sea lions jockey for position on floating platforms. Make up dialog for them as you eat ice cream. Finally, double back, past Ghirardelli Square to the Buena Vista for the world-famous Irish coffee poured paradoxically en masse and just for you. Finally, go home and nap (but not before you’ve set the alarm for happy hour).
Thanks, Golden Gate Bridge. That was a fun day.
We had our pick of neighborhoods for dinner – Little Tokyo, the Mission, Noe Valley – but had reserved a table at Lower Pacific Heights’ SPQR. We should have called it a night after dinner. But we didn’t.
We hit the bars in North Beach/Little Italy. More wine. Moonlight. A stroll through Washington Square Park. If I remember correctly, late night pizza. I also have a recollection of a church that got blurrier the more chianti you drank.
The next morning was rough, but we’d promised ourselves we’d take advantage of the Inn’s free bikes on loan. Helmets on, we stared at the two-wheelers hatefully.
‘Going for a bike ride?’ a voice asked. We turned and saw a friendly face. ‘Nah, we’re just helmet people,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘Can never be too careful,’ I tacked on. The man wished us well and walked off with his dog.
We hoisted ourselves on the ultra lightweight Bianchis, and two minutes later (all down a gentle slope, thank goodness) we reached the Disney Family Museum. We perused the gift shop and then rode down to the official Presidio Museum that literally peeled back the years of plaster and paint to show you how the facade looked in its early days.
Then, our time was up. We returned the bikes, filled our pockets with remaining cheese crumbles and hailed a cab.
As it pulled up, we took one last look around in this San Francisco sanctuary. Families shared laughs. Field-tripping children walked in single file behind their docents. The man with the dog – the hotel manager we later learned – played fetch with his pup. A Presidio tableau… A Presidibleau.
The staff sent us off warmly. Our driver squired us away through the South exit of the park, which revealed just how sprawling and dynamic it is. The hiking trails to explore, the picnic venues to improvise, the tennis and basketball courts to play on. This is the only way to experience San Francisco: in a historical lodge, surrounded by a refuge the locals themselves visit to get away.