Saturday 18 November 2017

San Francisco: Call of the wild west

By visiting both San Francisco and Yosemite Park, Constance Harris was able to enjoy the best of two worlds

Constance Harris

I love American good service. I love Americans' optimism and manners. I love the country's diversity. But more than anything, I love its landscape. From the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the mountains of Utah, America is a vast land to explore and delight in.

As time is always an issue, I have learnt to pick an area and visit it comprehensively. San Francisco city and Yosemite Park were the most recent focus of my admiration. The beauty of such an itinerary is that you can pack the hedonistic and cultural delights of a modern city into a trip that will also feed your soul with the wild, dramatic nature of a protected national park.

It also is a good combination for a family holiday, if you can afford it, as the contrast keeps everyone interested. San Francisco is a city of culinary delights. You can enjoy cuisine from all over the world, and they are hugely into "slow food" and the organic revolution.

Chefs in good restaurants come out to talk to customers, menus inform you which farmer raised your beef, the organic history of the fruit you are enjoying in a bottle of wine, and so on. A visit to the farmers' market in the old Ferry Building at the Embarcadero, open everyday but at its fullest and best on Saturdays, will also bring this home to you.

I was lucky enough to stay in Hotel Vitale (www. on the waterfront at Embarcadero, so I was able to fall out of bed and into the market. Or on to the ferry that takes you to Alcatraz, also well worth visiting. The hotel is also conveniently situated to enjoy the central shopping district, where you can find all the best retail the US has to offer, from Anthropology to Marc Jacobs.

San Francisco was the centre of the revolution, so high-end shops such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes are here, though the population is only 800,000. Unlike New York, where people's wealth is often measured in how they dress, in San Francisco a billionaire will most likely be wearing cargo shorts and a baseball cap that won't be removed, even in an elegant, super-starred restaurant!

The highlight of this visit to San Francisco was the California Academy of Sciences ( It is a fantastic experience. It has "live" coral reefs you can walk under and around, almost as magical as scuba-diving to see the real thing. You can see a giant albino alligator bask on rocks and walk in a section of rain forest, complete with exotic flower, fauna, hummingbirds, butterflies and snakes. Designed for adults and children to enjoy, the Academy has two great restaurants, one family- and value-oriented, the other offering more fine dining, both of which are true to San Francisco's culinary ethos -- delivering quality and organic fare. Allow a day to absorb it all.

Three to four days in San Francisco is enough to feel satisfied. If you decide to stay in the city on the way back from the mountains, treat yourself to a sybaritic experience in Cavallo Point (cavallo A former colonial naval academy, the buildings and interiors have been lovingly restored, with gentle modernisation. The spa treatments are fantastic and the food was stunning.

Yosemite Park is about four hours' drive from San Francisco. Some people choose to stay outside the park and do day trips into it. A fun place to base yourself is Yosemite Bug "rustic mountain resort" ( Owner Douglas Shaw built the place himself. Originally a kind of hostel, it has grown into an eccentric, vaguely hippy, resort -- but one which offers quality and a renowned restaurant.

Stop off in Mariposa, a gorgeous, authentic western town, though the presence of an art gallery, great eating places and its own symphony orchestra testifies to the fact that it's a living breathing community. I highly recommend you visit the Mariposa Museum and History Center to get an appreciation of how the west was won, how people truly lived, and the reality -- and hysteria -- of the gold-mining era. If you think your ancestors came here, you could probably find out from the centre's archives.

If, however, you are interested in all American history, then you will be disappointed as the museum's focus is very much on the White Man.

In Yosemite's visitor centre there are some small references to Native Americans, and a man from one of the tribes is often on hand to talk to visitors who are interested in traditional skills and lives.

If you are an Ansel Adams fan you can visit a museum of his work here and can buy some original prints.

Yosemite is an amazingly beautiful place. It is also vast and very wild. It is important to adhere to the park rangers' rules and instructions to stay away from unsafe areas or avoid incidents such as bear attacks. Having said that, the rangers are as excited by the park as are the visitors and they can steer you in the way of some great walks -- and thrills!

Sunday brunch in the genuinely old Ahwahnee Hotel is a treat not to be missed. In fact, it's a great way to say your reluctant goodbye to this amazing place and start the homeward journey.

Any trip to this wonderful area should be planned. Good accommodation books out fast and the weather has a big impact on what you actually get to see. Late spring is the time for waterfalls and sports. By autumn, they are often dried up, but the foliage is gorgeous.

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