Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Birthday Weekend in San Francisco...

"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."
- Unknown

The quote has been attributed incorrectly to Mark Twain over the years, but regardless of who said it, it's the perfect way to describe what was undoubtedly the coldest summer vacation I've ever experienced.

After dinner with some girlfriends last Wednesday night, I came home to two birthday surprises from Jamie - a new DSLR camera!!! and a weekend getaway to San Francisco!  So we packed up our things, slipped into bed far too late for as early as we had to get up the next morning to catch our flight, and slept for not nearly long enough.  I love my eight hours of sleep each night, and four hours just doesn't cut it for me, so 4:45 am came way too soon, but it was a small sacrifice for an adventure away from home.

On the plane, I read through the manual for my camera, and felt reasonably comfortable that I would know how to use it at least on its auto settings that weekend, with more time to learn the manual settings later.  It's the best present I could ever have imagined.

"My San Francisco on her seven hills is smiling, beside an opalescent sunset sea."
- George Caldwell

Some friends had warned us that we would need to bring lots of layers since the weather would be chilly and foggy, so I packed a few sweaters and a light jacket, but I was completely unprepared for just how cold and windy it would be at night, especially on the water.

After a long walk our first afternoon there, from our hotel, down to the coast and along Fisherman's Wharf, we ended up at Pier 39 where Jamie had planned a sail-boating excursion for us.  As we walked, we realized just how cold it was going to be that evening, so we bought heavier windbreakers than what we had brought with us.  I picked out a windbreaker a little begrudgingly, since the jacket was boxy, sporty, unflattering and very un-like my own style - something that I will likely never wear again.  But there was that little voice inside me telling me it would be worth it to stay somewhat warm on the boat.

Along with two other couples and the two men sailing the boat, there were eight of us on board.  Jamie and I sat along the side, and I tucked a waterproof blanket snugly over my legs, expecting a cool, breezy sailing experience.  The seagulls swooshed and dove towards the water's surface, and thick gray fog blanketed the boats and ships docked along the coast.

But the serenity of the scene was short-lived, and when the sail caught the wind, the boat leaned to one side so deeply that it seemed it could tip over in the water.

It was ridiculously, unbelievably cold for July.  We were bundled in sweaters underneath our fleece-lined windbreakers, hoods pulled tightly around our faces, and blankets on our laps...  and still I was cold.

The wind was brutal, whipping against us relentlessly.  As the boat rocked against the waves, the cold water splashed our faces.  I licked my lips and the sea spray tasted salty on my tongue.

"I like the fog that creeps over the whole city every night about five, and the warm protective feeling it gives... and lights of San Francisco at night, the fog horn, the bay at dusk and the little flower stands where spring flowers appear before anywhere else in the country..."
- Irene Dunne

I kept my camera tucked away, until the wind stilled momentarily, offering a brief reprieve from the sharp chill.  But on the sail back into the harbor it was back with derisive pleasure, as though laughing at our short-lived relief.

When we docked, the air had quieted somewhat, still windy but not as cruel as on the open water.  But the cold had already seeped into my bones and there was no getting warm at that point.

It was after 8pm, so we walked up Pier 39 and found a Japanese restaurant, and as we waited for our table, still shivering, a few tears ran down my cheeks, hard as I tried to keep them from spilling over.  It was an embarrassing reaction, a combination of the after-effects of the Dramamine I'd taken before our flight that morning and still feeling tired and groggy, a painful blister on the back of my heel from our 3-hour walk, being so chilled I could hardly stand it, and feeling completely guilty about being so miserable on an evening that Jamie had thoughtfully planned for us.  After all, a sunset sail on the San Francisco harbor does sound quite romantic in theory...

"It's simply a very romantic place.  Just one look at any of those streets, and you couldn't be anywhere else--it's so beautiful, and there's that location, and the sense of the free spirit.  Who couldn't become ravenous in such a place?"
- Julia Child

After sushi and a sound sleep, warm and refreshed, we ate breakfast the next morning and then drove around the city, down the twisty road on Lombard, up to the Coit Tower, and then over to Chinatown.  We walked through Chinatown, wishing we had time to sample some of the food there, but we were meeting friends for lunch at the Ferry Building Market Place.  It was a little warmer out, and we were actually able to leave our jackets in the car for a while and enjoy the sunshine on our arms.

Inside the ferry building is a foodie's paradise, with rows of shops selling artisan and specialty foods like olive oils, mushroom-growing kits, cheese and chocolate, bread and pastries, tea, herbs, fruit, ice cream, coffee and seafood...

As we waited for our table at Hog Island Oyster Company, we sipped cool drinks - chardonnay for me and beer for Jamie and Bryan.  After Bryan's wife Michelle joined us, we were seated outside, with a view of the water.  A light lunch of raw oysters on the half shell with lemon and salad with tart plums and crunchy hazelnuts was so satisfying.  Jamie also ordered a bowl of the clam chowder which was truly authentic with fresh clams steamed open and still in their shells.

"Let him who is worthy by reason of his clear eye and unjaded heart wander across these borders of beauty and mystery and be glad."
- George Sterling

After lunch, we drove up the coast on Shoreline Highway, just to see what we might stumble upon.  We stopped at Stinson Beach and spent a relaxing hour on the warm sand, listening to the waves softly rolling against the shore.  As chilly as the breeze was, though, I didn't even dip my toes in the water.  I could sit on warm sand all day long, just listening to the crashing of the waves.

Continuing up the coast, we impulsively turned at a sign for Point Reyes Lighthouse, and followed the road 20 miles or so through rugged, rolling hills and dairy farms, even seeing a small herd of elk grazing, until we finally reached the point.  Once there, we found that the lighthouse had closed at 4:30 (it was already after 7pm), but we thought we might still walk out to the point to take a look.  But the lighthouse was a half-mile walk from that point, and the fog was thick and heavy with the wind whipping over the hills at 40-50mph at least.  We started the walk, and then turned right back to the car a minute later, realizing just how cold it would be considering just how lightly we were dressed.  After later research, we learned that Point Reyes is the foggiest and windiest place on the Pacific Coast, with frequent winds of 75-100mph.

So, with our lighthouse adventure ending somewhat anticlimactically, we decided to head back and find a place for dinner on the way.  A small restaurant called Saltwater, situated in the midst of a little fishing town, looked pleasant, and I have to say, it was their sign that drew me in with its pretty bold lettering against the white planked wall.  We were seated on the patio, which made me want to go find another place that could seat us inside as the cold was threatening to permeate my bones once again, but the heater outside helped quite a bit.  We ate more oysters, a little duck breast, and squash blossoms stuffed with salmon mousse.  It was my first time tasting squash blossoms, and I had expected them to be crispy, but these were softer, as though maybe they'd been baked.

"The Golden Gate Bridge's daily strip tease from enveloping stoles of mist to full frontal glory is still the most provocative show in town."
- Mary Moore Mason

On Saturday, we started the morning at Battery Spencer, a key location for harbor defense for San Francisco during war, and now offering what should have been a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge.  But once again, the fog completely limited visibility.  So we explored the battery, and the place was a little creepy with what looked like a huge iron door to some kind of oven, barred cells, rusty hooks on the crumbling walls and office quarters.

From there, we drove to Muir Woods to see the ancient, massive redwood trees.  The forest was cool and moist, so lush and green that it was almost tropical, with moss and ferns carpeting the ground.

And finally, there was Napa Valley.  The hot, dry sunshine in Napa was so very welcome after spending two chilly days on the coast, and the extent of the vineyards along the valley was impressive.

Our first wine-tasting experience a few years ago in Paonia, CO was the complete opposite of Napa.  Paonia has fewer than ten wineries with the owners always available to pour wine for free tastings, talk about the wine-making process, how they came to be there and to show us around the property.  The town is quiet and serene, beautifully scenic, with the scent of the vineyards, apricot and peach trees filling the air and urging you to stay a while and enjoy the wine.

"Your city is remarkable not only for its beauty.  It is also, of all the cities in the United States, the one whose name, the world over, conjures up the most visions and more than any other city incites one to dream."
- Georges Pompidou

But Napa is like Paonia's more worldly, more sophisticated older sister who wears lots of makeup, expensive jewelry and high heels.  There were some smaller wineries interspersed with the sprawling, commercialized, and in some cases, pretentious wineries, hoards of 20 and 30-somethings celebrating bachelor/bachelorette parties, pricey tastings and even pricier wines, parties, social events and even a stage for a band, and the never-ending flow of traffic up and down the main highway.

I have to admit that I far prefer the slower pace of Paonia, and in Napa I felt a bit like the only plain ceramic mug on a tray full of hand-painted tea cups.

The glamour is all part of the experience, though, and we managed to stop at 4-5 wineries, a couple of the bigger, well-known ones like Robert Mondovi Winery and Opus One, and then a few slightly smaller ones where we were able to take our time and relax a little, Turnbull Wine Cellars and Trefethen Vineyards.

Trefethen was particularly interesting, since the original estate house built in the 1800s, formerly the Eshcol Winery, still stands and functions for the wine tastings, as well as the aging of the wine.

"San Francisco is the longest lasting love affair of my life.  Her beauty inspires me anew each day..."
- Nicole -----

The highlight of our short trip to Napa, though, was lunch at Etoile Restaurant at the Domaine Chandon Winery.  We were seated in the garden, on a cool patio overlooking elaborately landscaped grounds, and I found myself wondering at the prices of the food at such a place, since we wouldn't normally spend so much for lunch, but I happily sipped a bubbling glass of champagne and decided we could make up for it by eating chicken and green beans for the next few weeks.

The meal was a gorgeous affair of more raw oysters with pink peppercorns (we can't get enough oysters!), and a charcuterie plate.  Expecting little more than cheese and crackers, we were astonished at the array of steak tartare, silky smooth duck liver mousse, paper-thin prosciutto, rabbit terrine, rows of three kinds of salami, cheese, pickled baby onions and tiny carrots, whole grain mustard, bittersweet candied kumquats and crispy croutons.

Even the golden pat of butter for our bread was beautiful, sprinkled with coarse salt.  I don't usually take photos of food at restaurants, but this was all so lovely, bathed in the glow of the soft sunlight, I couldn't resist.

"Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart.  You want to linger as long as possible."
- Walter Kronkite

After the lunch, after the wine tasting, after a little wine and sun-induced nap on the drive back to the city (well, I got to nap while Jamie drove...), we stopped at the town of Larkspur for dinner with our friends.  While we were waiting for them, we walked across the bridge to the ferry and explored some of the shops near the restaurant, and I really loved the nautical blue and white paint and lettering on the shop buildings.

And how exciting to wander into Miette!  The girl at the counter was kind enough to let me photograph all the sweets and candy in their pretty wrappers and glass jars, and we bought a chocolate caramel, a salted caramel, a pistachio macaron and a hazelnut macaron.  It was the first macaron I'd ever tasted.

Then all too soon, it was time to come home.

One Year Ago:   Peach Season in Palisade and our Weekend of Fruit and Wine
Two Years AgoGrilled Peaches with Honey and Toasted Pecans