Bay City Blues

San Francisco Bay is an impressive spectacle, a panorama shot with blue, yacht masts sticking up like matchsticks.

Flying into San Francisco, it’s the water you notice first  cobalt blue and sparkling  between the headlands that hug the city.  Here, water is everywhere you turn, from the million-dollar views from the blow-your-budget hotels to the wire-framed panorama from the Golden Gate Bridge. The big blue bay dictates the rhythm of the city’s internal beat. 

I begin by heading straight to Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco’s northern waterfront area stretching from Ghirardelli Square to Pier 39. It’s still possible to feel the pulse of an old-style American fishing community here. Many of the boats bobbing on the shallow green water belong to third- and fourth-generation fishermen. The wharf restaurants are still the best place to get fresh Dungeness crab, once abundant in the bay and now sourced in deep waters around the Farallon Islands, and clam chowder is ubiquitous. Sea lions loll and bark on Pier 39 and enormous white and brown seagulls  like extras from a Hitchcock film  compete for scraps. 

In Golden Gate Park, a 20-minute drive south-west, is the California Academy of Sciences. Opened in 2008 and designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Renzo Piano, it has an aquarium, a planetarium and a four-storey rainforest, all under one roof. 

Among the locals, cycling is booming. Bike transport is up by more than 50 per cent since 2006  proof that ageing hippies never die, they just find a new cause. Tourists are following suit. Several companies hire bikes around the wharf area. Avoid San Francisco’s hills of hell inland and stick to the cycle paths that loop the city’s waterfront for flat and picturesque rides. 

Every morning sees a domino effect, with two-wheeled tourists taking off from Fisherman’s Wharf across the Golden Gate Bridge and stopping for lunch at the seaside community of Sausalito, 13 kilometres away, before heading back by ferry. San Francisco Bay is an impressive spectacle, a panorama shot with blue, yacht masts sticking up like matchsticks against the grey-green shadow of Marin Headlands at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

These headlands are made for walking, with the ocean remaining a constant companion. The hillsides are planted with cypress trees and pocked with rusting relics, the legacy of World War II troops. The inky waters off the beaches below offer protected surfing in summer. 

Heading back to the city precinct, I discover that a line of new eco hotels is celebrating the city’s conservational streak. Checking in at The Orchard Garden Hotel, I’m offered valet parking for my bicycle. The lighting is energy efficient and the carpets include recycled content. Organic chocolate overloads a minibar offering organic brewed beer.

Though there are no water views on offer, my affordable eco-chic room is on the edge of Chinatown. It’s also a few blocks from the Union Square shopping district and designer bars and nightclubs downtown. San Francisco buzzes all day and all night. Not far from my hotel, I stumble upon Bocadillos tapas bar. Its delicious selection includes crispy garlic prawns, octopus carpaccio with pickled rhubarb, organic spinach with almonds and raisins, and blood orange with serrano ham. Many of the Napa Valley wines on offer are organic.

Locally grown or organic produce is on every self-respecting menu here. The local Greenopia guide, available for free in many hotel rooms and online, lists more than 200 restaurants with a green leaf rating. There are 60 eco coffee houses too, including Arizmendi Bakery Cooperative, which tops its pizzas with whole milk mozzarella and organic heirloom tomatoes in season.

Beyond the city there’s plenty to explore. To the north is Sonoma County and to the south is Big Sur  both places where cliffs drop away to the Pacific and seabirds float on thermals. I hop into a car and head 90 minutes south to the historical port town of Moss Landing, which was established in 1917. There are almost as many antique shops as fishing boats here, yet there are real fishermen still to be found. Crabbers repair hulls lashed to the old timber wharves. These are the same men who, just hours earlier, had dropped off their hard-won catch at the fish market. 

I meet Tommy Hart drinking coffee at the Haute Enchilada art cafe. A third-generation fisherman, Hart travels up and down the Pacific Northwest, hunting salmon, tuna and crab throughout the year. Barmaids all the way to Oregon know what he drinks. Hart started working on his grandfather’s boat when he was just 10 years old. He is now in his 50s and has never had another job. He doesn’t plan to, either. “One of the first things my grandfather taught me was that fish have tails, boats have propellers,” he says. “To go fishing, you have to travel.”

Half an hour’s drive south is Monterey, its countryside even more beautiful than its city cousin’s. The hinterland is the colour of chardonnay and rolls into sand dunes that are several metres high. The surrounding water  deep-blue sea with white crests  is teeming with marine life, namely dolphins, sea lions and otters attracted by the abundant kelp fields.

These days, Monterey is better known for its oceanfront mansions, pristine golf courses and waterfront fine dining than historical Cannery Row. It’s the epitome of what happens when the fish go south. The canneries have been shipped to China, so galleries, boutiques and bars now fill the old warehouses on the wharves.

Replacing the old-style fishing life is the ultra-modern Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m mesmerised by an extraordinary display of jellyfish, including the black sea nettle and the lion’s mane, swimming behind floor-to-ceiling glass, lit up like go-go girls on a dance floor.

The staff distribute The Good Seafood Guide that lists approved local seafood restaurants and makes recommendations about sustainable seafood choices, including swordfish caught by handline; wild Alaskan salmon, not farmed Atlantic salmon; and pole-caught tuna, not tuna caught in international waters using controversial drift fishing. 

It’s more education than most travellers receive, and a poignant reminder that in California the ocean remains king.   

Words by Erin O’Dwyer - Published in Voyeur September 2010
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 7.0033 million
Time Zone UTC -5
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
Share this article 
facebook Twitter Pinterest Google
Related Articles 
Mission Accomplished
San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood is home to some of America’s best restaurants. Here we take a tour of, and get a taste for, the Mission District.
Silicon Valley: City of Bytes
It might be the geek capital of the world, but San Francisco’s high-tech hub is anything but dull. Welcome to the bright lights of Silicon Valley.
Discover San Francisco
There’s something about San Francisco that opens hearts and eyes. As one of the world’s greatest cultural plateaus, the California hub entices and entertains all walks of life, and offers lessons in....