San Francisco: In Search Of Utopia
Vikram Seth once called her ‘the unruffled daughter of the Pacific…the loveliest city in the world’. But poets aren’t the only ones who sing paeans to her beauty. On my first day in San Francisco, sitting down to lunch at The Liberty Café on Cortland, famous then for its flaky vegetable potpies, a server asked me if I was visiting. When I told him I was moving up the hill, I heard him unwittingly echo Seth’s lines, “Welcome to the loveliest city in the world!” Since then, I have found that the city regularly inspires such superlatives. Even as waves of gentrification and Google bus controversies plague its neighbourhoods, San Francisco tries to remain, in Seth’s words, ‘unruffled’.
Exiles from the world over are drawn here in search of utopia, in search of routes and roots. Even longtime residents have always arrived from elsewhere and take a uniquely tourist approach to the city. Any sunny day provides a pretext for a picnic at Crissy Fields or hikes along old ruins of the Sutro Baths. On foggier days when the Golden Gate Park is a misty blur and the Pacific Ocean takes on an ominous grey, locals head indoors to the Legion of Honor museum for a glimpse of the Dutch still life paintings, while parents pack their kids into the Academy of Sciences. These aren’t city attractions reserved for the tourist alone. (Although Pier 39 might well serve that purpose!) It’s as if San Franciscans have figured out schedules that fit their urge to endlessly explore their own city, to shrug off the quotidian world even on a Monday morning. I’ve often groaned at the long lines outside Tartine Bakery on a weekday or the unexpected crowd of nudists, braving the winds at Baker Beach in the middle of the afternoon. “When does everyone work?” we all like to ask each other, until we are reminded that we too have found ways to shirk the workaday routine and soak in our city. “It’s the hills,” my brisk-walking New York friends like to joke. “You’d kill yourselves if you rushed up and down these undulating streets! You have to take it easy!”
But ever so often, the rituals of city life become tedious and city dwellers become jaded. The ambling MUNI tram ringing its bell through the curving street strikes a jarring note. You find yourself bemoaning the opening of yet another hipster boutique selling designer pasta along Valencia and the closing of another old favourite bookshop. Even the honey lavender ice cream at Bi Rite by Dolores Park, where every man and his dog has gathered for the day, seems clichéd. It is then time to leave our tiny, 7×7 mile city, even if briefly. The options are innumerable. Any list I put together raises eyebrows from friends and the wrath of critics, all of whom have their chosen escape routes. Some love skiing in Tahoe, while others head out for a camping trip in Monterey.
My own family favourite was a bed and breakfast weekend in the artist town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, with teahouses, white sandy beaches, and arguably one of the most beautiful bougainvillea-covered Missions in California. The journey along Route 1 is as picturesque as the destination. The Monterey Bay Aquarium on the way provides grand entertainment for kids and adults alike. The winding coastal road down to Big Sur from Carmel is lined on one side by ancient Redwoods and on the other by the gleaming Pacific Ocean. Its idyllic beauty has variously inspired the Beat poets and the Beach Boys. Its bohemian communities have drawn artists, hippies and celebrities. Writer Henry Miller, who lived there for decades, called it a place ‘where extremes meet’, a ‘space of grandeur, and of eloquent silence’.
But as I live here longer, newer vistas open up for me. The day trip up North to Point Reyes seems just as enticing, if more wild and windy than the cozy town of Carmel. No less than 308 steps take you down to the historic lighthouse at Point Reyes — a beacon to mariners for over a 100 years and a pristine attraction for tourists visiting the area today. For the more sedate, there’s the little known Heart’s Desire Beach further up in Tomales Bay, where the waves are calm, the water is warm enough for paddling toddlers, and the picnic tables aplenty. For date nights or weekend brunches, we stay closer home, driving just a little past Pacifica to the Moss Beach Distillery, right by the marine preserve, where the legendary ghost of a lady in a blue dress, searches for her long lost lover.
My friends are generous with their recommendations, but warn me not to share too much. Liz Epstein, who runs a literary salon in Marin, makes me promise I will keep her piece of the Bay a secret. But then adds, “I fear it might be too late!” And so the Bay Area native suggests a ferry ride from the city into the waterfront community of Sausalito, a stroll through the downtown shops right by the houseboats and an Italian lunch at Poggio. The Muir Woods close by are another favourite, where she recommends a hike among the coastal Redwoods, the tallest of all living things on earth. “A fun place to stop after a morning hike (walk, really) through the woods is The Pelican Inn, an English-style pub, where one can drink at the bar, play darts, or sit at the restaurant and have some traditional English food,” Liz shares the last of her secrets.
Bruce Avery, Professor of Theater Arts and veteran Shakespeare actor, recommends mud baths in Calistoga and balloon rides over Napa Valley. Further North, Bruce suggests dinner at Rustics in Geyserville at the Coppola winery, where you can spend the day poolside and sample wines. The museum there places Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscars on display and the outdoor theatre hosts concerts and plays in the summer. Bruce’s regular performances of Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream bring star-crossed lovers (and happier ones!) from across the Bay, carrying picnic baskets and wine, to watch Shakespeare under the stars.
It is the drive back to the city, across its majestic bridges, along its winding coastlines, its skyline the stuff of artist etchings and picture postcards that always draws sighs. “We live in the loveliest city in the world.” I hear the words again and again, as San Franciscans head back home. Seth’s character surveying the city from a distance in The Golden Gate sums it up:
No veiling words suffice to praise it,
But if you saw it as, light-pearled,
Fog-fingered, pinnacled, I see it
Across the black tide, you’d agree it
Outvied the magic of your own.