There are few more relaxing spots in which to while away an afternoon in San Francisco than the man-made Stow Lake in the centre of Golden Gate Park.
It’s frequented more by residents than tourists who are rather drawn to the heavily promoted, and undeniably impressive, adjacent attractions of the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences and Japanese Tea Garden. Yet it is only a few minutes walk away.
We stumbled upon it purely by accident on our second trip to the city thirteen years ago. Venturing west from those headliner venues, you quickly come across a pathway and stairs that lead to the south side of the lake. In the dense trees on the island opposite you soon encounter the charming Chinese Pavilion, a gift from the people of Taipei, shipped in 6,000 pieces and reassembled in 1981.
As you stroll along the path that encircles the lake you gain an immediate impression of both serenity and bustle. Young families, pushing strollers and trying to contain excited children, compete with joggers, dog walkers and cyclists for the narrow path. Ducks, gulls and other bird life glide along the placid surface, scanning for potential feeding stations wherever humans congregate by the water.
For now, pass the rustic stone bridge on your right and continue along the path that leads to the boathouse where you will be able to rent paddle boats, row boats – new, I believe, this year – bicycles, and in-line skates. Restrooms, picnic tables and a surprisingly well stocked snack bar greet you here also. Indeed, it has the distinction of being the first place in the U.S. where I tasted a vegetarian hot dog (whilst Janet ate ice cream!).
On a bright day you may be lucky enough to observe a row of turtles sunbathing on the rocks and logs alongside the boathouse.
For the more adventurous there is the short but relatively steep hike up to Strawberry Hill, the 430 foot high artificial island in the middle of the lake, which rewards you with fine, slightly tree obscured views across the western part of the city, and even as far as the Farallone Islands 26 miles out to sea.
You can either retrace your steps from the boathouse and access the island across the stone bridge, or you can approach it by crossing the second “Roman” bridge which appears shortly in the opposite direction. Be sure not to miss Huntington Falls which cascade down into the lake close to the Chinese Pavilion.
Encircling the entire lake and climbing Strawberry Hill amounts to around two and a half miles.
So if you want a few hours respite from the frenetic environs of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown or Union Square, take a bus out to Golden Gate Park and visit Stow Lake, grab an ice cream and paddle gently for an hour in the civilising company of ducks and turtles.