Far from Fisherman’s Wharf, on the north west tip of San Francisco, peering out across the vast Pacific, or “Sundown Sea” as the Native Americans called it, lies Lands End. To the immediate south of that, Ocean Beach stretches towards Half Moon Bay, Pacifica, Monterey and ultimately the Mexican border.
The following account is aimed at highlighting some of the attractions to be found in this historic, and often wind and fog ravaged, corner of the city.
We start at the Beach Chalet on the western limits of Golden Gate Park. Separated from the beach only by the Great or Pacific Coast Highway, it was opened in 1925, essentially to provide changing rooms for beach-goers. It now houses a popular restaurant and boasts its own brewery.
It almost goes without saying that it affords magnificent views of the beach and ocean across the road, lulling, as on the occasion pictured, the happy diner into the misapprehension that it is warm and without a breath of wind outside those large picture windows. After all, it was only June and this was still San Francisco.
Before taking the stairs to the first floor restaurant, visitors should allow time to admire the lovely frescoes depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties, created by French-born cubist designer and former London Welsh rugby player, Lucien Labaudt, for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Venturing out into the gritty afternoon air after lunch, you should not forego a short detour into the park to relax and wander round the radiant Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, home to the stately Dutch Windmill, the elder of two mills in the park designed to pump ground water for park irrigation.
I have written about my affection for the Cliff House, a few hundred yards north as the road curves right onto Point Lobos Avenue, on several occasions, notably about the pleasure of eating there:
The current, rather plain and utilitarian, building is the fifth to bear the name on the site. Rebuilt in 1909 after burning to the ground two years earlier (it had survived the Earthquake and Fire of 1906), it houses two excellent restaurants – the street level bistro (pictured below) and Sutro’s below stairs, which offers a more elegant dining experience and equally spectacular wave and wildlife watching. In addition, it hosts weddings, corporate functions and other private events in the Terrace Room.
The sea lions may have deserted this stretch of coast for a new stage from which they can better entertain the tourists on Pier 39, but Seal Rock(s) remains a fascinating feature that attracts hundreds of gulls , pelicans and cormorants.
The ingenious Camera Obscura, based on a fifteenth century design by Leonardo da Vinci, provides extraordinarily vivid 360 degree images of the birdlife on those rocks.
Adjacent to the Cliff House lie the ruins of Sutro Baths, the once enormous entertainment complex built by Adolph Sutro – mining engineer, property developer and latterly the first Jewish mayor of the city – who had also constructed the second and most grandiloquent version of the Cliff House in French chateau style.
Comprising six saltwater tanks, a freshwater plunge, natural history museum, Egyptian mummies, amphitheatre and much else besides, the baths could accommodate 25,000 visitors at any one time. Understandably, it was San Francisco’s seaside playground for seventy years from 1896, though it had fallen into disfavour and disrepair long before, as so often in this city, fire finished the job in 1966, just six years before the equally popular and much loved Playland at the Beach close by was torn down.
Treading among the rocks and pools that remain, one can almost imagine being on a Greek island or an Italian coastal village.
Opened in the same year – 1937 – as the Golden Gate Bridge, Louis’ family owned restaurant has successfully withstood the competition from its more refined neighbours around the bend in the road, and continues to provide hearty, uncomplicated diner-style fare – and, of course, affords glorious views of the baths and ocean.
From alongside Louis’, on El Camino del Mar, the road branches eastwards back towards the city, passing the impressive Palace of the Legion of Honour, the moving Holocaust Memorial and the extravagant enclave of Sea Cliff. A more rewarding course is to take the Coastal Trail on foot, winding around the headlands, and from which you can climb down onto China and Baker Beach. The Golden Gate Bridge flirts with the walker at every turn in the path and from behind every clump of trees.
The Coastal Trail, with its stunning photographic opportunities, is worthy of a post in itself, so I’ll close with another Labaudt fresco from the Beach Chalet and a slightly more modern piece hung up in the bar of the Cliff House bistro.