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Posts Tagged ‘Sea Cliff’


My last post explored the area on the north western corner of San Francisco – from the Beach Chalet restaurant along Ocean Beach to the Cliff House and adjacent Sutro Baths.

If you need to return to the city at this point, you can either drive back via the avenues or take the 38 Geary Muni bus. But an infinitely more rewarding, if strenuous, route is along the Coastal Trail, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, that winds around the headland all the way to Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge. The walk begins at the parking lot behind the baths.

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The Cliff House, with the huge picture windows of the bistro and Sutro’s beneath, presents its more fetching side when viewed from the ruins.

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A few hundred yards along the trail, set in the wild, cypress-filled expanse of Lincoln Park, a short detour inland brings you to the stately Palace of the Legion of Honour, an exact replica of the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d,Honneur in Paris. Built in the nineteen twenties to promote French art in California and commemorate the state’s casualties in the Great War, it houses European art from the last eight centuries, including paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet and Degas, as well as exhibits from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Assyria.

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It might be best known in the public imagination for providing the setting for scenes in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the gallery is more important for being the home to more than seventy sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Indeed, an original bronze casting of his Le Penseur (The Thinker),  the production of which was overseen by the sculptor himself, greets visitors as they enter via the courtyard.

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Returning to the trail, steep wooden steps transport the adventurous hiker onto Mile Rocks Beach, where, even on a calm day, the rugged terrain is lashed by the strong currents of the powerful Pacific.

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From here, Mile Rocks Lighthouse sits half a mile off shore. Built originally as a bell buoy in 1889, with the lighthouse completed in 1906, it served to guide the way for seafarers until 1966  when the Coast Guard dismantled the lantern and converted it to a helicopter landing pad. Emasculated it may now be, but it is still a curiously imposing structure.

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One of the chief pleasures of the walk is the “now you see me, now you don’t” tease played by the Golden Gate Bridge.

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China Beach, so named as it was once home to an encampment of Chinese fishermen, is a small cove with facilities for residents hardy enough to swim in the icy waters. As the trail turns due north towards the bridge, the larger Baker Beach, the original site for the Burning Man art festival, is one of the most popular spots for sunbathing, walking and fishing, as well as being dog friendly. On sunny days, the northern end is notable for the absence of swimwear or any clothing for that matter.

And it affords a stunning view – of the bridge, not me.

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It might be feel remote but you should not get lost on the trail.  

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At the end of Lincoln Park, the wooded, green terrain gives way to swanky Sea Cliff, one of San Francisco’s most affluent neighbourhoods with its pastel coloured mansions and their immaculately manicured gardens. Its exclusivity is reinforced on every corner by signs forbidding tourist buses, and its list of current and former residents includes Robin Williams, Sharon Stone, Paul Kantner and the founders of both Twitter and Gap. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands are unsurprisingly priceless.

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The walk on this occasion ends here on the south west corner of the Presidio. That magnificent former US army base deserves a post of its own, and I will return to it at a later date.

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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.

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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.     

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

https://tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/a-cliff-house-brunch-date/

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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