THOSE lucky San Franciscans. One hour north and there’s Napa Valley. A hop skip and a jump (or 30 minutes) east of Napa and you’re in the stunning Sonoma wine region. Natural wonders including Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and the Big Sur are all on your doorstep. Top that with the fabulous food and drink and it’s enough to make you want to move there.
The mood before our flight home to London – needless to say – is sombre. We’re sipping our last glass of California chardonnay in Zuni, a small restaurant in a groovy corner of the Castro neighbourhood, indulging in one last delight, the restaurant’s signature wood-fired oven-roast chicken served over Tuscan bread salad.
Only a week has past and it’s been a whirlwind of Californian bliss. Our holiday concept was simple: San Francisco and the Napa Valley, for an unbridled culinary festival, followed by a brief whistle-stop at Yosemite before flying home.
The Clift was our San Francisco abode. The iconic hotel, one of the earlier Philippe Starck boutique hotels, marks its tenth anniversary this year and is still as cool as ever when we arrive. Stepping in here is like entering a surreal nightclub. The lights are dim and atmospheric with sculptural furniture dotted everywhere. The rooms, by contrast, are light, sleek and larger than you’d expect, with Malin & Goetz toiletries and luxurious high thread count sheets.
The cornerstone of the Clift is its brooding double-height Redwood Room on the ground floor, a highly atmospheric bar, and hub for the city’s nightlife at weekends. It divides reviewers (Tripadvisor describes it as a “nightclub” hotel, the derogatory term used for hotels that prioritise being a night time hotspot over serving guests), but I loved it. The atmosphere is upbeat, young and – well, quite sexy – and the best bit is you can enjoy cocktail upon killer cocktail safe in the knowledge that your bed is just floors away.
But first, food. We start with A16, a culinary hotspot in the hip Marina District. The restaurant is famed for rustic Southern Italian cuisine and as we step inside, the wood-fired oven is burning at full pelt (reservations are essential). We feast on Arugula, medjool dates and pecorino salad, finishing with the restaurant’s signature: Chocolate budino tart and sea salt, topped with extra virgin olive oil (Sounds dubious but trust me, it works.) Next it’s Bin 38, a cult wine bar on Scott Street, known for its extensive California wine list. We sip Californian Brown Estate, Napa Valley Zinfandel in the bar’s fairy-lit garden, warming ourselves in front of a roaring fire pit, before heading back to the hotel bar (3am. Oof).
The following day is spent at the usual tourist spots; Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury – the famed Janis Joplin haunt and hub of the 1960s hippy movement – before its time to go again.
This time The Mission is our target. The mission in San Francisco started out as a poor Mexican immigrant neighbourhood but today is one of the hippest areas of the city. It boasts a fabulous array of Mexican restaurants and we head to family eatery Puerto Alegre, a small cheap-as-chips joint on Valencia Street with authentic food (you can’t make reservations here. You come, you wait. That’s it.) We pig out on Mexican pulled pork, fajitas, corn chips and eye watering fresh salsa. The night is capped with drinks at Blondie’s next door, one of the area’s buzziest cocktail joints (famed for its dive bar vibe, generous – read pint size – martinis and live music.)
The next day activity is required to shake the cobwebs. We opt for a breathtaking cycle (through local hire company Blazing Saddles) across the Golden Gate Bridge to nearby town Sausalito and sip beers in the sunshine. We return and visit Humphry Slocombe, one of the city’s award-winning boutique ice cream companies. (Think: Strawberry Candied Japelapeno and Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee.)
Napa is only a 40-minute drive from downtown San Francisco but feels worlds away when we arrive in the sun-drenched leafy confines of Yountville, one of a series of towns along the St Helena Highway. We’re staying at Bardessono, a sleek boutique hotel in the heart of town.
Bardessono’s USP is its eco-friendly policy – it’s one of only two hotels in the US to be LEED certified by the US government – but thankfully none of this is at the expense of luxury. There are great practical touches – solar panels, its paperless, organic linens – but the rooms are still suitably decadent. Our suite boasts its own terrace, a jacuzzi the size of my flat and a working fireplace. Refreshingly, in contrast to the abundance of cutesy B&Bs in the area, it’s also feels quite young and hip. We spend an afternoon sipping margaritas in serviced cabanas at the hotel’s rooftop pool, which sweeping views across the valley.
The best thing about Bardessono is its location. Smack bang in the middle of town, there’s no need to drive or take taxis (handy as it’s approximately four minutes walk from the world-famous French Laundry and sister restaurant Bouchon).
It’s also a great spot to explore the valley. The hotel offers complimentary bicycles to guests and will even collect you should the zinfandel sipping turn a little enthusiastic. The main Napa towns Oakville, St Helena and Calistoga are all within easy reach by bike. The three of us set out and visit The Napa Wine Company, in Oakville (20 minutes gentle cycle away.) The venue is a collective-supported tasting room for small independent wineries and we spend an hour sampling red wine. Next up its Frog’s Leap – a farm-style vineyard with breezy verandas, comfy chairs and delicious chardonnay. We finish with cycle along the Silverado trail before a quick tasting at Cliff Lede vineyard’s open-air terraces.
The wind down is a good idea, it turns out, because what follows is nothing short of a foodie’s dream. London may have welcomed The French Laundry lately but it is nothing compared with experiencing the legendary three-Michelin-starred restaurant in its home setting. Getting in here isn’t easy. It takes me a steady two-month campaign of follow-ups, both through the restaurant and Relais & Chateaux who represent it, to get in. But it’s worth it. The restaurant occupies a small innocuous vine clad house. Once inside it’s all hushed sound and warm lighting. The restaurant serves two set menus. Both cost $270 – without wine – and include service.
Courses, tit bits and foie gras flow. It’s the perfect finale to our Napa stay because we leave feeling like we could never eat anything again . . . Well, almost.
Bardessono low season rooms begin at approximately $499 and in peak season start at $899. www.bardessono.com. Clift Hotel rooms start at: $250 per night. www.clifthotel.com. For French Laundry reservations: call Relais & Châteaux: 00 800 2000 00 02 (toll free) or visit the website at: www.relaischateaux.com.
WHERE TO GO: | FOODIE SAN FRANCISCO AND NAPA
● Zuni: Neighborhood restaurant with a difference. Pre-order the Roast Chicken. www.zunicafe.com; A16: Southern Italian food, stone baked Pizzas. Bliss. www.a16sf.com
● Delfina: Modern Italian fare with a killer wine list. www.delfinasf.com
● Puerto Alegre: Cheap, unbeatable Mexican food. 546 Valencia Street, San Francisco, 001 415 255 8201;
● Blondie’s: Killer martinis, Cajun live bands. There needs to be one of these in London. www.blondiesbar.com
● Humphry Slocombe: Ice cream, but not as we know it: www.humphryslocombe.com;
● Bouchon: Didn’t make it in to French Laundry? Don’t worry. You can always console yourself in the restaurant’s more affordable (but nonetheless excellent) sister venue www.bouchonbistro.com
● Oakville Grocery: Rustic breads, delicious deli food and gourmet salads for the road in the heart of Napa. www.oakvillegrocery.com
● Napa Wine Co: Boite for the area’s independent wineries. www.napawineco.com (Flights start at $20)
● Frog’s Leap: Farm-style glorious setting with beautiful wines. www.frogsleap.com (Flights start at $20)
● Cliff Lede: Exquisite wines in a blissful setting minutes from Yountville. www.cliffledevineyards.com
WHERE TO GO: | EXTEND YOUR TRIP TO YOSEMITE
● Yosemite National Park is just four hours drive from both Napa and San Francisco and well worth the trip if you have time. The vast terrain, El Capitan, waterfalls and valleys are truly spectacular. Entrance to the park is $20 for a week’s unlimited access. There is only one hotel in the park itself, the historic Awahee, but with rooms at roughly £300 it’s an expensive option. We stay at Tenaya Lodge, just outside the park, and it’s perfect. The hotel is a large, family-style place (think antlers, fireplaces, Navajo print) perched high on the hill and offers terrific value at roughly £150 per room per night. There are two pools, three restaurants, a spa, well-equipped rooms and it’s only a short drive to all the key sites in the park. The concierge service is impartial, authoritative, and open throughout the day. With guidance we self-drive the park, pre-ordering a packed lunch from the hotel ($15) and hire bikes to cycle the Yosemite Valley floor. www.tenayalodge.com For more information about Yosemite, see: www.Yosemitepark.com