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Embracing the Harvest

It's no secret that one of the top wine-growing regions in the U.S. is just north of San Francisco: the North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), which includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. Autumn, the annual harvest season, is arguably the best time to visit this area, which is home to more than 800 wineries. The scent of freshly crushed fruit permeates the air, and travelers can watch workers picking flawlessly ripe grapes straight from the vines in the wee morning hours. It's a time of celebration.

As queen of the AVA, the Napa Valley is home to dozens of wineries hosting harvest celebrations. Try Paraduxx Winery's X2 Release Harvest Celebration in early October or Cornerstone Cellars' Harvest Party later in the month. Family-owned V Sattui hosts an annual black-tie Harvest Ball in September with wine and Italian-food pairings, as well live bands and dancing through the night. Bring the whole family to Napa's St. Helena Harvest Festival, which, along with ample wine pouring stations, includes a pet parade through the city's picturesque downtown.

Nearby Sonoma County has its own Harvest Fair, a multi-day event with a tasting pavilion, a wine country marketplace and a grape-stomping competition during which teams of two vie for the title of World's Greatest Stomp Team.

One of the best ways to experience Wine Country any time of year is aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train. Sit down to a multi-course gourmet meal with wine pairings in the comfort of restored classic Pullman cars, taking in views of rolling vineyards and historic wineries as you go. The three-hour journey travels from downtown Napa to St. Helena and back.

 

Fall Festivals

With warm temperatures and sunnier-than-usual skies, it's little wonder autumn is San Francisco's prime festival season. Here are a few events that are definitely worth a spot on your itinerary. (Ask your B&B innkeepers for recommendations as well!)

San Franciscans love their books, and nowhere is this more evident than at Litquake, a literary festival featuring writing salons, author lunches and tips from published pros. The week-long event culminates with Lit Crawl, an evening of readings that take place in stages at more than 80 venues in the Mission District. Think of it as a pub crawl for bookworms, with occasional imbibing throughout.

We can thank the late billionaire Warren Hellman for San Francisco's greatest musical fest: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a three-day party held in Golden Gate Park with seven stages and more than 100 performers. It's absolutely free. Pack a picnic, find a spot of grass, and enjoy an afternoon listening to the live tunes of artists like Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.

Tour naval destroyers, watch a parade of ships and mingle with members of the armed forces during San Francisco's annual Fleet Week, which includes two spectacular aerial shows over San Francisco Bay led by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.

Enjoy a weekend of pretzels, bratwurst and beer by the stein at Oktoberfest by the Bay, San Francisco's annual ode to Bavarian culture. While lederhosen and dirndl aren't required dress, they're definitely encouraged.

 

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Outdoor Fun

With its clear skies and mild weather, fall is one of the best times to take advantage of the Bay Area's natural offerings within the city and beyond. Skirting San Francisco's northwestern corner (beginning just east of the iconic Cliff House restaurant) is Land's End Trail, a scenic three-mile coastal trail that winds through stands of wind-swept cypress trees and meanders along rocky cliffsides. Prepare for some incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge and, during low tide, the remains of shipwrecks in the waters below.

Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge is Muir Woods, a national monument known especially for its towering old-growth redwood trees. This is also where you'll find the start of the popular Dipsea Trail, a 9.5-mile hiking trail that winds through groves of redwood and fir trees, and opens onto spectacular views of both the San Francisco skyline and the Pacific Ocean before dipping down into Stinson Beach. The trail also crosses a portion of Mount Tamalpais State Park, home to 2,571-foot-tall Mt. Tam and a bevy of scenic hiking trails that includes the 7-mile Cataract Creek Trail loop and the shady 4.7-mile Middle Peak loop. Keep an eye out for wildlife like California quail, grey foxes and turkey vultures as you go.

For a change of pace, consider renting a bicycle (Blazing Saddles has locations in Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf) and riding across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito or nearby Tiburon. Though getting to the bridge can be strenuous, once across the ride is all downhill. You can even catch a ferry back to the city—along with your bike—from both locations. Golden Gate Park's main thoroughfare, John F. Kennedy Drive, is closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays, making it the perfect stretch for a leisurely bike ride. It's also where you'll find Lindy in the Park, a free swing dance gathering that begins every Sunday at noon.

Expert Tips

  • Indian summer or not, San Francisco's weather can change on a dime any time of year. Always bring along layers (long-sleeve shirt, sweater, light jacket, etc.).
  • Many Bay Area hiking trails border steep cliffs and slippery slopes. Always stay as far away from the edge as possible when using any trail and wear sturdy shoes or boots.
  • San Francisco International Airport is 13 miles south of the city. If you're only visiting San Francisco, consider forgoing a car and taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) instead; this way you'll avoid parking hassles. Oakland International Airport is another convenient Bay Area airport, and flights into OAK are often cheaper. From here it takes about 45 minutes to reach downtown SF with minimal traffic. Once in the city, the Ferry Building on the east end of Market Street is a major transit hub. All Muni (municipal railway) lines and most bus lines are accessible nearby, as are historic trolley cars to Fisherman's Wharf and ferries to both Sausalito and Oakland.
  • As harvest season in wine country is such a popular time, book B&Bs early.

 

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Food

Anytime is a good time to enjoy seafood in greater San Francisco, but autumn brings its own perks with the beginning of spiny lobster season. While Fisherman's Wharf offers the city's greatest selection of seafood establishments, restaurants tend to be overpriced and crowded. For seafood that attracts a local crowd, try Swan Oyster Depot, a tiny 100-plus-year-old eatery in the city's Nob Hill neighborhood. This first-come, first-serve institution is as straightforward as it gets. Clam and oysters on the half shell, smoked trout and half-cracked crab are served at a bar stool counter with a line of customers out the door. Out in San Francisco's beachside Richmond District is Pacific Café, another local favorite. Along with fresh seafood specials, one of the restaurant's main draws is complimentary wine for waiting patrons, which transforms the nearby sidewalk into a lively social hour most evenings. North of the city, oysters are the way to go, with both Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Hog Island Oyster Co. selling take-away bivalves for shucking.

There are two great ways to get a sense of San Francisco's vast culinary offerings. The first is Off the Grid, a mobile gathering of food trucks that comes together at different locations throughout the city. One of Off the Grid's most popular events takes place Friday evenings at Fort Mason through the end of October. Come and sample gourmet eats from 30 different vendors ranging from Northern California-inspired Pacific Island cuisine to Indian street food, sip local brews and listen to live music—all while basking in the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge. Another place to try: San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace. Occupying the city's restored century-old ferry terminal, this artisan market has completely transformed the city's Embarcadero waterfront into a culinary destination. Grab a cup of single-origin coffee at Blue Bottle, sample the cheeses at Cowgirl Creamery or snack on one of El Porteño's savory empanadas on an outdoor bench while watching the boats come in. This is also a great place to come for desserts, with everything from Parisian-style macaroons to classic Italian gelato at your disposal.

 

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Where to Stay

Though originally built as a 19th-century bordello, the conveniently located Monte Cristo B&B has been catering to guests "of a more reputable sort" for nearly a century. Bed down in European-style antique-filled rooms and fill up on breakfast quiche (a house specialty) before hitting the town. The 43 Masonic and 1 California bus lines—both of which stop within a block of the inn—get you from the Marina to Chinatown.

Occupying a four-story Edwardian just a few minutes' walk from Union Square, the family-run Golden Gate Hotel offers 25 wicker-furnished rooms ranging from budget-friendly twin rooms with shared bath to an en suite queen room with its original clawfoot tub. A vintage elevator makes accessing the upper floors easy.

There is no shortage of restaurants around Inn San Francisco (pictured above), situated on the edge of the city's lively Mission District. But chances are you'll want to spend much of your time relaxing in the B&B's gazebo-covered hot tub, sipping tea in the outdoor English garden, or taking in panoramic views of the city from its rooftop deck. Guestrooms capture the elegance of a bygone era.

Step into a vineyard fairytale with a stay at the historical mock-Tudor-style Candlelight Inn Napa. Sleep in a four poster bed, cozy up to an in-room fire, or while away an afternoon beside the B&B's secluded swimming pool. Of course, the wineries of Napa and Sonom are all nearby.

Enjoy complimentary local wines and modern in-room amenities like iPod docks and heated bathroom floors at Olea Hotel, a boutique property on a hillside in Sonoma County's Glen Ellen flanked by olive and oak trees. Choose from a bevy of guestrooms, including some with superb valley views and two garden cottages.

—by Laura Kiniry