Monday, December 27, 2010

Tips for Riding San Francisco's Cable Cars

The California Street Cable Car will be closed for repairs until July 2011.  This marks the first time any of the three cable car lines will be closed for an extended period since the entire system was overhauled from 1982 to 1984.  As a result of the closure, I foresee more tourists flocking to the already overcrowded Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines.

(Photo courtesy of SFCVB.)

During the height of the tourist season, one can wait up to one hour to board the Powell Street cable cars.  Here are three tips to help you avoid the wait:
  1. Ride early in the morning or late at night.  If you try to ride the cars before 9:00 a.m. or after 8:00 p.m., you are less likely to find long lines at the cable car turnarounds at Powell and Market Streets, Aquatic Park, and Taylor and Bay Streets.  Cable car service starts at around 6:00 a.m. and concludes shortly after midnight.
  2. Don't board the cars at the turnarounds.  Sometimes you can squeeze onto the cars if you try to board a few blocks from the end of the cable car lines.  Better yet, board the cars at stops where many folks get off.  These stops include the Cable Car Museum at Washington and Mason Streets, the Nob Hill/Chinatown stop at California and Powell Streets, and the Lombard Street (Crookedest Street in the World) stop at Hyde and Lombard Streets.
  3. Take the Powell-Mason Street Line from Fisherman's Wharf.  If you want to take the cable car to leave Fisherman's Wharf, the line is frequently shorter at the end of the Powell-Mason line at Taylor and Bay Streets than at the end of the Powell-Hyde line at Aquatic Park.
Of course, there's no guarantee that you won't have to wait.  If you are waiting at the turnaround at Powell and Market Streets or at Aquatic Park, you're likely to see some only-in-San Francisco characters.  Enjoy them!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Another Visit to Oakland

Back in August, I wrote about a recent visit to Oakland.  (Click here to see that post.)  Recently we had occasion to spend an afternoon wandering through Oakland's neighborhoods before meeting family for dinner.  We strolled along Grand and Lakeshore Avenues and Piedmont Avenue as well as along College Avenue in the  Rockridge neighborhood.  Grand Avenue was the least interesting of the three commercial districts;although, it is home to the Grand Lake Theater, one of the Bay Area's few remaining movie palaces.  Rockridge had the most interesting shops and is home to one of our favorite food emporiums, the Rockridge Market Hall.  Here you can find amazing selections of cheese, baked goods, wines, pasta, and other delicious goodies.  Feeling the need for some wine and nourishment after our long walk, we stopped in the adjoining Oliveto Cafe for some red wine and nibbles.

When it was time for dinner we headed over to the upcoming area near 19th and Broadway for some southern influenced food at Pican  All three of us enjoyed our dinners of smoked brisket meatloaf, southern sopes, and low country shrimp and grits.  Since southern cuisine is hard to find in the Bay Area, we'll definitely be returning to Pican.

As in my last post on Oakland, I can't recommend that visitors to San Francisco make a special trip across the Bay but, if you find yourself in Oakland, there's good food and interesting neighborhoods.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Point Bonita Lighthouse

On a recent sunny Sunday, I had a chance to revisit one of my favorite spots in the Bay Area:  Point Bonita.  Located on the north side of the Golden Gate, the point marks the entry to San Francisco Bay and provides for stunning vistas of the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse provides a beacon for ships attempting to navigate the treacherous entrance to San Francisco Bay.  To get to the lighthouse, one must navigate a half-mile trail from the parking lot that includes a walk through a tunnel dug by Chinese laborers who worked on the transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the trail is open only from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. Even more unfortunate is that the suspension bridge that connects the end of the trail to the lighthouse has seen better days and is closed for repairs until the spring of 2012.  As a result, the lighthouse is currently inaccessible to visitors.  Nevertheless the walk to the end of Point Bonita is worth it just for the views.

If you would like to take a private, custom tour that includes a visit to Point Bonita, your best bet is to schedule a full-day San Francisco and Muir Woods Tour (The Perfect Day Tour).  For more information, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Monday, November 01, 2010

Best Restaurants in San Francisco - 2010/2011

The new "Zagat 2011 San Francisco Bay Area Restaurants" and "The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2011" were recently released. So it's time for Blue Heron's annual summary of the critics' choices for the best restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Zagat's list of the five most popular restaurants includes Gary Danko, Boulevard, Slanted Door, French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley), and Cyrus (Healdsburg, Sonoma County). The top rated overall are Gary Danko and French Laundry with 29 points. Cyrus, Sierra Mar (Big Sur), Acquerello, La Folie, Erna's Elderberry House (Oakhurst, south of Yosemite National Park), Hana Japanese (Rohnert Park, Sonoma County), and Chez Panisse (Berkeley) received 28 points. (All restaurants are in San Francisco unless otherwise noted).

Once again, Michelin awarded three stars to the French Laundry (Yountville, Napa Valley). However, for the first time, a second restaurant, The Restaurant at Meadowood (near St. Helena, Napa Valley), also received three stars.  Two stars were awarded to Cyrus (Healdsburg, Sonoma County), Coi in San Francisco, and Manresa in Los Gatos. Thirty-nine restaurants in the Bay Area received one star.

The "San Francisco Chronicle" awards four stars to the top restaurants. Current recipients are Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Cyrus in Healdsburg, Manresa in Los Gatos, French Laundry in Yountville, The Restaurant at Meadowood near St. Helena, and Coi, La Folie, and The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.

Come to San Francisco and you'll have a chance to pick your favorite. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance as these top restaurants frequently fill up two months in advance. If you wait until the last minute, you may not be able to get a table or may have to dine at 5:30 or 10:00 p.m.

If you want to see last year's summary, click here

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oldest Buildings in Downtown San Francisco

Jackson Square is home to the oldest buildings in downtown San Francisco.  Built in the 1850s and 1860s, these buildings survived destruction in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire three times.  The story is amusing and to hear it, you'll either have to take a private tour of San Francisco with Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel or join one of the walking tours that frequents the neighborhood.  The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society offers walks along the Barbary Coast Trail that visit Jackson Square.

To commemorate the survival of these buildings, a ditty was written in 1906 and memorialized on a plaque on the building wall on the east side of Hotaling Alley at the corner of Jackson Street.  The poem goes:  "If, as they say, God spanked the town for being over-frisky, why did he burn the churches down and spare Hotaling's Whiskey?

Be sure to check out the old bank on the northeast corner of Jackson and Montgomery Streets.  The plaque on the Jackson Street side of the building tells you about the bank director who want on to fame as a Union general during the civil war.

Today, Jackson Square is home to upscale antique, shops, galleries, and restaurants.  To see a listing of retail establishments in the area, visit the Jackson Square Antique and Art Dealers Association website:

To take a private, custom tour of San Francisco that includes a visit to Jackson Square and many other historical sights, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Neighborhood French Restaurants

I enjoy casual French bistros with friendly staff, nice ambience, and both traditional and contemporary French cuisine.  I don't want anything fancy.  I just want to feel like I'm in France for a little while.  In January, I wrote about Le P'tite Laurent in Glen Park that I enjoy immensely.  The owner, Laurent, is always friendly; the staff are from France; and the food is delicious.

Last night, we dined at L'Ardoise the chalk board) in the Castro Disrict, another bistro that makes me yearn to return to France.  We had a charcuterie plate with tasty pates and sausages, an interesting portobello mushroom salad, and butter fish with potatoes landaises, a French classic.  The wine selection is mostly French with a few interesting Californians thrown in for variety.

Another good neighborhood restaurant is Baker Street Bistro, near the Presidio's Lombard Street Gate.  Here too you'll find some French classics at reasonable prices.  Unlike Le P'tite Laurent and L'Ardoise, Baker Street Bistro is also open for lunch and weekend brunch.

I recommend checking out any of these restaurants next time you want a quick hit of France without the hassle of standing in line at the airport.  If you have any additional recommendations, please comment.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Victorian Ferndale

I'd long wanted to visit the small, Victorian town of Ferndale, just south of Eureka in Humboldt County.  Located about five hours north of San Francisco, Ferndale is too far to travel for a weekend getaway so I had to wait for a longer trip to California's far north.  Earlier this month, I took guests to see the redwoods in the Avenue of the Giants and Redwood National and State Parks and needed a place to overnight in between.  I immediately thought of Ferndale.  

Gingerbread Mansion Bed and Breakfast
Currently closed and on the market for $1 Million

If you enjoy Victorian Architecture, Ferndale's the place for you.  A stroll through the small town takes you past dozens of beautiful Victorian homes and buildings.  When you arrive you can easily pick up a guide for a walking tour of the town.  

The small main street is lined with shops, restaurants, and galleries. One of my favorites is The Blacksmith Shop, a gallery of handmade, blacksmithed items.  Ferndale Arts is a cooperative gallery showcasing works of many local and nearby artists.  The Ferndale Museum has a collection of local artifacts and contains a wealth of information on local history.

My guests stayed at The Victorian Inn, a lovely restored Victorian hotel. Erected in 1890, the hotel is built entirely of redwood.  Rooms are decorated with Victorian style furnishings but include modern amenities such as flat screen televisions in some rooms and internet access throughout the hotel.  The Inn's VI Restaurant is probably the best place to dine in Ferndale.

Victorian Inn

A tour of California's far north is quite rewarding and an overnight in Ferndale is a relaxing stop.  If you'd like to have someone else do the driving, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel for a private tour.  I can be reached at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Weaverville and the Trinity Alps

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Weaverville, the county seat and largest city in Trinity County, in the north of California.  Our trip started in Redding and continued west along CA 299, the main road through the Trinity Alps.  About 75 minutes later, we arrived in Weaverville.

This old gold rush town still has buildings from the 1850s and a quaint main street through the historic section.  The historic part of town is about 5 blocks long and contains some interesting shops, Victorian buildings, a few restaurants, and historic sights.  The two main attractions in town are the Weaverville Joss House and the Jake Jackson Memorial Museum.  If you like to fish or hike, there are many opportunities in the surrounding mountains.

The Joss House is the oldest continuously used Chinese temple in California.  The original Joss House was built during the gold rush but burned down.  This temple replaced the original in 1874.  The Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park is open Thursday - Sunday.  The temple may only be entered with a tour, which begins on the hour from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.

The museum is operated by the Trinity County Historical Society and houses a collection of artifacts showcasing Weaverville's and Trinity County's history.  Hours vary with the season, so check the museum's website to find out if the museum will be open during your visit.

We stayed in the Weaverville Hotel, a restored 19th century hotel with seven guest rooms.  Our room was spacious and contained a large soaking tub for easing away one's troubles.  The rooms are on the second floor, which are only accessible via a long flight of steps, so the hotel is not for everyone.  Breakfast is not served at the hotel but each guest receives a voucher for a discount at one of the nearby restaurants.

Just across the street from the hotel is Mamma Llama Coffeehouse, where you can get a good cup of coffee and a light breakfast.  Le Grange Cafe appears to be the best restaurant in town.  We both had tasty dishes featuring buffalo -- braised buffalo and buffalo meatloaf.  The wine list is surprisingly good.  We tried a Trinity County Merlot, which was a decent wine at a very good price.

The next morning we continued west, following the Trinity River on its way to the Pacific.  We drove through beautiful mountain scenery before arriving at the coastal cities of Arcata and Eureka.  

I am certainly glad we made the trip and recommend a night in Weaverville if you are in the area, perhaps as part of a longer trip exploring California's vast north.  However, if your time is short, you'll probably want to head to the Gold Rush towns in the Sierra Foothills and the Sierra Nevada Mountains for similar sights that are closer to the Bay Area.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Drive-Through Redwood Trees

When I take people on tours of Muir Woods, they frequently ask about the redwood tree one can drive through.  The most famous drive-through tree was a Giant Sequoia in Yosemite National Park that fell in the 1970s.  There has never been a drive-through tree in Muir Woods.  However, there are three privately owned drive-through redwoods in the northern part of the state at Leggett (Mendocino County), Meyers Flat (along the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County), and Klamath (near Redwood National Park in Del Norte County).

Yesterday, I finally drove through one of these trees: the Chandelier Tree at Leggett.  At 315 feet tall, the tree is taller than all of the redwoods in Muir Woods but shorter than the Hyperion Tree, the tallest redwood at 379 feet tall

The Blue Heron mobile made it through with about 4 inches to spare with both rear view mirrors collapsed.

These three trees are the last of a kind.  When they fall, there will no longer be drive-through trees as we now preserve our first growth redwoods.

If you would like to take a private tour through the far norther of California that includes a drive through a redwood tree, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Visit to Oakland

When I point out the Oakland skyline to guests, they frequently ask in hushed tones, "What is it about Oakland?"  And there you have Oakland's public relations problem.  For decades Oakland has been overshadowed by San Francisco.  Like any city, it has its share of problems but Oakland also has some very nice neighborhoods, housing that is more affordable than San Francisco's, and a sunnier climate.

Recently, we visited Oakland for dinner and a show.  Yoshi's, the Bay Area's premier jazz club has venues in both Oakland and San Francisco.  Acts play one club or the other but not both.  We went to see  Toumani Diabate, a kora player from Mali, who seldom plays in San Francisco.  Having eaten at Yoshi's Japanese restaurant a few times, we decided to try one of Oakland's hot new restaurants, Bocanova.  This "pan-American grill" serves small and large plates of Central and South American-influenced dishes.  All were delicious and a nice change from the many California cuisine restaurants in the Bay Area.  The wine list included many wines from Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina so we had a good selection to choose from.  We enjoyed our meal and would definitely return next time we head over to Yoshi's.

Would I recommend visitors rush over to Oakland? Probably not. Should Oakland be avoided?  Definitely not.  If you do go, there are sights to see and more and more good restaurants as young chefs seeking cheaper rents forsake San Francisco for the East Bay.

Monday, July 26, 2010

More Great Peruvian Food in San Francisco

I've written before about Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, most recently in January when I talked about La Mar Cebicheria.  Recently, I visited yet another great Peruvian restaurant - Piqueo's - on Bernal Heights.  This small neighborhood place has terrific food, a casual feel, and friendly staff.  My brother-in-law, who lived in Peru, was extremely pleased with the food saying that it was pretty authentic.

We opted for the tapas so we could experience more variety.  Everything we had was delicious including the Peruvian corn cakes and the shrimp with garlic paste.  We added one dish of rice with seafood to share and were all happy campers.  Piqueo's has a nice wine list featuring wines from Spain, Portugal, and Argentina.  You'll certainly find something that pairs well with your meal.  We finished with a chocolate torte topped with lucuma (a subtropical fruit found in the Andes) ice cream and caramel sauce.  We were stuffed when we left the restaurant so we took a stroll down Cortland Avenue, the commercial center of Bernal Heights, and home to an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants.

I've still got more Peruvian restaurants to try including Piqueo's sister restaurant Mochica.  However, having now visited two Fresca locations, both Limón and Limón Rotisserie, La Mar, and now Piqueo's, I can strongly recommend that you sample Peruvian food while in San Francisco.  You'll enjoy some tasty food that you might not be able to find back home.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Blue Heron in San Francisco Where Magazine

In the July issue of San Francisco Where Magazine, Bonita Jessel, concierge at the Hotel Vitale is this month's guest in the magazine's "Ask the Expert" column.  In response to the question, "What do you suggest first-time visitors do while they're here," Bonita responds, "Plan a few hours with Rick from Blue Heron Custom Tours.  His tours showcase famous landmarks and neighborhoods, but some of the Bay Area's hidden gems,"

Thanks to Bonita for the kind words.  To see the full magazine click on the title of this post.  Then go to page 10, to see all of Bonita's sage advice.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Panoramic Views of San Francisco

San Francisco supposedly has 43 hills.  (I've never counted.)  Stunning views can be found throughout the city.  Two regular stops on my tours of San Francisco provide beautiful views of San Francisco and the Bay:  Telegraph Hill and Twin Peaks.

Telegraph Hill, which got its name from a telegraph station (actually a semaphore station) located atop the hill in the 1850s,  is in the northeast corner of San Francisco.  From the parking lot, you can see from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge.  Walk behind Coit Tower and you can see downtown San Francisco and Oakland.  Take the elevator to the top of Coit Tower and you get a 360 degree view.  On a clear day, it's not to be missed.  You can get to the top of Telegraph Hill on the number 39 Muni bus or by walking up the Filbert or Greenwich Street steps.

While Twin Peaks at 922 feet above sea level are not the tallest hills in the city, they provide the better view.  (Mount Davidson is 6 feet taller but the summit is covered with trees that obstruct the view.  Plus, you have to walk to the top of Mount Davidson while you can drive to Twin Peaks.)  From the vista point, you can see from the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, across the North and East Bay, all the way to San Bruno Mountain in the south.  You can see all of San Francisco except for the southwest corner of the city.  From here, you can see many San Francisco landmarks including the Transamerica Pyramid, the Bank of America Building, Coit Tower, City Hall, the rainbow flag at Castro and Market, St. Mary's Cathedral, Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, St. Ignatius Church, Potrero Hill, Bernal Heights, AT&T and Candlestick Parks, and many more.  There's no public transportation to Twin Peaks so you'll need to drive, take a taxi, or join one of the many tours (including Blue Heron's) that visit the summit.  If you're planning to visit in the summer, make sure the fog is not obstructing the view.  Downtown can be sunny while Twin Peaks are shrouded in fog.  Look down Market Street to check to see if you can see the radio towers on Twin Peaks.  If you the towers are hidden by fog, there won't be a view.

Market Street and downtown San Francisco from Twin Peaks

If you want to take a private tour of San Francisco that includes visits to Telegraph Hill and Twin Peaks, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Monday, June 07, 2010

Monterey's Cannery Row & Monterey Bay Aquarium

Despite being a big fan of the author John Steinbeck, I've never really liked Monterey's Cannery Row, which Steinbeck made famous in his book of the same name.  There are too many tacky tourist shops for my taste.  However, there is one attraction that is definitely worth visiting -- the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The aquarium is one of the best I've ever been in.  I love seeing the sea otters and jelly fish.  If you time your visit right, you can watch staff feed the otters.  The Splash Zone is a fun exhibit for families with young children.  Exhibits change periodically so check the aquarium's website to see what will be on view during your visit.

(Photo courtesy of Monterey Convention and Visitors Bureau.)

What makes the aquarium special is that most of the plants and animals are native to Monterey Bay.    The aquarium is also one of the few aquariums in the world that exchanges water directly with the outside, meaning that fresh water from Monterey flows into the aquarium as other water exits.

The aquarium is open daily except on Christmas Day.  Hours vary with the season and day of the week.  Tickets currently cost $29.95 for adults and $17.95 for children age 3 - 17.  If you know the date of your visit, buy your tickets in advance on the aquarium's website so you don't have to worry about waiting in the ticket line.

If you would like to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium as part of a private tour of Monterey and Carmel, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or  

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

West Marin County

Last week, I took some guests to West Marin County, where we visited the Marin French Cheese Company, Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes Station, the summit of Mount Tamalpais, and the Audubon Canyon Ranch

The Bolinas Lagoon Preserve of the Audubon Canyon Ranch is home to nesting egrets and herons every spring.  This year the reserve will be open for visitors through July 11.  When we visited last week, we were given a telescope and trail map and told where we could walk for the best views of the nesting birds.  We were told that both Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons were nesting but we could only see the former, even with the scopes.  We saw both adults and chicks in the nests.  The Preserve is open on weekends and holidays from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.  With a prior reservation, you can visit the Preserve on Tuesdays through Fridays.  A $15 donation is suggested for each visitor.

The Marin French Cheese Company claims to be the oldest cheese manufacturer in the country.  Since 1865, the Cheese Factory, has been making soft cheeses similar to French Brie and Camembert.  Tours are offered daily, but most cheese making activity occurs Mondays through Thursdays.  I was disappointed to find that no cheese was being made when we visited last week, and that the tour was just a five-minute visit to see some aging cheese and an empty room.  My guests, though, loved the grounds with the picnic tables next to the duck pond and surrounded by rolling green hills.

We finished the tour with a drive to the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, 2570 feet above sea level.  Here we were treated to a spectacular view of southern Marin County and San Francisco:

West Marin County is a world apart from the rest of the Bay Area.  If you'd like to see rolling green hills, spectacular ocean views, and quaint small towns, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

San Francisco's HIdden Gems

The most recent edition of  "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's free quarterly newsletter of fun things to do in and around San Francisco, covered some of San Francisco's hidden gems.  If you'd like to see the newsletter, click here.  If you would like to subscribe to "Rick's Tips," click the link at the bottom of the newsletter.  If you would like to take a tour of San Francisco that includes some of the sights mentioned in "Rick's Tips," contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or  

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Seafood in San Francisco - One More Very Good Restaurant

In yesterday's post on seafood restaurants in San Francisco, I forgot one very good restaurant:  La Mar Cebicheria.  Located at Pier 1 1/2, just north of the Ferry Building, La Mar features Peruvian seafood.  La Mar has a variety of ceviches (cebiches), causas (whipped potatoes with seafood or vegetable toppings), anticuchos (skewers of grilled meats), empanadas, and full plates of traditional and contemporary Peruvian dishes.  The restaurant is large but the food is delicious.  There is outdoor, bayside dining when the weather is nice.  For something different, I highly recommend La Mar.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Seafood in San Francisco

I frequently get questions about where to go for good seafood in San Francisco.  Many visitors want to dine at Fisherman's Wharf but, like many locals, I never go there to eat.  There's way too much mediocre to bad food.  If people really want to dine at the Wharf, I recommend, McCormick and Kuleto's at Ghirardelli Square or Scoma's at Pier 47.  The former is part of the McCormick and Schmick's chain.  I've eaten there a couple times and the food is fine but I get very inconsistent reports from my guests.  The latter is a San Francisco institution.  The food is best when simple.  You'll do ok with a piece of grilled fish but be careful with complex dishes.

If you've heard of Aqua, the former Michelin two-star restaurant, it's closed.  So for more upscale seafood, try Waterbar on The Embarcadero near the Bay Bridge.  You'll pay for the bay view and the floor to ceiling fish tanks, but the food is good.  Farallon is a well-reviewed restaurant for upscale seafood.  I can't get past the jellyfish chandelier so I've never been.  I get mixed reports from my guests.

For casual seafood, I like Anchor and Hope in SOMA, Pesce on upper Polk Street, and Nettie's Crab Shack in Cow Hollow.  Anchor and Hope serves a variety of fresh seafood in a nice atmosphere; busy but not overwhelming.  The beer list is one of the better ones in San Francisco.  Pesce serves small plates of Venetian influenced seafood in a vibrant atmosphere.  Nettie's takes an east coast institution, the crab shack; cleans it up; and gives the food the California treatment.  This means you get fresh seafood in a nice setting at prices far above what an Easterner would expect from a crab shack.

If you like grilled fish dishes, then visit the Hayes Street Grill in Hayes Valley.  There are also other seafood as well as meat dishes.  This restaurant has been among the better seafood restaurants in San Francisco for 30 years.

If you like raw oysters and such, then try Hog Island Oyster at the Ferry Building or Swan Oyster Depot in Polk Gulch.  The ambiance is far nicer at the former.

Lastly, for ethnic seafood try Brindisi or Plouf on Belden Place for Italian or French seafood.  Both are pretty good.  I love mussels and fries so tend to head to Plouf.  

Many people swear by Tadich Grill, an old school fish restaurant, but I don't get it.  Having surly waiters throw a plain piece of fish in front of me is not my idea of a good meal.  Perhaps others have had better experiences.

While certainly not all encompassing, I hope this gives you a good overview of your seafood options in San Francisco.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Tipsy Pig

One of my goals for the past few years has been to dine at all of the restaurants on the "San Francisco Chronicle's" Top 100 List that are in San Francisco.  I've never made it; and there is always at least one restaurant on the list that just doesn't interest me.

Last night we were meeting some friends from Marin for dinner so the Marina District was a good locale.  Plus, there was an untried Top 100 restaurant -- The Tipsy Pig.  I'd walked by this pub and restaurant and thought it looked nice but not top 100 material.  Having eaten there, I'd recommend it but I think it made the list because so few restaurants in San Francisco serve southern influenced food.

The front of the house has a bar on one side and tables on the other.  We sat in the quieter back which has a wall lined with books to make it look like an English pub.  Our friend, who had just returned from a few months in London, felt right at home.

The food is southern style with a California twist.  Two of us had the baby back ribs with greens and white cheddar grits.  The ribs were full of meat, which just fell off the bone.  Both of us were extremely happy.  Two light eaters had a couple of vegetable sides and were content with their choices.  The fourth had the skirt steak, which he said was quite good.  Dessert was a shared scone with rhubarb compote and whipped cream.  Quite tasty.  There's a good selection of draft and bottled beers and wines.

If you're longing for fried chicken, ribs, or grits, head right this way. If you're in the Marina, stop in for daily dinner or weekend brunch.  On a sunny, weekend day, you can lunch out back on the patio.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Visiting Hearst Castle in San Simeon

A couple times a year, I get a request to take visitors on a day trip from San Francisco to San Simeon so they can see the Hearst Castle.  I politely respond by telling the inquirers that, while the Castle is well worth visiting, the drive from San Francisco takes between 4.5 and 5.5 hours.  That usually scuttle their plans, which is unfortunate.  Hearst Castle is magnificent and well worth a visit.  As I wrote in my last post, the drive to the Castle through Big Sur is beautiful and also worth doing.  So Hearst Castle can be visited in a two-day, one-night round trip from San Francisco or on a drive along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Most visitors, myself included, take Tour 1, the Experience Tour.  This tour includes a visit to both pools,  some of the large rooms on the main floor of Casa Grande, and Casa del Sol, and includes admission to the film, "Hearst Castle Building the Dream."  This is a terrific introduction to Hearst's country retreat but I had long wanted to take the other tours so I could see more of Casa Grande and well as the other two guest houses, Casa del Monte, and Casa del Mar.

Two weeks ago, I returned to the Castle to take Tours 2, 3, and 4.  Unfortunately, the evening tour was not being offered this spring.  Tour 2 was my favorite as it includes the bedrooms and suites on the second floor of Casa Grande.  Tour 4 includes a walk through the gardens; a visit to Casa del Mar, the largest of the 3 guest houses; and a visit to Hearst's wine cellar.  Tour 3 was my least favorite but was still interesting.  The tour contrasts the 1920s construction of the Casa del Monte guesthouse with the 1940s construction of the North Wing of Casa Grande.  I was surprised to see how simple some of the rooms are in the North Wing.  On this tour, you can see how construction just stopped in 1947.

If you've got the time and have the interest, taking all four tours is worth doing.  Unfortunately, there is no discount for purchasing tickets to more than one tour.  Theoretically, you could do all four tours in one day but you'd probably be numb at the end of the day.  We did one tour per day but you could easily do two tours per day.

Tour 5, the Evening Tour, was replaced this spring with a self-guided tour through the gardens.  The Evening Tour will again be offered this fall.  The guides highly recommended taking the tour between Thanksgiving and New Year when the Castle is decorated for the holidays.  They said tickets sell out fast so book in October.

For a bite to eat, stop by Sebastian's Store in old San Simeon for tasty, and large, sandwiches and salads.  The food is delicious but don't go if you are in a rush as service can be very slow.  You can eat inside, outside, or at picnic tables in the adjacent park.

For more information on Hearst Castle and the tours, click on the title of this post.  To take a tour from San Francisco that includes a visit to Hearst Castle, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Driving Through Big Sur

One of the most famous drives in the world is California Route 1 along the Big Sur coastline between Carmel and San Simeon.  I've taken the 2.5 hour drive many times but last week I had the choppy Pacific on my right, blue skies above, and seas of wildflowers along the roadside.

 Big Sur and the Bixby Bridge

As you head south  from Carmel, you'll pass Point Lobos State Reserve, which is well worth a stop for beautiful ocean views.  You might even see an otter floating in one of the coves.  Then you'll pass through Carmel Highlands.  Then it's on to Big Sur.

One of the first attractions you'll come to is the Bixby Bridge, one of the largest concrete arch bridges in the world.

Bixby Bridge
Stop for photos on the north side of the bridge and again after you climb the hill on the south side.

Further south, you'll see a large rock overlooking the ocean.  Atop the rock is the Point Sur Lightstation.  Most of the time it is closed to the public but docent-led tours are available with an advance reservation.

About 45 - 60 minutes south of Carmel, you'll come to the town of Big Sur, home to a variety of restaurants and lodging.  The inns with the best views are Ventana Inn and the Post Ranch Inn.  Ventana is on the inland side of Route 1 while Post Ranch is on the coast side.  Expect to pay dearly if you want to overlook the ocean.  Both inns have restaurants where you can stop for lunch.  

Nepenthe may be the best known restaurant in Big Sur as it is located on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.  Again, you pay for the view but lunch here is cheaper than a night at either inn.  The Big Sur Bakery is also a good place to stop for lunch or to satisfy your sweet tooth; however, there's no view.

View from Nepenthe
Just south of Nepenthe, you'll come to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  Turn left and park in the lot.  You'll see a trail to McWay Falls.  In the spring, the falls plummets into the Pacific.

McWay Falls
Continue south for many more spectacular views.  You'll pass through the very small villages of Lucia and Gorda, both of which have lodging and restaurants.  The last place to stay in Big Sur is at Ragged Point.  You'll then drop down to San Simeon, where you can visit the Hearst Castle.  I'll write about that in my next post.

The best times to drive through Big Sur are spring and fall as the winter is rainy and the summer foggy.  If you would like to take a private tour from San Francisco through Big Sur, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Land's End Photos

I've written in the past about how much I like Land's End in San Francisco.  This is a patch of rough coast between Sea Cliff and Ocean Beach below the Legion of Honor and Fort Miley.  Monday was a spectacular day in San Francisco so I headed out to Land's End with my camera.  I started at the Legion of Honor and walked east on El Camino del Mar.  Just before the road enters Sea Cliff I started walking west on the Coastal Trail.  Near the end of the Coastal Trail I walked up the steps to the USS San Francisco Memorial.  Then I walked back to the Legion of Honor via the old part of El Camino del Mar that is now a trail.  The round-trip  took about one hour.  I posted some photos from the trip on the Blue Heron Facebook page, which you can access by clicking on the title above.  Here are some additional photos:

Golden Gate Bridge from El Camino del Mar

Downtown from Legion of Honor

Marin Headlands from El Camino del Mar

Point Bonita from the Coastal Trail

I hope you enjoy seeing some of the spectacular views from Land's End.  Try to stop by on your next journey to San Francisco.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Mrs. Doubtfire's" House

My tours of San Francisco usually include a drive through Pacific Heights,  I usually start at Broadway and Steiner and finish where Broadway ends at Lyon Street.  On the SE corner of Broadway and Steiner, you can see "Mrs. Doubtfire's" house, the home where Robin Williams and Sally Field lived in the 1993 film, "Mrs. Doubtfire."  An unusual aspect of the film is that the actual address of the house, 2640 Steiner Street, is mentioned.  My understanding is that this home was selected because Robin Williams lived a couple of houses away on Broadway and didn't want a long commute to work.  He knew the owners, who agreed to move out during filming.  Of course, they were financially rewarded for their inconvenience.

Further west on Broadway, you can see some of the largest homes in San Francisco, including a 7 bedroom home with a private tennis court that is currently being offered for $45,000,000.

If you would like to take a private tour of San Francisco that includes a stop at "Mrs. Doubtfire's" house, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel by phoning (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mailing

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

San Francisco and Shanghai - Sister Cities

Shanghai and San Francisco became sister cities in 1980.  To celebrate the 30th anniversary of this partnership as well as Shanghai's hosting of Expo 2010, San Francisco is hosting a number of events this year.  The main feature is the Asian Art Museum's "Shanghai," an exhibition running through September 5.  I must admit that I was underwhelmed by the exhibit, which features an overview of art produced in Shanghai over the past 170 years.  I found the exhibit too scattered with little holding it together.  Nevertheless, if you are in town, stop by the Asian Art Museum.  Even if you don't enjoy "Shanghai," the permanent collection provides a pretty good overview of Asian Art, especially from South Asia, China, and Japan.  Admission to the permanent collection and "Shanghai" costs $17 unless you go between 5:00 and 9:00 p.m. on Thursday when the price is $10.  Discounts are available for seniors, youth, and college students.

I also stopped by the Presidio Officers Club to see "The Jews in Modern China," an exhibition of photographs and memorabilia showcasing the Jewish communities in Shanghai and other Chinese cities during the period from 1840 to1949.  There's a lot of text to read but, if you are unfamiliar with this Chapter in Chinese or Jewish history, take a look when are in the Presidio.  The exhibit is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11:00 to 5:00 and admission is free.

If you would like to take a private tour of San Francisco that includes a stop to see "The Jews in Modern China," contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Beautiful Wildflowers at Chimney Rock

We've had a fair amount of rain this winter, which means wildflowers should be abundant this spring.  For the past month or so wine country has been full of bright yellow mustard flowers.

My favorite spot to view wildflowers is Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore, about 2 hours north of San Francisco.  Here you can see California Poppies, Indian Paintbrush, Douglas' Iris, California Buttercup, Sky Lupine, and dozens of other flowers.

(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

In addition to seeing multicolored fields of flowers, a walk along the bluffs near Chimney Rock will reward you with views of the Pacific as well as Drakes Bay.  You might also see hundreds of elephant seals on the beaches below the cliffs.

Chimney Rock lies on the south end of Point Reyes.  On the north end you can visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse, which is open daily except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Be prepared to walk down, and then up, 308 stairs to reach the lighthouse.  This is a good spot to look for migrating gray whales.

The best months for viewing wildflowers are usually April and May.  Elephant seals breed from December through March.  Gray whales pass by on their migration between Alaska and Baja California from January through April.

The only way to get to Chimney Rock and Point Reyes Lighthouse is by car.  On weekends through mid-April, you'll need to park at the Drakes Beach parking lot and then take a shuttle bus to Chimney Rock and/or the Point Reyes Lighthouse.  Don't want to drive.  Let Blue Heron Custom Tours and Traveltake you on a private tour of Point Reyes and West Marin County.  For more information, please phone me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me at

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Favorite Views of the Golden Gate Bridge

Most visitors to San Francisco include a stop at the Golden Gate Bridge.  Usually, they'll take photos from the north (Marin) or south (San Francisco) vista points.  While these areas afford nice views, they are not my favorites.

My favorite view is from Battery Spencer off Conzelman Road, just west of bridge on the Marin County side.  Here you feel like your on top of the bridge.  Travel further up Conzelman to Hawk Hill and you'll get a view like this:


My favorite place to view the bridge from the San Francisco side is from El Camino del Mar in Lincoln Park.  Here too you get a view from west of the bridge but you are not as high up as from the Marin side.

If you have a favorite spot to view the Golden Gate Bridge, please comment below.  If you would like to take a private tour that includes these view points, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wildlife Viewing in Northern California

Check out the latest edition or "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron's free newsletter of fun things to do in the Bay Area, to learn more about viewing wildlife in Northern California.  You can see the newsletter by clicking here.  Subscribe to the newsletter by sending a request to

If you would like to take a private tour in Northern California to see some of the wildlife, please contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel by calling (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mailing

Monday, January 18, 2010

Great Peruvian Food by the Bay

San Francisco may have more Peruvian restaurants per capita than any city outside of Peru.  Last September, I wrote about Limón Rotisserie, a casual offshoot of Limón, the first upscale Peruvian place in San Francisco.  This past weekend, I finally ate at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, which opened over a year ago at Pier 1 1/2 on The Embarcadero north of the Ferry Building.  La Mar is the first U.S. effort from Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio.  (He also has restaurants in Lima, Mexico City, Santiago, São Paulo, and Panama City.)

When you walk into the space, you are immediately struck by the size, wondering if the restaurant will be unbearably noisy and if the kitchen can successfully service so many tables.  While La Mar is noisy, I've been to far louder restaurants in San Francisco.  The kitchen does a great job of turning out small and large plates of terrific seafood.  While we were still looking over the menu, we were treated to chips made from white potato, sweet potato, and plantain accompanied by 4 dipping sauces.

Being big ceviche fans, we went for the tasting of 4 cebiches, all of which were terrific.  Just watch out for the peppers.  They pack a punch.  Until this meal, we'd never heard of causas: whipped potatoes and yellow garlic topped with seafood and/or vegetables.  Again we went for the sampler of 4 and loved each one.  We also tried the sampler of 4 empanadas.  While tasty, these were the least interesting of the small plates.

We shared two main courses among us, a seafood saltado and the tuna dish.  The saltado consisted of a variety of stir fried seafood and vegetables topped with French fries and served with rice.  The tuna was seared, topped with a sesame sauce and served over mashed purple potatoes.  Both were delicious.

Being gluttons, we also shared two desserts.  The dulce de leche mousse was too sweet for any of us but the buñuelos de chocolate caliente, warm beignets filled with warm chocolate sauce, were terrific.

We stuck to wine with our meal and were able to select from a good list of California, South American, and Spanish wines.  The cocktail list featured drinks with pisco, a grape liqueur that first arrived in San Francisco in the 19th century.

If you like seafood and interesting spices and preparations, then I highly recommend you visit.  I'll go back when the weather warms up so I can dine outside on the terrace overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sea Lion Update

Last month I wrote about the sea lions that disappeared from Pier 39.  It now appears that the sea lions that frequented San Francisco Bay and the waters off Northern California went north to the Oregon shores in search of food.  Rangers in Oregon parks are reporting larger numbers of California Sea Lions off their shores.  It's possible that herring, anchovies, sardines, and other fish enjoyed by the sea lions are further north than usual due to the El Niño effect.  We'll just have to wait to see if they return to Pier 39 later in the year.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Cozy French Restaurant

I frequently get asked about good French restaurants in San Francisco.  There are well known, upscale French restaurants where you can easily spend over $150/person for dinner.  However, when I think of the type of neighborhood bistro that I've enjoyed in France, I immediately think of my neighborhood French restaurant, Le P'tit Laurent.

The restaurant is located in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco, just one block from Glen Park BART.  Visitors staying near Union Square can take BART from Powell or Montgomery Street to the Glen Park station and walk one block north on Diamond Street.  The ride is less than 15 minutes each way and currently costs $3.50 round-trip.

The owner, Laurent Legendre, is originally from Paris.  When we visited the restaurant shortly after it opened, Laurent recognized us as soon as we walked in.  How, I don't know, as we only visited his old restaurant, Clementine, a few times and he had left it a few years ago.

The menu contains French classics such as onion soup, escargot, boeuf Bourguignon, coquilles Saint-Jacques, and cassoulet.  Prices are reasonable and, from Monday through Thursday, there is a three-course, prix-fixed neighborhood menu for $21/person.  The wine list contains reasonably priced French and Californian wines.

Le P'tit Laurent is a real neighborhood place frequented mainly by locals.  It's a great place for visitors as they get to see a part of San Francisco they normally would not visit and eat some good French food at a reasonable price.