Destination Guide: San Francisco
Some of the greatest names in golf -- from Alister MacKenzie to Johnny Miller -- have deep roots in the San Francisco Bay area. Yet, perhaps because it is only two hours north of the famous courses in Pebble Beach, the Bay Area's golf offerings don't seem to garner as much attention.
The anchor in the region is San Francisco's famous but private Olympic Club, host of the 2012 U.S. Open (its fifth). It is a crown jewel of a variety of courses in the region that includes public and resort courses that will test even the most accomplished golfer. They include the finest urban municipal course in the U.S. (Harding Park), high-end resort courses like CordeValle (site of the PGA Tour's Fry's Open) and very affordable courses such as Callippe Preserve or Poppy Ridge, the latter being the sister course to Poppy Hills in Pebble Beach.
Top places to stay in San Francisco
The city itself includes storied hotel names like The Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins atop Nob Hill. Yet the region is riddled with boutique hotels, like the Taj Campton Place in San Francisco or the Water's Edge, which can be reached via a ferry trip to stunning Tiburon in Marin County. And a full array of options is located next to San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
For those who prefer luxury and easy access to two challenging golf courses, the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay can't be beat. Located 30 minutes south of San Francisco and just 20 minutes east of San Francisco International Airport, this facility blends luxurious accommodations with easy access to two courses -- the links-style Ocean Course, with its finishing holes playing above the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, and the Arnold Palmer-designed Old Course.
The South Bay area has a wide variety of accommodations, but perhaps the most compelling is CordeValle, a 45-room luxury resort about 85 minutes south of San Francisco in the tiny city of San Martin. Its restaurant, Il Vigneto, ranks among the region's best, which is something that also can be said for its Robert Trent Jones II-designed golf course.
To the east, downtown hotels in Oakland include the Marriott City Center, but another 15 miles east puts you in Walnut Creek, a pleasant suburb of 65,000. The Renaissance ClubSport Walnut Creek Hotel not only offers great access to a downtown full of shops and first-rate restaurants, but also easy access to wine regions like Napa to the north and the Livermore Valley to the south -- all along what is called the I-680 corridor.
From Walnut Creek south, there are plenty of courses and plenty of hotel choices, from the San Ramon Marriott (next door to Chevron Corporate headquarters) to The Rose Hotel in Pleasanton, a suburb of 70,000 that has been ranked among the best places to live in the U.S.
Top golf courses in San Francisco
Harding Park has hosted a President's Cup, a Tour Championship (Tiger Woods dueling John Daly) and a Schwab Cup. It stretches out to more than 7,100 yards and is capable, with minimal preparation, of hosting the world's best any time of the year. No public course located within a major city's boundaries offers such a challenge.
Nearby is Presidio Golf Course, a former military course that, like Harding, requires length and accuracy due to the eucalyptus, cypress, Monterey pine and oak trees that line the fairways. For all their grandeur, however, no course in San Francisco offers a compelling view like Lincoln Park Golf Club. The tee for the par-3 17th sits atop a bluff, the green more than 200 yards away -- that is, if you notice it. To the left is an unadulterated view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
For those who venture north into posh Marin County, three courses are worth checking out.
Peacock Gap Golf Club in San Rafael, 15 miles north of San Francisco, plays less than 6,400 yards from the tips. Opened in 1960 and designed by William Bell, it underwent a complete remodeling in 2008 and now requires a wide variety of shots. It's a fun, if elusive, course to master.
If you head east along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a major artery off Highway 101, you'll come across San Geronimo Golf Course. Sir Francis Drake Boulevard splits this Robert Muir Graves layout, with the back nine on the north playing against the open hillsides of West Marin.
On the east side of 101, along Highway 37 that is the main route to Napa and Sonoma wineries, sits StoneTree Golf Club. It measures less than 6,800 yards, and some holes on the front nine feel quite cozy, but the layout by designer Jim Summers fits the land well. The back nine is really challenging as it plays through the oak-lined hillsides.
The most congested part of the Bay Area is found along the peninsula south of San Francisco through San Jose. But some of the region's best golf can be found in south San Jose at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club. This facility, 45 miles from San Francisco, offers three nines -- the Mountain Course, the Canyon Course and the Lake Course -- that range from 6,600 to 6,800 yards, depending on the 18-hole combination. Designer John Harbottle III built a challenging blend of short and long holes that require attention and talent.
Six miles away is Coyote Creek Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus layout that has hosted the Champions Tour. Its proximity makes for a nice contrast for those who like 36 holes in one day.
In the East Bay, an area ranging from Oakland and through Walnut Creek toward Pleasanton, it's easy to find good golf. In San Ramon, 35 miles from San Francisco and five miles north of the 580-680 interchange, The Bridges Golf Club at Gale Ranch will test even the best golfers. Johnny Miller is credited with the design, but Damian Pascuzzo did most of the work. With a 144 slope from the back tees, many holes are edged on one side by restricted ecological areas and slopes of heather and Scottish Broom on the other. Punishing bunkers add to the challenge.
Nearly next door is Canyon Lakes Country Club, a Ted Robinson-design that plays through housing developments. The par-71 layout features a punishing finish -- a 550-yard uphill par 5 in the prevailing breezes, followed by a 420-yard par 4 to a blind green.
About 10 miles south of San Ramon along I-680 you'll come to Pleasanton, and on the south side of this city is Callippe Preserve. This municipal-owned course offers another challenge. It is only 6,800 yards, yet its elevation changes and sloped greens can bring even the most talented golfers plenty of anguish. The name Callippe comes from a butterfly found in the area. Locals say it's a French term for four-putt.
Five miles north as the crow flies in the city of Dublin is Dublin Ranch Golf Course, a unique Robert Trent Jones II-design that has 11 par 3s for a par of 63. Yet this is no executive course; each hole is a challenge.
Farther east along I-580 in the city of Livermore, The Course at Wente Vineyards represents Greg Norman's first design in the contiguous United States. Fittingly, it plays tough. Proof? In 2007, the Nationwide Tour event at Wente Vineyards had a higher stroke average than the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club.
Wente starts through stunning groves of sycamore trees and then turns into vineyards. Similarly, at Poppy Ridge five miles away, some holes of this 27-hole complex play near vineyards. Rees Jones did the layout, and the nines -- the Zinfandel Course, the Chardonnay Course and the Merlot Course -- pay homage to local wine traditions.
Top places to dine in San Francisco
Culinary arts shine in San Francisco. So much so that it is said some of the best restaurants in the country close every year in San Francisco. In Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, is the Chez Panisse, Alice's Waters' creation that set the pace for the region's over-riding trend for only fresh, locally grown ingredients.
O Chame, on Fourth Street in Berkeley, stands out for sushi, but then locals might refer you to their own little family-run corner stop. That's another way of saying you might find your own outstanding restaurant of any ilk just by chance. Yet if sushi in Berkeley isn't right, two blocks away is Everett & Jones, where barbecue comes right out of the backwoods of Louisiana.
Marin County's Picco in Larkspur and El Paseo in Mill Valley are widely regarded as outstanding examples of Bay Area culinary excellence. The former stresses an Italian foundation, though the menu varies nightly. El Paseo might be the best steakhouse in the region, and its popularity stands out against a local trend in which restaurants feature gluten-free menus.
In San Francisco, McCormick and Kuleto's Seafood Restaurant in Ghirardelli Square ranks as a leader in seafood, but then, that's like picking the best marathon runner out of Kenya. Farallon tends to be as popular as ever. Dosa, an Indian restaurant in the Fillmore district, ranks as one of the hottest in town.
The most popular site in the city is AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. The ballpark caused this region known as SoMa (contraction of South of Market) to be gentrified. MoMo's Restaurant, right across the street from the park entrance, serves as a great family gathering spot. Before and after Giants games it can get difficult to breathe due to the crowds.
In the East Bay, Havana and Va Da Vi in Walnut Creek stand out. The former is Cuban-oriented, the latter a wine bar that matches flights of wine, such as zinfandel, with appetizer-sized creations.
Top nightlife spots in San Francisco
Few places bring together an exciting congregation of revelers like San Francisco. Its Marina district includes what is known locally as The Bermuda Triangle. Near the intersection of Union and Fillmore streets you'll find Perry's, Des Amis and Balboa Cafe (among others). The name comes from singles who enter these night spots Thursday night and are not seen again until Monday morning.
Locals proudly point tourists to a longtime running review called Beach Blanket Babylon. A musical-oriented stage show with live orchestra, its characters put on weekend shows that poke fun at current events. As for music, the Bay Area has many venues. A rather eclectic fare can be found nightly at Hotel Utah, which is near AT&T Park. George's in San Rafael used to be a regular hangout for Marin County stars such as Huey Lewis (of Huey Lewis and the News).