Tuesday it became history. An executive order lifted most COVID-19 restrictions in California on June 15. We will still wear our masks as necessary, but doors will open everywhere. We’ll see friends and hold them, go to work or stay home, but it will be different.
As we’ve said here before, it will be the “new” new normal. And there will be travel.
Unable to hold ourselves back, we engaged in a flurry of travel recently, from Santa Rosa wine country, to the Bay Area, to the high desert area of Santa Barbara. We just covered the Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara trips recently. Now we’ll let you in our discoveries during our latest San Francisco jaunt.
We admittedly travel to San Francisco a few times a year, ostensibly to cover the Dodgers’ exploits, but we have not been able to do that in more than a year. My last trip north before this recent flurry of travel was September 2019.
My Dodger Stadium coverage in 2020 took place in a mostly empty stadium, with piped-in crowd noise. And even our Oracle Park coverage took place under pandemic health restrictions, but oh, we are so close.
We departed from Hollywood-Burbank airport on Avelo airlines, the new low-cost carrier offering $19 flights through their current promotional period. (A quick look shows that those low prices will not exist this summer, but it might still be the cheapest. More on that later.)
The single afternoon flight brought us into Santa Rosa County Airport just a few minutes before (or after) the only SMARTrain that might get us to the Larkspur Ferry station an hour south, on time to catch an inexpensive, picturesque but short ferry ride to the Port of San Francisco and the Ferry Building.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions still in place at the time, there were fewer trains, and no way to make the connection south, other than a very expensive Lyft ride to the City. (UPDATE: there are more trains now, and if you’re flying up to Santa Rosa in hopes of train-ing and ferrying to San Francisco, you’re in luck. You might make the 5:30 train to the ferry, and if you don’t, there is one at 6:37.)
Plan your travel wisely, passengers.
We were in San Francisco to cover three games in three days, and visit four hotels. (We ended up covering two games, and skipped the third game to play tourist on our last full day.)
Taj Campton Place, in Union Square, made an indelible impression on me the moment I departed my very expensive Lyft ride. Pulling up to the hotel, a bellman greeted me, opened my car door, and said, “Welcome to the Taj Campton, Mr. Rivera.”
The Lyft driver was also suitably impressed.
The Taj Campton Place is part of a chain of luxury hotels and a subsidiary of the Indian Hotels Company Limited, headquartered in Mumbai. The company is part of the Tata Group, one of India’s largest business conglomerates.
The empty palatial lobby still gleamed like the smiles on the desk staff, who were only too happy to assist with my small amount of luggage and show me to my room, a small suite larger than my apartment at home.
Taj Campton Place, a 5-star hotel in San Francisco with 110 guestrooms including nine suites, sits squarely in my favorite part of San Francisco, Union Square, which was eerily quiet on that Thursday night, as was much of the city. In some cases, one could gaze down any one of a number of usually crowded streets and thoroughfares, and see few cars and even fewer pedestrians.
With no plans for the evening, and little happening on the streets, I browsed the nearby Apple store, and then dined alone in my room with an impressive dish of Spaghetti Bolognese, retiring early in a bed that was magnificently comfortable.
The next morning’s breakfast, delivered exactly on time, might have set some kind of standard somewhere for Breakfast Delivered to Any Person Anywhere. Cheerios, coffee and orange juice never looked so impressive. The server actually apologized for the hotel running out of whatever other cereal I had actually ordered.
He might as well have apologized for Christmas. I was happy.
I’ve stayed in many hotels around the world and many are impressive from the first glance.
The Taj Campton, however, might have inadvertently refined what I’ve always loved and appreciated about the best hotels—details. Anyone can paint or decorate a hotel room, but it takes the little things, like a large and comfortable work space, with more than enough USB charging ports, for example, to take a hotel over the top.
Combine those details with impeccable service, and you have a hotel I would be thrilled to return to, over and over.
Now, as mentioned, we visited Oracle Park twice during our visit and the Dodgers swept the Giants, which cast the weekend in a happy shade of Dodger blue, and made these luxurious hotels even more enjoyable, if that’s possible.
A ten-minute walk along Geary through Union Square brought us to the oddly named Staypineapple, a luxurious, charming and cheeky hotel with an impressively refurbished and stylish lobby.
The hotel’s personality is apparent as soon as one arrives, with a combination of social distance, posh decorations, and a discreet self-serve refrigerated case near the front desk. Guests receive a $10 daily credit from the drink and snack fridge.
The large bar and lobby, along with a grand piano, was unavailable during our stay, but when we returned from a quick pizza run later that evening, we dined there in its quiet luxury.
All pizza, when not set atop a car’s hood in a late night parking lot with your posse, should be devoured that way.
Meanwhile, the rooms at the Staypineapple were the smallest we saw in our four-day trip, but very cozy and comfortable.
These rooms aren’t work spaces, these are vacation spaces. There is free wi-fi, but little space for your laptop and nowhere enough USB ports, but that’s perhaps not the idea at the Pineapple. The Staypineapple is a unique and quirky hotel experience, with an emphasis on humor and fun, from the cheeky quote in the red elevators, to the pineapple cookies handed out at the front desk.
Enjoy the city and then return gratefully to your cozy, comfortable room, with pineapple cookies. That’s the idea.
During our stay, the key cards were an “opportunity,” as they say at Nordstrom. The cards seem to need constant replacing, and we were informed that the system was due to be replaced.
We took the steep staircase whenever we headed downstairs, instead of attempting the elevators.
What was not quirky, however, was the service, as the staff was more than helpful whenever approached, and patient when overwhelmed by guests needing replacement key cards.
The Pineapple is centrally located on the edge of both Union Square and the Tenderloin, as close to the City’s enticements as you could hope for.
With its beautiful interior, its friendly attitude, and a new card key system, it’s a hotel we would eagerly return to.
On Saturday morning, as we departed the Staypineapple, I checked the map and pondered whether it made sense to walk to our next hotel, The Fairmont, or take a Lyft. As we ascended a series of hills along what was described as a 20-minute walk, I was grateful to the universe that I had chosen the ride.
The impressive and historic Fairmont Hotel sits on Mason Street, atop Nob Hill, one of the City’s most prominent peaks, between California and Stockton. It’s 606 guest rooms have been the visiting stop of scores of presidents, celebrities and world figures in its long history.
Our initial stop was brief as I was early checking in. The hotel staff scurried to prepare the room, but given the time, I changed clothes in a first floor men’s room, again, larger than my apartment.
By the time I emerged to head to Oracle Park, my room was ready. A bellman dispatched my luggage to the room, and I was off to the park, a touch regretful that I was headed away from the hotel and not to my tower room and its magnificent view of the City and San Francisco Bay.
Taking my place in the Oracle Park press box, I enjoyed the Dodger 6-3 defeat of the Giants on Saturday afternoon, capped off by Max Muncy’s first inning home run into the waters of China Basin way past right field.
The late afternoon turned to early evening, and I jumped into another Lyft for the 3.3 mile trek along the Embarcadero to San Francisco’s venerable Cioppino’s Italian restaurant just past Fisherman’s Wharf.
This is as about San Francisco as it gets for both tourists and locals alike, and I mean that in a good way. With a location just next door to Fisherman’s Wharf across from the Cannery, and in the shadow of both Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge, Cioppino’s was absolutely the perfect spot to enjoy dinner on a chilly City night.
My brother, who had recently moved to San Francisco, donned his puffy jacket (Note to self: get one) and hopped on his new scooter, zipping across town from the Financial District to the restaurant to meet me there.
In the face of Pandemica, the restaurant was perhaps half full, but there is little guarantee that it won’t be packed when you arrive, passengers.
Manager Sharon Kelly explained the restaurant’s namesake tomato-based seafood stew dish thusly, “It’s a very traditional dish, like after a day of fishing, all the fishermen would just chip in with whatever they caught that day.”
She credits the restaurant’s success to “a number of things.”
“It’s the food, and the very friendly staff that make people feel at home, and very welcome here, like they’re family.”
Kelly, who began working at the restaurant in 1998, also rightfully boasted of the restaurant’s long-time staff, many of whom have worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years.
But on to that menu. We both began with the prawn cocktail, served chilled with housemade cocktail sauce & lemon. I dare to imagine, barring extreme circumstances, that anyone anywhere has ever criticized a prawn cocktail and this one was no exception—fresh and tantalizing, as is their want.
Inexplicably, my brother ordered the Chicken Marsala, which he loved. But we are in an Italian seafood restaurant on the wharf in San Francisco. I’m just saying…
The Chicken Marsala is served traditionally—lightly floured and pan-seared with mushrooms, scallions and garlic in a light marsala wine sauce, and served with wild rice medley and seasonal vegetables.
I, of course, opted for the namesake Cioppino, a dish that never disappoints me. This hearty dish was served steaming hot, and packed with shelled Dungeness crab meat, clams, mussels, snapper, shrimp and calamari stewed in a tomato broth, and served with garlic sourdough toast, floating happily atop the presentation.
It disappeared as quickly, as it should, almost lost in the atmosphere and conversation of Saturday night in a great city. There’s a lot to choose from at Cioppino’s, but if someone in your party doesn’t order the Cioppino, order a new party.
As Bro zipped happily home in the windy night, yet another Lyft delivered me back to the Fairmont, high above the City.
As I unpacked, sort of, I watched the mesmerizing movement of the fog as it approached the city from the bay. Coit Tower was my night light as I drifted off to sleep.
Following a long day, and a cruelly comfortable bed that wouldn’t let me go, I awoke to a sparkling bay view, and pondered what inmates at Alcatraz directly across the water must have thought as they gazed back at the gleaming city.
Did they ponder, “Boy, I’d kill for that view. Oh, wait a minute.” Thanks. I’m here all week.
Taking my time before and after breakfast in the Fairmont’s Laurel Court, I roamed the opulent lobby and outdoor areas of the hotel, soaking up its vaunted history.
The Fairmont San Francisco was built in 1907, one year after the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Famed architect Julia Morgan, who designed Pasadena’s YMCA and YWCA building in its Civic Center, led the construction effort.
The UN Charter was drafted and signed by 50 countries on June 26, 1945, here in the Garden Room of the Fairmont. It’s that kind of history.
With no game to cover that Sunday, I played tourist and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the Laurel Room, as the Fairmont’s other restaurant, the Tonga Room, was closed, because, well, pandemica. Though the coffee was served in a paper cup, and the orange juice came in a plastic bottle, breakfast was what one might still expect at the Fairmont
The pancakes topped with raspberries and blueberries were perfect, and I lingered over them as long as I could, enjoying the quiet, empty luxury of the room, knowing that soon it will buzz and bustle yet again, as it has throughout its history.
Time to head for the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero. This time it was at the very bottom of the hill my lyft driver had climbed the night before.
I headed straight down California Street on a sparkling spring day for a 20-minute walk to the Hyatt. Most of the streets were still empty of traffic, as this was still deep in the Covid-19 restrictions.
The 802-room Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, with its wedge-shaped design, sits at the bottom triangle of California and Stockton Streets in Embarcadero Center, just across the street from another favorite destination, the Ferry Building.
From high above, the hotel resembles a state-of-the-art, gigantic 1970s Sony Trinitron TV, but it’s a design that has weathered the years far longer than that television set.
Its distinctive architecture, both inside and out, make it a signature and iconic landmark in a city with loads of landmarks.
Known as a business travel hotel destination, The John Portman-designed hotel, built in 1974, boasts the usual amenities for your sales adventure or conference.
But I was on neither.
As I walked through the hotel’s dramatic interior, reconfigured slightly for social distancing, I admired the landmark 1973 sculpture, “Eclipse” by Charles O. Perry in the 17-story atrium, and for some reason I hoped my room would look out upon the hotel lobby. What was I thinking?
Instead, as I got off the glass elevator—a John Portman specialty—I realized my room, tucked into a corner of its own, was a balcony suite—589 square feet, with a large living room, a king bed in a separate bedroom, a balcony, and extra half-bath, along with private work area, and a view of the now-quiet Financial District.
The Hyatt, one of the largest hotel chains in the world, weathered its own storm during the pandemic in hard-hit San Francisco, said General Manager Matthew Humphreys, who is optimistic now about the hotel’s rebound.
Humphreys noted, “We certainly believe that face-to-face travel is something that can’t be replaced and that connection will always be important to business. And so we believe that that absolutely will return.”
The Hyatt, like all of the previously visited hotels, puts a high premium on cleanliness and service, and of course, details.
“Hyatt’s mission and core purpose are surrounded by that,” said Humphreys.
Its core purpose is that we care for people so they can be their best,” he added unabashedly. “Our mission is a world of understanding and care. And, having those moments where we can show that to somebody, is something that we, we all live for in this industry.”
I could have stayed in that balcony suite all day, and never left, but this is San Francisco. I strolled up Market Street for just a little shopping, and perhaps an open restaurant, but alas, even most of the shops in the Ferry Building were dark.
I opted for pizza delivery for one to that aforementioned balcony suite and wondered, who, really, had it better than me right at that moment?
Checking reluctantly out of the Hyatt on Monday with a generous late checkout, I boarded the Larkspur Ferry for my trip back to Santa Rosa Airport. But for a few snags (Finding the SMARTtrain from the ferry slip might be tricky and requires some walking), the trip out of the city north was a lot easier than my travel into the City on Wednesday.
Be prepared to snag a Lyft from the final SMARTtrain stop in Santa Rosa. It’s about a mile and a half of non-pedestrian friendly walking from the train to the plane. Forewarned, you’ll be fine.
As we reemerge from the pandemic, rest assured that each of the hotels and destinations will likely be an even better experience without restrictions. Now that the doors are flying open, it’s time for you to discover that for yourself.
This is my stop.
The Taj Campton Place
340 Stockton St.
San Francisco, CA 94108.
Stay Pineapple Hotel
580 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA, 94102
400 Jefferson Street
San Francisco, CA
San Francisco Fairmont
950 Mason Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
Hyatt Regency Embarcadero
5 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, California 94111