San Francisco on the (sort of) cheap
SAN FRANCISCO Feeling a little broke?Of course you are. Thats what were doing this year: Remembering when we had a little more money than we do right now or maybe a lot more money.But just because that savings/investment/401(k) has gone south, that doesnt mean you cant go somewhere too. Somewhere north, south, east or west. Somewhere to clear your mind and refresh your soul.Or somewhere to pick up a few postcards, T-shirts or even tattoos, if thats what amuses you. To put it another way, just because your home lost half its value doesnt mean you have to stay home. In fact, its all the more reason to get out of that house. Staring at four walls that are now worth half as much is twice as depressing.So go!But, under the circumstances, the key is to dial back your travel expenses a little bit. Notice: I said a little bit. Im not suggesting that you have to travel like a college student unless, of course, you are a college student, in which case you dont need any advice from me. Youre already used to hitchhiking, sleeping on the floor and living on ketchup sandwiches.What Im talking about is saving a little money when you travel enough so that you can almost afford the trip and, even more important, enough so that you can travel with a clear conscience and enjoy yourself.And thats important. You cannot, you must not, feel guilty about the cost of a trip while youre actually traveling. If you do, youll still be spending the money, but youll be wasting it.Rule 1: Enjoy yourself.Rule 2: Try to do it a little more cheaply.We put those rules into action on a recent trip to San Francisco, one of the worlds great cities.Lets be clear, we did not travel on the super-cheap. No ketchup sandwiches. But we did manage to cut a chunk off the usual cost of a trip to that spectacular city by the bay.Step 1: Choose the right hotel.A few years ago, I reported on a handful of the best hotels in San Francisco: the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, the Ritz-Carlton, the St. Regis and the Fairmont. That was fun.They are all magnificent hotels. But, as a well-traveled friend of mine pointed out, for most of us they are hotels to stay at when someone else is picking up the tab.So, this time, let me tell you about the hotel where my wife and I stay on most of our trips to San Francisco: the Hotel Majestic.The Majestic is, for us, an almost perfect hotel.Built as a private home in 1902, it was turned into a hotel in 1904. When most of the city was destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1906 and the terrible fires that followed, the Majestic was spared. The fire stopped at Van Ness Avenue, just two blocks from the hotel. As a result, the Majestic can claim to be San Franciscos oldest continually operating hotel. Now I need to be careful with my description of the hotel. It is not a slick, sleek five-star hotel. But it has definite Victorian/Edwardian charm and elegance. Its genuine old San Francisco: not polished to gem-like perfection … and all the more charming for that. Yes, the Majestic shows its age, but, really, just a bit. You know youre in a century-old building. Let me say it all in a hurry: I think every room I have ever stayed in has had at least one bulb burned out in the various, often-elaborate chandeliers. Some rooms have grand old claw-foot bathtubs, but the showers in those tubs can be tricky to negotiate. There isnt a concierge or swarms of crisply uniformed staff running everywhere. Ive never tried room service; Im not even certain its offered. Some of the rooms may be a little run-down (and if you get one of those, demand to be moved). I already told you: Its more than a century old.And we love it.Let me put it this way: When we go to San Francisco, we are always there to visit my aunt. She is a woman of impeccable taste and style who has lived for nearly 40 years in a wonderful apartment at the very top of Nob Hill. When she came to see us at the Majestic, she couldnt stop exclaiming about what a wonderful, pleasant, charming place it was. And she meant it.So if you dont want to take my recommendation, believe me, you can trust my aunt.And heres the clincher: The Majestic is quite affordable.Stay in one of the top-rank, five-star hotels and the rooms will start around $450 and go up … way up. At the Majestic, the best rooms in the house the one-bedroom suites are just $200. So go ahead, splurge. Get a suite. Its still pretty darn cheap.A final note: The Majestic is located in the Pacific Heights neighborhood at the corner of Sutter and Gough. Its not downtown by any means, but its on a major bus route and not too far from the cable car that runs over Nob Hill and out to the waterfront.Step 2: Dont go restaurant crazy.Yes, San Francisco is one of the worlds great restaurant towns. But that doesnt mean you have to eat two (or even three) magnificent, expensive (did I mention fattening?) meals a day.Instead, pace yourself. Have one or two great meals, have a few excellent, but not extravagant, meals and for the rest heres the trick get creatively frugal.We cut some major corners on expensive meals by shopping in the supermarket (and, by the way, theres a Whole Foods just a few minutes walk from the Majestic) and eating meals at my aunts apartment.Sure, I understand that not everyone has an aunt with a great apartment looking out over the San Francisco Bay, but you can still put together a picnic lunch from Whole Foods or the shops in the Ferry Building (or best of all, from the Saturday Farmers Market outside the Ferry Building) and eat on a bench along the Embarcadero. Or on a ferry crossing the bay to Sausalito. Or, if you have a car, on the Marin Headlands looking back across the Golden Gate to the city.We had a picnic there of cracked crab and a pretty nice bottle of wine and there isnt a restaurant in the world that could offer anything better.As part of this exercise in frugality, try to find a way to have some of those homemade meals for dinner and eat your great restaurant meal for lunch. Many of the best restaurants serve pretty much the same cuisine for lunch as dinner, but have lower prices at lunch.One of our favorites, the Slanted Door (also in the Ferry Building) is a great case in point. We had a spectacular lunch there and then, when we returned a few days later for dinner, on a whim, we were shocked by the higher prices. So shocked we hardly ate anything for dinner. (Another great way to save money.)And some restaurants are in my opinion anyway just simply better for lunch than dinner. One such favorite is Roses Cafe on Union Street in the delightfully named Cow Hollow neighborhood. Dinner at Roses is excellent, for sure. But lunches there are even better nothing fancy, just simple and wonderful. And the restaurant itself is a delight (though the service can be a bit … eccentric).Roses isnt cheap. But its a fine meal in the middle of the day and it gives you your restaurant fix.And by the way, breakfast and brunch at Roses just might be even better.On the other hand, when you do go out for a great meal, dont hold back.Thats the point. Thats what youve been saving up for. After all those damn picnics on benches, youve earned a great meal. So go for it.Im not going to offer much advice on great expensive meals in San Francisco. Theres an entire cottage industry devoted to San Francisco restaurant expertise. But I will make one suggestion that might not have turned up in many places quite yet: the Caf Majestic. Yes, thats the restaurant at the Hotel Majestic. (And, no, I wasnt paid to make this recommendation.)The Majestic has been working hard to make a big-time success of the restaurant. Last year, they were having some luck, getting good reviews and, more importantly, turning out some great meals. But then their chef left and all bets were off.However, the new executive chef at the Majestic a young man by the name of Louis Maldonado is doing an extraordinary job. That shouldnt be surprising; he came to the hotel directly from a stint at the already legendary French Laundry arguably Americas best restaurant.Dinner at the Caf Majestic isnt cheap by any measure, but it isnt outrageously expensive either. Our dinner there came in at well under $100 per person. And the food was spectacular.Step 3: Take a hike or a busFirst of all, forget about renting a car.Like every other major city, San Francisco is car-hostile. Traffic is jammed, parking is impossible and the hills are … well, actually kind of fun, if you like that sort of thing, but still: Forget it.You dont want a car in the city.And if you do want to picnic on the Marin Headlands (which I did, after all, suggest) or venture further afield to the wine country, you can rent a car by the day. Second, skip the taxis except when really, really necessary.San Francisco has a great public transportation system thatll take you almost anywhere you want to go.Bus routes criss-cross the city with frequent service. (One fair warning: If you take a bus that goes through Chinatown, be prepared for some astonishing, aggressive crowding. Consider it a lesson in cultural diversity.)And, of course, if you want some of that true, unique San Francisco character, there are the cable cars.A friend of mine, born and bred in the Bay Area, has called the San Francisco cable cars the most insanely dangerous public transportation system in the world.Personally, I think theyre fun. Plus, they get you up the darn hills a lot faster (with a lot less sweating) than walking.But my friend was correct when he mentioned that the cable cars can be a little tricky. Just dont fall off and be ready for a big step getting on.You can get a full week of unlimited use of all the citys buses and cable cars for just $24. And given that a bus ride costs $1.50 and a cable car is $5, thats a great bargain. (And, if youre 65 and over, you can get a pass thats valid for an entire month for just $10. And thats an even better deal.)Finally, of course, you can walk. San Francisco is hilly and the hills are steep. But, hey, youre reading this in The Aspen Times and the hills in Aspen are even steeper. And San Francisco is way down there at sea level. So stroll around a little and enjoy the city close up.And thats really the best and most affordable pleasure of all. From Union Square to Fishermans Wharf to Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Chinatown … wherever you go, its amazing and well worth the walk.You dont have to spend a penny to just drink in the wonder of San Francisco. Its free.And thats a price I can afford.
Andy Stone is travel editor of The Aspen Times.
For all my talk of frugality, there was one more little extravagance during our San Francisco visit: Thanksgiving dinner.For the first time in my life, I had Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant.It was a strange feeling. Thanksgiving is the ultimate family holiday and it is totally focused on dinner. So of course Thanksgiving dinner is a family meal, cooked at home and eaten around a huge table with a host of relatives (who may or may not get along but thats part of the deal. Maybe even part of the fun. I have a great friend who says his family refers to Thanksgiving as Hair-Trigger Thursday.)But on this trip, we were having Thanksgiving dinner with my aunt. It was just the three of us and we werent about to mess up her immaculate kitchen by cooking a huge meal.So we ventured out.First revelation: I may think its almost inconceivable to have Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant, but an awful lot of people dont share that feeling.We were planning this trip at the last minute and reservations were very hard to come by. In San Francisco, it seems, a lot of people have Thanksgiving in restaurants.Finally, a friend recommended that we try One Market, a restaurant down by the Embarcadero (on Market Street, of course). And we wound up with a reservation for 1 oclock which felt a little early, but turned out to be perfect.In fact, the whole experience turned out to be damn near perfect.One oclock is a great time for that huge meal. You have the rest of the day to digest and you dont really need to eat again. (Saves a little money, right?)And eating Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant turns out to be a grand idea. No cooking and, best of all, no cleaning up.Even better: You cant over-eat. I know, over-eating is the entire point of Thanksgiving. But, you know what? Its even better if you end the meal totally stuffed, but not so stuffed youre sick. In a restaurant, the food can be great, but you cant go back for seconds. And thirds. And another piece of pie. And maybe even start all over again with some more turkey. And maybe a little gravy. And how about another helping of yams? (Come on, you know you do that.)In a restaurant, you eat. You love it. They clear the plates away. Youre done.And, most important of course, the meal at One Market was really excellent. They offered Coho salmon or pork loin as well as the traditional Roast Turkey. But we werent about to stray that far from tradition. The turkey was superb and the stuffing was brilliant.And for dessert: Triple Layer Pumpkin Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Glaze, Cranberry Sorbet and Spiced Walnuts. Wow!I think we may have started a new family tradition.Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant? Of course. What else?
Hotel Majestic:1500 Sutter St. (at Gough)phone: (415) 441-1100reservations: (800) 869-8966web: http://www.thehotelmajestic.comCaf Majestic1500 Sutter St. (at Gough)phone: (415) 441-1280The Slanted Door1 Ferry Buildingphone: (415) 861-8032(call way ahead for reservations)web: http://www.slanteddoor.comRoses Cafe2298 Union St.phone: (415) 775-2200(no reservations and the wait can be long)www.rosescafesf.comTransit passesMuni Passports are good on any city bus or cable car. You can buy a 1-day ($11), 3-day ($18) or 7-day ($24) pass. The passports are sold in a variety of locations, including official Muni Ticket Sales Locations at Market & Powell streets; Hyde & Beach streets (near Ghirardelli Square); and Bay & Taylor streets (near Fishermans Wharf). Theres also a counter to buy the passports (as well as Bay Cruise tickets) inside the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.
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