Romance in the San Francisco Presidio
Sailing into San Francisco Bay in 1806 on a voyage to resupply Russian colonies in Alaska, the dashing Russian nobleman, Count Nikolai Rezanov, was welcomed by the Spanish Commandant of the Presidio and his 15-year-old daughter, Concepcion Arguello. Dancing, flirting and wandering the beaches with the young beauty, the count fell in love. According to the ship’s doctor, “The bright sparkling eyes of Dona Concepcion had pierced his inmost soul." When her father consented to their marriage, the count sailed back to Russia, promising to return with permission from his church. The girl waited for many years, only to get the news that Rezanov had died while riding horseback across Siberia, whereupon she spent the rest of her life as a Dominican nun.
Romance still beckons at The Presidio of San Francisco, a precious sprawl of forest and meadows, breezy ocean views and historic sites at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. A getaway weekend here promises cozy evenings by the fire, dinner at one of the city’s Top 100 Restaurants and strolls through a misty, moody forest. The oldest of the miles of footpaths in the 200-year-old Presidio, Lovers’ Lane meanders through a cypress and piney wood, over a footbridge dating from 1885. Rewards are glimpses of 1930s-era Georgian Revival-style houses, birdlife in El Polin Spring, and a surprise: a massive, sinuous art installation in a eucalyptus grove, Wood Line, created by the British environmentalist, Andy Goldsworthy. The artist gathered natural materials on-site to create this and other sculptures: Spire, a 95-foot-tall construction of cypress trunks; Tree Fall in the Powder Magazine building; and Earth Wall, in a courtyard of the Officer’s Club.
The restored Officer’s Club is a haven for couples who lounge in armchairs by the fireplace, sipping margaritas from the adjacent Arguello bar. A lively calendar of free concerts, dances, talks and films are held in the great hall on most weekends. Also in the club, the multi-media Heritage Gallery showcases early California history, focusing on the rise of the American West, the fortunes and foibles of the city, and the generations of soldiers who passed through the post. The Mexican-inspired menu at the casual Arguello restaurant is a nod to the Presidio’s past.
A few steps away in a 1903 landmark, the Inn at the Presidio is a hidden gem, with just twenty-two comfy, spacious rooms, some with fireplaces. Rocking chairs on the porch and Adirondack chairs by the fire pit are the desired perches here.
200 Years of History
The heart of the Presidio is the vast Parade Ground where kites fly, families picnic and soldiers once drilled, surrounded by museums, more restaurants, and a visitor’s center where ranger-led walking tours begin. Weekends are busy here with “Off the Grid” food truck gatherings, stargazing parties and special events. Overlooking the greensward, Spanish origins are reflected in the eclectic offerings at The Commissary, a former mess hall updated into a chic eatery where avid foodies sit at the marble counter to watch the chefs in action.
History buffs discover vestiges of Native American, Mexican, Spanish and U.S. army occupations, from Spanish cannons to Civil War photos, 1906 earthquake cabins, and an architectural extravaganza from Victorians and to Queen Anne-style officers’ homes. A bastion of the military from the 1770s through the 1990s, the Presidio is now owned by the National Park Service, which has restored and repurposed hundreds of buildings into restaurants, homes, recreational facilities and museums, among them the Society of California Pioneers, which exhibits photos, maps and more from the early days of the state and the city.
A ramble on foot or by the free shuttle bus turns up fragments of the original Spanish fort, and rows of white gravestones in the National Cemetery on a hillside above the bay. More than 30,000 soldiers rest here, having served from California’s founding through Desert Storm.
Dazzling views of the Pacific and the Marin Headlands are the attraction at Immigrant Point Overlook, where President Woodrow Wilson’s words are carved into the stone wall: “We opened the gates to all the world and said, ‘Let all men who want to be free come to us and they will be welcome.’” Here also is a picnic area and connection to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and to stairs leading down to Baker Beach (the northern stretch of the mile-long beach is sometimes frequented by clothing-optional sunbathers).
From the Main Post, Upper Ecology Trail is a 1.4-mile, flat walking path to Inspiration Point, where views of Angel Island and sailboats flitting across San Francisco Bay make this just the spot for . . . hmm . . . that proposal?
Getting There and Around: take the free PresidioGo shuttle between the Main Post, downtown, BART and the Transbay Terminal; and a free Around the Park shuttle.
Based in the Sonoma Valley, Karen Misuraca is a guidebook author, golf travel writer and the founder of DeepCultureTravel.com