"How can you not fall in love with California?" a hiker asks my sister, Mary Kay, and me as we pause at a viewpoint near San Francisco's Lands End. He seems transfixed by the scenery: the Golden Gate Bridge glowing crimson in the afternoon sun, boats darting across San Francisco Bay, wind-scrubbed vistas east toward the Sierra Nevada.
How can you not fall in love with California? Read the news-papers--the stories of high housing prices and Silicon Valley layoffs--and you might think it would be easy. But on a day like today, it is the most desirable place in the world.
Northern California has so many world-class attractions, it seems impossible to roll them into one vacation. But I'm about to prove it can be done. I'm taking Mary Kay and her husband, Bob, on a 10-day, 700-mile driving tour. My sister and I grew up just south of San Francisco, not far from this trail, but for the past 20 years, Mary Kay and Bob have lived all over the world. They're not easy to please; they have written off California destinations as overcrowded and overhyped.
Mary Kay and I head back up the hill. We're ready to hit the road and, we hope, fall in love with our childhood home all over again.
Starting point: San Francisco
San Francisco is one of those cities people think they know--either from actual visits to Coit Tower or Ghirardelli Square, or from all those setin-San Francisco movies that range from elegantly disturbing (Vertigo) to sunny and romantic (J. Lo's The Wedding Planner).
Still, familiar as it is, San Francisco can surprise you. In some important ways, notably a reborn waterfront, it's vastly improved from the city we knew. One thing hasn't changed: The best way to explore San Francisco is on foot. So to start this trip, after fueling up with a pasta lunch in Italian-accented North Beach, my sister and I stroll along Columbus Avenue, popping into Molinari Delicatessen just to inhale the mingling scents of salami and garlic. Then we drive across town to hit the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Coastal Trail leading out to Lands End with its drop-dead views, seemingly unchanged from our early memories. The trail lands us at one of the city's loveliest museums, the Legion of Honor, where we gaze at masterworks by El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt. Out front, we watch a man photographing his kids beside Auguste Rodin's The Thinker--all of them mimicking the statue's pose--and remember our dad snapping us in the same pose long ago.
Fisherman's Wharf remains a spot more for tourists than for working fishermen, but we check into the new Argonaut Hotel and find it a happy marriage of luxury and history. The hotel is within the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at Hyde Street Pier and occupies a refurbished 1900s warehouse, which it shares with the park's visitor center. From here we head back along the waterfront to see the sun's last rays wash against the tower of the historic Ferry Building. Reopened after a complete restoration last year, it now houses a gourmet galleria that sells some of Northern California's best foods. We consider a milkshake and a burger at Taylor's Automatic Refresher, then opt for oysters and glasses of crisp Chardonnay at the Hog Island Oyster Company. We toast a city that still continues to surprise and delight.
2 Days 65 Miles
San Francisco to Napa Valley
The next morning, we head inland and north to the Napa Valley. More than 280 wineries are now squeezed into this 35-mile-long valley, which sits between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains.
For a relatively small region, the Napa Valley's influence in matters of culinary taste is enormous. One place to introduce yourself to the culture of food and wine is Copia center, which offers demonstrations, tastings, and other programs. You can eat very well at Copia, but the valley's other food offerings are so tantalizing that you'll want to save room for meals at other places: New stars include Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. …