Rediscover the Presidio of San Francisco

Spas and restaurants join the trails in the city's national park
Rachel Levin

Spread before us is a flight of crisp whites, a plate of prosciutto-wrapped figs ― and, beyond a meticulously landscaped lawn, a peekaboo view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The patio at Pres a Vi is packed with pretty people, and though the restaurant is surrounded by eucalyptus-lined trails, there's nary a hiking boot in sight.

It's not a typical national park scene. But plopped in the middle of San Francisco, the Presidio is not your typical national park, especially these days.

For such a vast and gorgeous swath of prime real estate ― 1,491 acres in all - the Presidio has long been overlooked and underutilized. Its white-clapboard, red-roofed, Civil War-era cottages stood alone and lonely, lovely but stark reminders of the park's origin as a military post.

Now revived by tenants from filmmaker George Lucas to nonprofits, fancy-pants restaurants, and families lucky enough to lease a renovated officer's home, the Presidio has become a living, dynamic place. It's all part of the Presidio Trust's plan to make it the country's first financially self-sufficient national park by 2013. That goal was bolstered in April by a $15 million private donation, which will blaze 24 miles of hiking trails, 6 overlooks, and much-needed enhancements to San Francisco's only campground. Plans even call for an upscale eco-lodge and a contemporary art museum on par with Golden Gate Park's de Young.

Like the rest of the city, I can't wait. Still, with so many sweeping changes in the last year alone, the Presidio, as I recently discovered, is worth exploring right now.

 

RIGHT IN MY OWN BACKYARD

I've been running around the Presidio for years. Literally, along my favorite path, which leaves from Inspiration Point Overlook, dips through the trees past views of Alcatraz, and spits me out at historic Officer's Row. But with so much excitement lately, I decide to set aside my sneakers and spend a day exploring the park's more refined side.

I start at Perk Presidio Cafe, where I pick up a fair-trade latte and grab a bench by the pond at the Letterman Digital Arts Center, home to Lucasfilm. Sporty moms push baby joggers as film folks gossip nearby, but otherwise we've got the collegelike grassy campus to ourselves.

At the Thoreau Center ― one of the park's early trend-setting tenants housing more than 50 progressive organizations, including the all-organic Acre Café ― I wander into a narrow sunlit gallery filled with innovative artwork made with recycled materials.

For lunch I hit La Terrasse, a sleek French brasserie with a heated patio, bay view, and wood-fired pizzas. It's a far cry from the cavernous corporate restaurants common to most national parks.

SenSpa, an old ammunition warehouse turned Asian-style day spa, isn't something you see hiking around Yellowstone either. I lounge by the fire and treat myself to an expert Thai massage.

Inspired, I take the long way home. Faint drizzle hits my windshield. A foghorn sounds. Winding along Washington Boulevard, I spy a man bent on his knees by a curved stone wall, and pull over.

"Yesterday was blue skies," says Chris Stinehour, a professional letter carver who has apparently spent all week at Immigration Point Overlook, perched above the Pacific, engraving a quote in the granite. "I saw dolphins out there - without binoculars," he says with a smile. "Every few moments the water changes color: teal, turquoise, deep blue. Hawks have been circling above Baker Beach. Saw a coyote crossing too."

The foghorn sounds again. Wind howls. He returns to work, chiseling the very last letter of Woodrow Wilson's quote: "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.' "

The Presidio's gates are open. All seven of them. Waiting for regulars ― and the rest of the world.

 

GETTING THERE

The Presidio is on San Francisco's northwest side. If you're going to eat, spa, and sit, the Lombard Gate is your best bet. Hiking? The Arguello or Presidio Gates. Once inside, hop the free PresidiGo Shuttle to get around. More info: 415/561-5418.

WHAT TO DO

Ecology Trail An intermediate, 2-mile path. Access from Inspiration Point, by Arguello Gate.

Immigrant Point Overlook Off Washington Ave., across from the Rob Hill Campground.

SenSpa Closed Mon; 1161 Gorgas Ave.; 415/441-1777.

Thoreau Center for Sustainability Acre Café: $; closed Sat-Sun; 415/561-2273. Thoreau Gallery: closed Sat-Sun; 415/561-7823. 1016 Lincoln Blvd.

Warming Hut Cafe and Bookstore Post-fire, scheduled to reopen soon. INFO: $; northwest end of Crissy Field; 415/561-3040.

WHERE TO EAT

Dish Café Perfect picnic food. INFO: $; closed Sat-Sun; in the San Francisco Film Centre, 39 Mesa St.; 415/561-2336.

La Terrasse $$; 215 Lincoln Blvd.; 415/922-3463.

Perk Presidio Cafe $; 1 Letterman Dr., Bldg. C; 415/746-5456.

Pres a Vi $$; 1 Letterman Dr., Bldg. D; 415/409-3000.

Presidio Social Club Gorgeously renovated barrack serving sloppy joes with a sophisticated spin. INFO: $$$; 563 Ruger St.; 415/885-1888.