Lands End, at the northwestern tip of San Francisco, is the antithesis of the typical experience here. No cable cars, crowded streets or souvenir tchotchkes. I was forced to think outside of the city box in August when it was impossible to find a room. Instead of a hotel near tourist magnets such as Union Square or Fisherman's Wharf, my husband and I found a five-star location near the ocean for a two-star price. Lands End, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, offers hiking, history and beautiful vistas. The tab: Rooms for two at the Seal Rock Inn are $130 to $162 a night on weekends through May 16. (There's a two-night minimum on weekends.) Meals and drinks cost us about $180.
"Give me your best room!" I was in no danger of overpaying at the funky but spunky Seal Rock Inn (545 Point Lobos Ave.;  732-5762, www.sealrockinn.com). The request landed us a spacious top-floor room, with a queen bed, two twin beds, a fireplace and a view of the ocean. The room, which was stuck in the 1960s, had dated furnishings, faded bedspreads and carpeting, but it was clean and the bathroom had been re-tiled. There's free parking and a large courtyard that is great for families. Literary footnote: Hunter S. Thompson stayed here in the early 1970s while writing "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail."
Lunch was hearty fish and chips and clam chowder at Louis' Restaurant (902 Point Lobos Ave.;  387-6330, louissf.com), which has sweeping views of the ocean and the Sutro Bath ruins. Later, our friends Susan and Rich joined us for drinks and a gorgeous ocean sunset at the iconic Cliff House (1090 Point Lobos Ave.;  386-3330, www.cliffhouse.com). Dinner was at the nearby Beach Chalet Brewery & Restaurant (1000 Great Highway;  386-8439, beachchalet.com) above the Golden Gate Park Visitor's Center, which features a feast of great 1930s Works Progress Administration frescoes.
We ordered food and drinks while looking at beach bonfires: calamari and smoked chanterelle mushroom starters followed by salmon, short ribs and more, washed down with wine and Beach Chalet's own beers.
Head outdoors: The ocean, park and hiking trails with stunning views are across from the inn. Grab a map at the Lands End Lookout visitor center (680 Point Lobos Ave.,  426-5240) and start with a hike through Sutro Heights Park to see the remnants of the estate built in the late 1880s by land baron and mayor Adolph Sutro. Then walk down the hill to the ocean to view the ruins of the once-great Sutro Baths. It's a short walk to the Cliff House to see the Camera Obscura and Ocean Beach, and you can continue to Golden Gate Park. Hearty hikers can climb the steep stairs to take the coastal trail to the Golden Gate Bridge or the Presidio.
The lesson learned
Every great city has an escape far from the madding crowd. In San Francisco, you don't have to go to the ends of the earth: Lands End will do nicely.
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