The only things missing from the launch of the nautical-themed Argonaut Hotel near Fisherman's Wharf were speeches from politicians and a B-list movie star smacking a bottle of champagne over the bow of the building.
My husband, Lou, and I cracked open our own bubbly and toasted the good fortune of being here on opening day. The hotel is the newest offering from Kimpton, the boutique hotel group that also operates the Palomar and Monaco across town. The bayside Argonaut may have the best location of the bunch, and it certainly struck me as the most interesting historically. How many hotels boast a National Park Service visitor center on the ground floor?
Staying at a just-opened hotel can have drawbacks: problematic plumbing, bumbling service and the like. But sometimes it pays off: Searching the Internet, I had stumbled upon the hotel for $129 a night, good given the prime location steps from the water, cable cars and Ghirardelli Square.
So with our teenage son, Jeff, we drove about 380 miles north of L.A. to the Argonaut in August. The building was completed in 1909 and used as a warehouse for Del Monte. In 1974, the warehouse, dubbed the Cannery, was declared a historic landmark and purchased by California State Parks. Control of the property later was transferred to the National Park Service and, in 1989, to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Kimpton leased the warehouse and remodeled it into a 252-room hotel, keeping the original red brick walls and Douglas fir beams.
I was thrilled with our fourth-floor room, which overlooked the rest of the Cannery and peeked at the bay. It was large and quiet. The decor was whimsical: porthole-shaped mirrors, star-shaped throw pillows and a stars-and-stripes motif on the walls. (Pricier rooms and suites have great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.)
Visitors who haven't been to Fisherman's Wharf for a few years will find that, although the overall ambience remains the same — crowds, jammed parking lots, fast-food discards in the street — there are changes.
One of the biggest is the building housing the hoary Wax Museum. The $15-million makeover includes a Rainforest Cafe, a chain restaurant popular with families. Across the street at touristy Pier 39, a Hard Rock Cafe has opened near the refurbished San Francisco Carousel. An intriguing new restaurant is Ana Mandara in Ghirardelli Square. With investors such as Don Johnson and Cheech Marin, the place has celeb cachet, and the Vietnamese cuisine gets high marks from foodies.
Hotels have upgraded as well. An old Ramada is now a Hilton after a $13-million renovation. A Travelodge became a Radisson after a multimillion-dollar redesign, and the Sheraton spruced itself up extensively too a couple of years ago.
The best newcomer might be the historic F-line streetcar, which has been extended from Market Street. You can hop on and off, visit the booming Embarcadero area and get a breather from the wharf's souvenir shops and tour buses.
For us, it was full speed ahead: Lou and I joined a small tour group downstairs at the maritime visitor center, an introduction to the national historical park's museum down the street and four ships open for touring at the Hyde Street Pier. Ranger Carol Kizer gave us an overview of the center, which showcased the city's colorful maritime days since 1849. From the Fresnel lighthouse lens at its entrance to the vintage fishing boat in back, it's a fascinating journey.
That evening we joined a wine reception in the hotel lobby, which could masquerade as a luxury liner with high ceilings and wood-plank floors. Lou and I sipped Merlot and snagged a couple of deck chairs next to, coincidentally, the captain of the ship. Argonaut general manager Barry Pollard introduced himself, and I, without revealing my identity as a writer, asked about the renovation. He said the hotel was supposed to have opened last year.
"But there was a fire on St. Patrick's Day, of all things," Pollard said. "The only things that survived were the original brick and timber." As proof he showed us the scorched beams.
We moved on to dinner at McCormick & Kuleto's Seafood Restaurant in Ghirardelli Square. The tables are set up in theatrical tiers with fabulous views of the bay. The menu was just as impressive: delicious and artfully presented fare that spanned the globe. I settled on ahi tuna from Hawaii, Lou had ono from Fiji and Jeff had a cheeseburger from Visalia.
A bellhop in a spiffy Navy peacoat had noticed Friday that Jeff, our outlaw skateboarder, couldn't wait to do a kick-flip down the sidewalk. "Head to Pier 7," the bellhop had whispered. "That's where the locals go."
So Saturday morning we split up. Lou and Jeff headed to Pier 7. I walked across the street to the Hyde Street Pier and its collection of ships, open for $5.
"A lot of folks don't realize we're even here," volunteer guide Pete Reque said. "And a lot of them get detoured to Ghirardelli Square. It's hard to compete against the smell of the chocolate factory."
Reque gave a quick course on navigation, rigging, sea music and boat building. The ships included the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha, which worked the California grain trade, and the 1914 paddle-wheel tug Eppleton Hall. My favorite was the 1907 steam tug Hercules, which reminded me of the "Scuffy the Tugboat" children's books.
I met the boys for lunch at the wharf's Boudin Bakery Cafe. Over clam chowder in sourdough bowls, they recounted their morning. After hiking two miles to Pier 7, Jeff had joined a group of skaters until two police officers had arrived. Turns out skateboarding on Pier 7 is illegal. The kids had been let off with a warning; Lou was ready to throw the skateboard in the bay.
Little did we know how happy Jeff's hobby would make us later. After lunch we took a cable car to Market Street and walked to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A line for a Marc Chagall exhibit wound around the block, but a clerk noticed the logo on Jeff's T-shirt. "Is that the skateboarder Svitak?" she asked.
Jeff said yes. Skateboarder-designer Kristian Svitak turned out to be a friend of hers.
"Come on in," she said, letting us in as her guests.
It was serendipitous that a skateboarder would be the ticket to a Chagall retrospective (since closed). We sailed back to the hotel on a Chagall high, in time for the wine hour. We toasted the Argonaut — and raised a glass in honor of a guy named Svitak.
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Budget for three
Expenses for this trip:
Two nights, parking, tax $358.12
McCormick & Kuleto's $80.72
Hyde Street Pier boats $5.00
Boudin Bakery $28.14
Other food, drink $93.96
Cable cars, taxis $19.00
Final tab $642.54
Argonaut Hotel, 495 Jefferson St., San Francisco, CA 94109; (800) 790-1415 or (415) 563-0800, fax (415) 563-2800, http://www.argonauthotel.com .
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, visitor center at 499 Jefferson St., mailing address Building E, Ft. Mason Center, San Francisco, CA 94123; (415) 447-5000 or fax (415) 556-1624, http://www.nps.gov/saf .
Irene Lechowitzky is a freelance writer based in Carlsbad, Calif.