Tail of the City

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Wright writes the Times' Travel section's Travel Advisory column

We had come to experience the hilly city by the bay, in all its infinite variety. But when they shrank away from us at the sidewalk cafe and yelled at us on the bus, we realized we were on no ordinary trip. The reason: 90 pounds of 3-year-old black and tan German shepherd, answering to the name of Lobo. My wife, Cathy, and I have taken Lobo on several trips and enjoyed his company. He’s at his best in the wilderness, tramping and snuffling his way along trails in the Eastern Sierra. But after three years of trail-snuffling, we hungered for a real urban vacation. We didn’t want to leave him in a kennel (he marks our departure with wails). So we decided to test him on the city we had wanted to visit together since we were married.

The verdict: Great, except for a few minor glitches.

Here’s the daily journal of our trip:

Day 1: Getting there. For the long haul up U.S. 101, we pack the Ford Explorer with a long weekend’s worth of luggage plus a big canvas bag holding dog gear--dry and canned food, favorite chew toys, dog blanket (to protect hotel rugs and bedding), a sturdy leather leash, a muzzle (more on that later), a bottle of water and a large plastic margarine tub that will double as a drinking bowl. Plus a supply of paper towels and plastic bags for possible clean-up duty on the street.

As he likes to do, Lobo spends most of the trip with head out the window, ears streamlined, tongue flapping. Arriving in the late afternoon, we check into the Laurel Motor Inn near Presidio Park. The choice isn’t random: According to one of our travel bibles, “The California Dog Lover’s Companion,” the place is dog-friendly. In terms of comfort, it’ll do, but we’re unhappy to find that the city-view room we requested is not available. However, we like the nearby park, the garage parking, and the complimentary coffee and muffins for breakfast. Also, the kitchenette makes it easier to serve up Lobo’s meals.


After checking in, a “Hrrumph” from Lobo signals the need for his first excursion. Patches of ground are in short supply in San Francisco, but we eventually locate a spot around a hedge in front of a nearby mini-mall, which we’ll visit often.

Day 2: Our guidebook has informed us that dogs are allowed on the ferries, and we decide to start our visit by cruising over to Tiburon and back. We drive to Fisherman’s Wharf and park in a garage about a block up from the water ($7 a day), then stroll along the Embarcadero until our ferry leaves. Lobo sniffs his way from one seafood place to another, stopping at one point to investigate a crate of live crabs on the sidewalk. We split a crab-meat sandwich, nibbling as we walk.

The ferry is full of day-trippers and tourists. We find seating topside for a breezy ride and watch the city on its hills spread out slowly astern. Little by little, we notice the travel bonus we gain from Lobo’s company: People who’d have little reason to talk to us begin coming by, asking his age, reaching over to pet him. “Thanks, I just needed a dog fix today,” one woman says as she scratches his ears. A man sitting by himself nearby seems preoccupied with his thoughts until Lobo, a little presumptuously, reaches up and aims a quick lick at his face. The man grins and pets him.

Tiburon is quiet, pretty and upscale--think of Carmel with fewer tourists--and retains just enough of an old-port flavor to make strolling fun. The sea air has made us hungry for breakfast. Many of the bay-view restaurants, it seems, don’t welcome dogs, but the New Morning Cafe, a funky little corner place on Tiburon Boulevard, has sidewalk tables and a relaxed attitude.

The waitress endears herself to all three of us by bringing a king-size dog biscuit to the table. Not far away on Main Street, we find great browsing at the Mark Reuben Gallery, which has a big stock of intriguing vintage photos. Careful to keep our sizable dog out of customers’ way, we browse individually, one of us minding him on the sidewalk until the manager--obviously a dog person--invites all of us in at the same time. We buy a 1905 print of Mark Twain glowering over his billiard table, then catch our return ferry.

After docking, some of our afternoon remains, and we decide to spend it exploring a few of San Francisco’s notoriously steep streets on foot. Driving downtown, we park near Union Square and start our walking tour by hanging out in the square itself, where an art show is under way. Just off Union Square, the pedestrians-only Maiden Lane is a pleasant collection of expensive shops. We find a spot called Mocca on Maiden Lane, a delightful coffeehouse recommended in what we call the “dog book,” and settle in for a sandwich and iced coffee at one of their many sidewalk tables just as a strolling musician unpacks his saxophone nearby.


But we realize that we’re deferring the serious walking, so off we go. After six blocks of steady chugging, we’re at the summit of Nob Hill, surrounded by some of the city’s most distinctive buildings--the Mark Hopkins and Fairmont hotels, the landmark Pacific Union Club and Grace Cathedral.

There’s a small, pretty park across from the cathedral, a good spot to catch our breath. We find a bench and, just as we’re beginning to enjoy the quiet and the greenery, the cathedral carillon erupts with the sound of bells. Lobo--whose ears can pick up a squirrel’s chattering in our front yard--is startled and barrels over the back of the bench and into a shrub. A homeless man who’s strolling by coaxes him out and reassures him. A little later, a woman with a brisk air notices him, walks over and begins commenting on the shape of his head and the state of his teeth. We begin to consider the possibility that everyone in this town is some kind of dog lover. (Actually, no; we’ll find out.)

Day 3: We decide to start the day with one of our biggest challenges: riding the transit system. Our dog-eared travel bible has informed us that dogs are allowed on both buses and cable cars if muzzled and if they’re the only canine aboard. They pay full fare. We walk a couple of blocks to the stop and catch our bus. We’re in luck: It’s a Sunday, and there’s only one other passenger on board. Lobo doesn’t like the muzzle, but we’ve been acclimating him to it for a few weeks, and he decides to be a good citizen for the duration of the ride.


Getting off in North Beach, we find ourselves in stroller’s heaven, where we’ll spend the better part of the day. North Beach is loaded with outdoor tables, so for breakfast, we stop at Caffe Roma on Columbus for coffee and rolls. When we leave, a small incident: The dog, given a bit too much leash, makes a curious, tail-wagging lunge toward two young men at a nearby table. Their instant recoil and look of fear reminds us that not everyone considers him man’s best friend. We make a mental note to curb him better.

For the first time, we begin running into other dogs--most of them, like ours, on leashes. Barks are exchanged. Panting, we climb Telegraph Hill, past row houses that seem to grow more shack-like the higher we get, up to Coit Tower and a spectacular view of the city. Lunch consists of sandwiches at one of the neighborhood’s ubiquitous sidewalk Italian delis.

We’re now on the fringe of Chinatown, and our walk takes on a different character: narrower streets, denser foot traffic, more intriguing smells. The crush on the sidewalk--and Lobo’s natural curiosity and muscular energy--becomes a problem, especially when we encounter elderly folks and the occasional toddler. We get a few hostile looks. We edge off the sidewalk and walk a bit in the street.


Our bus ride back to the motel is a different experience. The bus is jam-packed with women bearing shopping bags. We have to split up: one of us, with Lobo, squeezing onto one of the side-facing seats, the other taking a seat nearby. These passengers don’t look particularly dog-friendly. Pulling up to a stop, we fearfully spy another dog waiting with his owner, but our driver wisely shakes his head to the would-be passenger. One dog per bus. Halfway there, Lobo rises from his sitting position to stretch, and he swings his head curiously toward the woman sitting next door. She’s no dog lover: “Make him stop it!” she yells. (Grouch. She probably has a cat.) Lobo rides the rest of the way on a very tight leash, and any thoughts we may have had about taking him aboard a cable car are quickly scrubbed.


Budget for 2 1/2

Laurel Motor Inn, 3 nights: $259.65

Dinner, John’s Grill: 74.75

Dinner, MacArthur Park: 35.56

Dinner, Brandy Ho’s (delivered): 27.50

Three lunches: 50.55

Two drinks, Marriott: 12.25

Gasoline: 58.07

Ferry, bus rides: 26.00

Parking: 17.00

FINAL TAB: $561.33

Laurel Motor Inn, 444 Presidio Ave., San Francisco 94115; tel. (800) 552-8735. Tiburon ferry, tel. (415) 546-2896.