A trifecta in the horse racing world is when a bettor predicts which horses will finish first, second, and third (in that order) in a horse race. The trio of hotels that I selected for our recent family trip to Northern California doesn’t necessarily rank in the order that we stayed in them but they were certainly a perfect combination to warrant a winning hand in my mind.
Looking to replicate our experience in Southern California two years ago when we checked in to another terrific trio of hotels (the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica and Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego – all reviewed on this site), I took care picking out our accommodations for this trip, seeking something unique in each place as we switched settings. While packing and unpacking bags from hotel to hotel admittedly can be a bit of a drag, breaking up locations felt like three mini vacations and the kids enjoyed taking and comparing notes on each segment of our trip as much as I did (my little bloggers in the making!). Check out the succinct review by my own 10-year old daughter Vanessa at the end of this post.
Our picks? I finally settled on the Fairmont Heritage Place in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco for our first four nights, followed by the Carmel Valley Ranch for two nights in Carmel and topping off with the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay for our last remaining two nights before flying back to a cold and dreary New York.
First Stop: San Francisco and Fairmont Heritage Place on Ghirardelli Square. Finding a hotel in worldly San Francisco proved more challenging then I expected. Of course, there is the perennial family favorites
Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis – but I was underwhelmed by the location and lack of personality of both of these hotels. The Huntington Hotel, an old favorite, is undergoing a $15MM renovation until May when it will reopen. It was while I was checking out the website of the Fairmont in Nob Hill that I stumbled upon its newish (having opened in 2008) sister property on famous Ghirardelli Square that was housed in the original chocolate factory. Hmm, living in an former chocolate factory – how cool could that be? Upon further inspection, I learned that most of the spacious 1-3 bedroom loft residences also came with spectacular views over the bay, and was located near most of the activities we had scheduled during our stay such as the Ferry building, ferry to Alcatraz, and the recently relocated Exploratorium museum.
Spacious accommodations? check. Location? check. Price? check (4 nights for the price of 3!). Access to lots and lots of chocolate? BIG check. With all of our needs met, choosing the Fairmont was a no brainer.
Curious to know more about Ghirardelli, I did some investigative sleuthing and learned a lot about America’s longest continuously operating chocolate manufacturer. Ghirardelli was officially opened in 1852, shortly after Domingo Ghirardelli sailed to San Francisco during the Gold Rush and opened a chocolate store to gold miners. It wasn’t until 1893 when the operations, considerably expanded, moved into a wool mill in today’s Ghirardelli Square, where it miraculously survived the 1909 earthquake. There it remained until the 1960s, when the company was sold and moved to San Leandro. Ghirardelli Square today is both an official city landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Fairmont Heritage Place is still young enough that many people – including taxi drivers and San Francisco residents – don’t know it exists. That won’t last for long as the 53 all-suite hotel was just voted #2 Best San Francisco Hotel (behind #1 Mandarin Oriental) by U.S. News & World Report this year. The Fairmont Heritage is both a luxury hotel and residence club, offering fractional ownership for 2nd homeowners who want a home away from home on the San Francisco Bay. All of the spacious 1-3 Bedroom residences (ranging from 1,200 to 1,900 square feet) offer the features of king beds, LCD TVs, fully equipped gourmet kitchens (you can request ahead of time for the butler to stock the kitchen for you) with wine fridges, fireplaces, and Bosch washer and dryers. And did I mention that all of the suites have some of the factory’s original exposed brick walls?
While the hotel does lack a spa and on-site restaurant (although complimentary breakfast buffet is included and an in-room iPad to order from nearby restaurants), the other features and amenities such as the outdoor fire pits on two different terraces, the complimentary BMW bikes, and the complimentary chauffeur service for guests within a 2-mile radius more than make up for it. Our own unit 318 (located in the Mustard building) was a 1,300 square foot, 2-bedroom duplex with dead-on views of San Francisco bay, Ghirardelli Square and Alcatraz. We loved the combination of apartment-style living along with the hotel services of a concierge, maid service and chauffeur!
The hotel was incredibly convenient for our tourist-y agenda during our four day stay. I highly recommend the Fairmont Heritage Place for families looking to spend any time in San Francisco – the combination of space, views, location and service really can’t be beat. And it doesn’t get much better for a child who loves chocolate.
Vanessa says: “I loved the Fairmont hotel – I had my own room on the top floor, even though I had to share it with my sister. It was almost like I was at home except I was in semi-warm weather! The location was perfect. Two of the four nights, we went to get ice cream at the shops outside the hotel – one night for a triple ice cream sundae and the other for hot chocolate and fudge. I loved it! If you are ever in San Francisco, go to the Fairmont Hotel in Ghirardelli Square or just stop by for some yummy treats and see how they make chocolate!”
What to do:
I won’t waste your time mentioning the usual suspects that are on every tourist San Francisco ‘hit’ list such as taking the ferry to Alcatraz, riding the cable cars, and biking through Golden Gate park. Here, though, are some of our stand-outs that deserve a mention:
- There are so many attractions near the hotel. Take a 10-minute stroll to Pier 39 to see the seals. Then walk to Pier 45 and stop at Musee Mecanique to check out one the world’s largest private collection of 300+ antique
arcade games, dioramas and peep shows (some “older than you will ever be” state the signs!), harking back to a bygone era of simple non-computerized machines. My husband got a kick out of playing some of the games of his youth and playing them with the girls. Good for an hour and bring lots of quarters (most games are 50 cents. Entrance is free).
- A must-stop is the Original Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactury store on Ghiradelli Square where you can see how chocolate was and is still being made in the original machines. And then splurge for a sundae there or at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream Fountain and Chocolate Shop across the plaza (The Fairmont gives you plenty of discounted tickets). Be prepared for lots of free samples and chocolate tastings to make any child hyper for hours after!
- In Chinatown, we loved checking out the tiny Golden Gate Cookie Factory in Ross Alley (once known for brothels and gambling) to see how fortune cookies are made. This little shop has been making and supplying fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants around the world since 1962! Then, walk across the street to order a few of their famous Dan Tats (egg custards) at the tiny Golden Gate Bakery at 1029 Grant Avenue. No need for Google Maps – just look for the line outside.
- The Exploratorium (now located at Pier 15) was great for an hour with the kids, moving between the many fascinating interactive stations. Book ahead to experience the Tactile Dome (built by Nicolas Cage’s dad – go figure), where you walk through chambers and mazes in the pitch-dark. Not my cup of tea, being claustrophobic and all, but the girls loved it and went through it 3 times. Tip: book one of the early times and you will likely have the Dome to yourself.
- The Ferry Building Marketplace, located in the historic landmark Ferry building on the Embarcadero, is all that it is hyped up to be: A foodie mecca and you must go. Wonderful outposts, restaurant and food shops to make any mouth drool. Open 10 am to 6 pm every day, with a famous Farmer’s market on Saturdays, the Ferry Building is also a transit hub for ferries to Sausalito and historic trolley cars to other areas of the city.
- Do a quick stop-by at Amoeba Records, housed in a massive, old bowling alley, in Haight-Ashbury to show your kids what vinyl records are (this location has over 100,000 in stock) and then walk one block right into Golden Gate Park. Despite its size (the park is a thousand acres, 20% percent larger than Central Park), it is only a short walk past the carousel to Academy of Sciences – the world’s Greenest museum and check out the Earthquake exhibit and Rainforest Biodome. Both are worth it (and plan to eat here as there are incredibly and healthy cafes and restaurants on-site). Or if you are overdosed with museums, rent a bike for an hour or two at the park entrance and ride past the Japanese Tea Gardens, Bison Paddocks and Polo Fields.
- The Bugster Experience – We wanted to spend part of one day to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and walk around Sausolito. We loved this service, located just a few blocks from the hotel, which loans you a restored, vintage VW bug with loaded directions and video cam. Ours was a red and white 1972 bug (request ahead if you want this one – its the best looking one!) We got lots of looks and thumbs ups during the day. So fun! Be warned: the cars only come with the old-style stick shifts, tough to maneuver those steep hills!
- Take the ferry or VW Bug to Sausalito and enjoy a delicious outdoor lunch overlooking the marina at Fish. Then, walk over to the Heath Ceramics factory, one of the few mid-century remaining potteries in existence today. You can see them form and glaze pottery and buy ceramic dinnerware at the same time (overstock and second quality tableware and tiles are for sale at 50% off). We love Heath (our own kitchen is designed with Heath tiles) and stocked up plenty here. They ship orders.
What We Loved:
- The spacious loft-style accommodations with fully-equipped kitchen, fireplace and views to die for.
- The complimentary chauffeur service in the hotel’s town car that takes you anywhere in a 2 mile radius (note it is first-come, first-service. We took advantage of this in the mornings).
- Location, location, location – A block from the cable car , a 10-minute walk to the Piers and Fishermans Wharf. And a few child skips to the chocolate stores and ice cream parlors on Ghirardelli Square!
What We Didn’t Love:
- The complimentary breakfast buffet was underwhelming and sorely lacking in quality. The bagels and muffins were stale and the fruit bowls were not always replenished. We only bothered to eat at the hotel once, preferring to sample a few of the breakfast places in different neighborhoods. Still, we noticed similar comments on TripAdvisor about the buffet to figure this was not a one-time situation. Hope they fix this.
Suites to Book: The Fairmont Heritage is actually divided into four inter-connecting buildings. Aptly named Cocoa, Chocolate, Mustard and Wool (after what was made on premises of the former factory), the units in each section have their own layout and unique features but a similar loft aesthetic. For example, many of the suites in the Cocoa building have terraces.
Our 2-BR duplex suite (situated on the 3rd floor, directly below the letters R and A in the Ghirardelli sign on the roof), located in the Mustard wing, had direct views of Ghirardelli Square (the better to see if the chocolate shop was open!) and the bay, Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge. Each bedroom had its own bathroom with an additional powder room. The additional amenities of a fireplace, washer/dryer, full kitchen and living room were much appreciated and the 1,300 square foot layout was more than ideal for our family of four.
Make sure to ask for a bay view when booking and check the website for special offers such as the four nights for the price of 3 offer (note that there is a 3-night minimum at this hotel). The hotel just became a member of American Express Fine Hotel & Resorts ($100 credit, late checkout) this April, so you can receive extra perks by booking through them.
- We purchased this pocket sized FujiFilm Instax camera and film before we left and it was one of the smartest things we did. The kids loved the novelty of the retro-style instant film camera and taking pictures all week and then writing notes on each of them.
- The Uber craze started in San Francisco and was a godsend for getting a taxi in a matter of minutes (few people hail cabs with their hands in this city). Why bother when you can order one from an app? And, there are many different apps to do so in this town).
- Book key reservations before you arrive: Alcatraz, the Tactile Dome in the Exploratorium, and Slanted Door all book up weeks in advance.
Restaurants: Book ahead for coveted restaurant spots such as Delfina’s, Gary Danko (one of the restaurants is conveniently in our building) and Slanted Door. It is harder than NYC to get reservations in some of the hot spots in this foodie city. Most of the restaurants can be booked online through Open Table.
- We enjoyed the festive and fun atmosphere at the Tonga Room and Tiki Bar at the Fairmont in Nob Hill for our first night with friends (complete with a live band playing in the middle of a pool, flash rain storms, mini paper umbrellas in your drinks and Hawaiian decor – sounds cheesy but we loved it and so did the kids). If you have time, hop on a cable car which starts from the corner of the hotel and take it straight up to the Fairmont in Nob Hill – the best way to start off your family trip.
- In Sausalito, we LOVED the fresh seafood and casual ambiance (think picnic tables directly on the marina) at Fish.
- Slanted Door for dinner (book way ahead, this is the hot spot of the moment!) and Boulette’s Larder for breakfast, both located in the Ferry Building, are musts. I am still dreaming of the glass noodles at Slanted Door.
- People in San Francisco are a bit fanatical about their cupcakes and it felt like there was a cupcake cafe on every street (incidentally, you can find some at Kara’s Cupcakes on Ghirardelli Square). Grab a bite at any of the restaurants on Union Street, then stop by for dessert at super-mod American Cupcake at 1919 Union Street. The kids were in heaven, drooling over creative concoctions such as pop rocks, worms in dirt, pixie stix and pink popcorn in addition to traditional flavors.
Fairmont Heritage Place Ghirardelli Square
900 North Point St,
San Francisco, California, United States
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