A long weekend in San Francisco with Ben Ainslie

The British Olympic sailing champion and a helmsman for the America’s Cup Team Oracle guides Francesca Fearon to his ports of call in the city by the bay


















Ben Ainslie out on San Francisco Bay
Ben Ainslie out on San Francisco Bay | Image: David Ash

I have been living in San Francisco since September – I moved here after the Olympics to work with Team Oracle USA towards the America’s Cup. I had visited a couple of times previously for regattas and always loved the place. It has what most large American cities do well – a big brash persona. The architecture is muscular, if that is the right word to describe it, and the residents are very multicultural.

The harbour and surrounding landscape are beautiful, with the Golden Gate Bridge and then Marin County and the Headlands to the north. A lot of people don’t like the city due to the climate, but I do. Winter is actually nicer than summer. It’s cooler, but it’s fairly sunny, and the fog isn’t as bad as it is in the warmer months. On the other hand, there is something mystical about the fog when it hangs over the bridge and the foghorns blast. It adds to the character of the place.

The Clift hotel’s Redwood Room, designed by Philippe
Starck
The Clift hotel’s Redwood Room, designed by Philippe Starck

There are always plenty of things going on around the harbour, such as the little ferries taking people over to Sausalito and Tiburon, or on tours of the bay, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. The tours are very good, but it is worth booking in advance, as they get so busy. Meanwhile, the Embarcadero, near to the ferry piers and which encompasses the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, is a popular spot to hang out and eat.

The team has membership of the St Francis Yacht Club, which is a real sailors’ club, with lots of boating activities and racing on the water. Nearby is the Golden Gate Yacht Club, the current holder and defender of the 34th America’s Cup, taking place this coming September 7-22.

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Team Oracle USA trains out on the water in the AC45 – a scaled-down version of the bigger AC72 yachts, which are 72ft wingsail catamarans, a new breed of America’s Cup boat. The America’s Cup racing season starts on July 4 with the Louis Vuitton Cup. This is the Challenger Selection Series. Team Oracle USA will go straight into the final, and this is where my role comes in because I match race as helmsman in the AC45 and AC72 against Jimmy [James] Spithill [skipper of the Team Oracle race boat] to prepare him for the event. Jimmy, frankly, is the guy with the experience of racing these new big boats.

The racing will be right off Alcatraz, inside the Golden Gate Bridge, and will stretch along the shoreline. Near to the bridge, there is a “reaching” start towards Marina Green, which is the top end – windward mark – of the course. The upwind-downwind legs will pass Alcatraz and then there is a final reach to the finish, just off Pier 27. This, Piers 27 and 29, will be the main hub of the event, with big screens, and there will also be a lot of activity at Marina Green, which will also be a good viewing platform to watch the races.


















Alfresco dining on Chestnut Street
Alfresco dining on Chestnut Street | Image: Alamy

I now have an apartment in an area called SoMa, which stands for South of Market Street. It’s close to the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium and the Bay Bridge, and is where many tech start‑ups now base themselves. It’s full of young professionals and seems to have really come up in the past 10 years.

Before that I stayed at the Clift, an old-world hotel renovated by Ian Schrager. It’s a great place – very trendy and a bit surreal, with interiors designed by Philippe Starck. The historic Redwood Room bar is panelled with local redwood trees and there are digital artworks on plasma screens on the walls. It is quite cool and a good place to hang out.

Ozumo Japanese restaurant
Ozumo Japanese restaurant

The city has several lovely hotels, such as the majestic Fairmont on top of Nob Hill, which is very luxurious. It has the Tonga Room, which, with its exotic tropical decor and pool, seems out of place in such a grand old hotel. It is one of the city’s most popular hotspots, offering Asian Pacific Rim cuisine. Its bar is great for cocktails or a nightcap, and has really good DJs and live entertainment. In SoMa, there is the St Regis, which is fairly contemporary and has great views across the city. It’s also next door to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And then there is the Taj Campton Place, a boutique hotel in Stockton Street that has been around for just about forever. For years, its bar-bistro has been a local watering hole, and it’s still excellent.

One of my top recommendations for dinner is Ozumo – a serene, understated restaurant in the Embarcadero district with breathtaking bay views. It’s very friendly and serves mostly modern Japanese cuisine. I always tell friends to try the Dohyo – a spicy tuna tartare with avocado, cucumber and wasabi oil – and one of its premium sakes, for which it’s famous. It’s very popular and so almost always busy, but you can also sit in the more capacious sushi bar. For traditional French cuisine, I send friends to Café des Amis, a Parisian-style brasserie in Union Street. It’s on a fashionable stretch of the road that’s always buzzing, so is fun as well as delicious.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art | Image: © HP Huber/4Corners Images

A regular haunt of the America’s Cup sailors is a pub called The Tipsy Pig in the Marina district. In there I often meet Iain Percy, who sails with the Swedish team. It’s a classic gastrotavern serving fantastic food, but is very casual. The Marina in general has a lot of nice restaurants, bars, delicatessens and shops around Chestnut Street. The California Wine Merchant, which both serves and sells, is worth a stop; it is, of course, very knowledgeable about Californian wines and its Merlots are particularly drinkable. But there are plenty of interesting little streets around here to investigate.

The Marina runs along the northern waterfront and is within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you head there for breakfast on a Sunday, it’s pleasant to then walk through Marina Green, right next to the bay, and up to the Presidio – a park that leads on to the bridge, where you can enjoy the views.


















The Tipsy Pig
The Tipsy Pig

San Francisco’s well-known cable cars are a great way of getting around town to see the sights. Take the Powell-Mason line from the Powell/Market turntable on Market Street, up and over Nob Hill and then down to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina. The Powell/Market turntable is walking distance from Union Square and most of San Francisco’s quality stores. John Varvatos, in Geary Street, is a Greek-American designer who is great for smart clothes – I shop there regularly.

I really enjoy road-biking and one of the best specialist shops in town is Pacific Bicycle, just off Harrison Street, which, in turn, is just off one of the many cycle routes that crisscross the city. It’s amazing to get up early at the weekend and ride across the Golden Gate, over Mount Tamalpais – which is more than 760m above sea level – to Stinson Beach for breakfast or brunch. It is a big ride but equally accessible, and beautiful, by car, and the reward is a really long, gorgeous beach. Stinson has a few great cafés, such as the Sand Dollar, where they play live bluegrass and jazz at lunchtime and in the early evening, or the more low-key Parkside Café. On the way back, take the coast road because the scenery is stunning – I think this is some of the most spectacular coastline in the world.

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Another favourite haunt is Sam’s Anchor Café on the waterfront in Tiburon, which you can access by car  or boat – ferries leave from the Plaza Ferry Building. There’s not much fog on this side of the bay; it’s also warmer, and you can sit on the outside decking and enjoy the views of the marina, Alcatraz and the San Francisco skyline. It is a very family‑oriented place and a great spot to visit at the weekend to enjoy first-class American seafood and a bottle of local Sonoma wine – it’s just the most perfect way to spend a relaxed Sunday afternoon with friends.

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