Spring is busting out all over San Francisco's Presidio. From March through the end of July, this amazing urban national park sees more airborne activity than SFO. That's what 991 acres of open space in extraordinary coastal habitat will do for you -- spawn a nesting season that rivals the top birding destinations.
But it's not just the wildlife that's buzzing here. Since the old military base was decommissioned in 1994, it has attracted a new breed of entrepreneur tapping into everything from digital arts to socially responsible investing and green technology.
"I see this as the last undeveloped neighborhood in San Francisco," says chef Joseph Humphrey, whose acclaimed restaurant, Dixie, attracts crowds of discerning diners to the old Letterman Hospital site. With neighbors such as LucasFilm Ltd. and 17 acres of public open space and trails, it's easy to see why Humphrey is projecting big business going forward. His southern soul cooking clearly satisfies the neighborhood's new generation of visitors.
The best way to experience the Presidio, as with any national park, is to stay there. An overnight at the Inn at the Presidio puts you squarely at the crossroads of history and the future. But before you check in, stop by the visitor's center, in the heart of the Presidio's Main Post.
On the day I was there, park ranger Marcus Combs helped me plan a near-perfect 24 hours. It started with the Disney Family Museum next-door and ended with a bike ride along the Bay Trail that offered me views of the Golden Gate Bridge to the west and Alcatraz and the city's sweeping skyscrapers to the east.
"Quite a few of the bike paths are flat," he reassured me. He highlighted the routes on a map of the Presidio that included several other must-see sites such as the Army's old pet cemetery and the Chapel of Our Lady (reminiscent of the Little House on the Prairie).
"There are something like a thousand buildings in the Presidio -- half of them historic," he said. "It's because of the infrastructure that our budget is the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined."
The most prominent buildings are the redbrick colonial revivals that line two sides of the green belt (the old Parade Grounds) in the Main Post. The Inn at the Presidio was once the Bachelor Officers' Quarters and you can feel the elegance of the bygone era the minute you roll in your suitcase. Yet, the property also has a very down-home feel, with free Wi-Fi and bike rentals, access to the Presidio gym and pool (now run by the YMCA), and free breakfast and evening managers' receptions.
"We don't want this to be a playground for the rich," says the Inn's general manager, Terry Haney. "We want everyone to feel welcome."
In many ways, the Presidio is like Anytown USA. People live there, but it's quiet -- especially in the Main Post and surrounding residential neighborhoods. And like most national parks, spring is the ideal time for a visit -- when the hubbub around you is just birds "feathering" their nests.
The Inn at the Presidio (www.innatthepresidio.com) has rates ranging from $195 to $350.
The Walt Disney Family Museum (http://www.waltdisney.org) is featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Dixie (http://sfdixie.com) is open Mondays through Sundays.