The thunder clapped, and the rain came down in heavy sheets. Our California Tiki Tour was off to a perfect start with an exotic night out in San Francisco.
No, the skies had not opened up. Kemey and I had not been caught out in a sudden downpour. We were sitting pretty at the historic Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in the basement of the fabulous Fairmount San Francisco. The rain was a fake – and regularly scheduled – tropical storm (via a jazzed up sprinkler system) over a fake lagoon (swimming pool) with a floating stage featuring a live band. And we had a waterside table for enjoying the live show over a few drinks and during our meal.
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar
Where better to start a California Tiki Tour than at the Tonga Room? It’s the oldest tiki bar in the state. Indeed, open since 1945, it’s the oldest in America. With rain on cue over its own Olympic-sized lagoon, the Tonga Room is probably the most OTT tiki bar in America as well. But the manufactured weather is just the beginning of the faux tropical expedition.
Another key feature is the SS Forester. The remains of this lumber schooner that once sailed between San Francisco and the South Pacific loom evocatively over the Tonga Room’s dance floor. The lagoon may be faux and the storms may be simulated, but the Forester is real.
Of course what’s ultimately most important about any restaurant or bar is the quality of the food and drink. Thumbs up for both at the Tonga Room! Food is good and drinks are great. I loved the spicy ahi poke with toasted macadamia nuts, spring onions and taro chips presented in a coconut shell. My main course of Mongolian beef was yummy. The Mai Tai was as tasty (and authentic) as any I had during our tour. Service was friendly and prompt.
The Fairmont San Francisco
Home of the Tonga Room, The Fairmont San Francisco, was our choice of accommodation for the few days we were in San Francisco. We stayed twelve floors up in the hotel’s tower and relished our views over San Francisco Bay every moment we were in our room. Perched high atop steep Nob Hill, this elegant and historic hotel was a comfortable and lofty base.
New to the SF tiki scene (compared to the Tonga Room at least) but racking up awards and accolades near and far is Smuggler’s Cove. Spread over three stories and fully adorned with the tiki décor and rum-related memorabilia, this award-winning bar boasts the largest rum selection in the US and a drinks menu incorporating all that rum into a cocktail list drawing inspiration from more than three centuries of rum history.
The drinks sipped during our visit were some of the best balanced, most flavoursome and completely intriguing I’ve ever had. My fave libation was The Expedition, a rich and potent mix of coffee liqueur, dark rum, and Bourbon with honey, vanilla and cinnamon (it comes in a take-home signature mug too).
Smuggler’s Cove is a testament to the love and knowledge of owner Martin Cate, coauthor with his wife Rebecca of the Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. Keep Martin in mind as I continue down the California coast with this series, ending the journey at his recently opened (and jaw-dropping-ly awesome) tiki bar, False Idol, in San Diego.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
I’d been to San Francisco a number of times over the years, but this trip was the first for me to have the chance to experience the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an 80,000 acre expanse of protected land encompassing the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the Presido park, and more.
Kemey and I enjoyed riding across the bridge seated on the open-air top deck of a Big Bus Tours bus to Sausalito and then walking back along the bridge to pick up the rest of the tour after a roam around the Presidio. The views at on near and at the base of the bridge were phenomenal. Another vantage of the bridge and environs that had us snapping pics aplenty was from below during a scenic cruise with Adventure Cat Sailing Charters. Wow.
When you visit consider purchasing the CityPass for free and discount access to loads of attractions. We got a lot of bang for our buck with ours and also found it especially handy for getting around town. The pass comes with a seven-day Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport and free entry to the California Academy of Sciences, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, Exploratorium or de Young Museum, and Aquarium of the Bay or Monterey Bay Aquarium. Check the prices and do the math. We found CityPass to be a smart way to save money doing things we’d have wanted to do anyway (eg riding the cable cars) while also having up do some things that we ended up loving but might not have otherwise considered (such as the Aquarium of the Bay).
Stay tuned for more in my series of posts about my California tiki tour.