fisherman's wharf, san franciscoFor the last several days, I’ve been hosting a friend from high school days, who I haven’t seen since high school. Which is..oh…about ten or so years ago. There are a lot of neat things about my friend, Gwenn, but one of the neatest is her later-in-life career change to be a Tour Director. I hope I’ve got that term right, because we aren’t talking about someone who just walks people through a given sight. Gwenn orchestrates and plans, shepherds, babysits, and entertains select groups through various tours. In other words, the buck stops with Gwenn for touring groups from as far afield as China. What I’m trying to convey is that — while most of us who love to travel have at one point or another thought that being a tour director would be a dream job — the last few days have been a crash course in just how multi-talented, hardworking and dedicated you have to be to pull it off. First of all, Gwenn was out here on her own tax-deductible dime doing independent research on the latest tourist facilities — even though she grew up not far from here and knows the Bay Area well. Second of all, she can do her thing fluently in several languages, so there’s that. And thirdly, she is the ultimate people person and ended up leaving San Francisco with more contacts than I probably have. Bottom line, I’m not sure how much help I was besides documenting the research with pictures. And tagging along as a Stunt Tourist.

Gwenn’s first order of business was to get us a comprehensive pass on one of the double-decker bus tours of San Francisco. (We chose this one.) These are those “hop-on, hop-off” tours that take you on an all day loop around the City’s hot spots and let you jump off, view whatever sights you want and hop back on any of the other buses that show up at the stops every twenty minutes or so. I was surprised to find out, it was a pretty good deal. Especially if you factor in the cost of parking or a parking ticket — assuming you can even find parking anywhere in San Francisco. I was left to muse and watch the sights, but Gwenn was working hard, taking notes and evaluating sights for amenities, activities, meeting points and bang for the buck.

Unfortunately, Gwenn found some things not up to her exacting standards.

When you hop off and on this one, be aware that some of the buses have just a canned audio tour. Good news, it’s in several languages. Bad news, it’s pretty light on content. We quickly hopped off and caught the next bus that featured a live guide. That made all the difference. Our comprehensive pass allowed us to ride around all Thursday. Then take the night bus tour. Then ride around all day Friday. Those live guides made all the difference. Each brings their own unique take on their hometown.

San Francisco City Hall

Thaddeus on the night tour is a movie buff and pointed out every location where a famous film had been made. And he kindly explained to the out-of-towners why City Hall was lit up with orange gel lights.

double decker in a tunnel

Pam on the day tour was all about raucous fun and encouraged us to scream as we went through tunnels.

Soon, I had the hang of the Tour Director style and was able to steer Gwenn, as we hopped off and on the bus, to some lesser known sights in San Francisco.

So many statues of Lincoln show him posing Presidentially. I love this statue in front of City Hall where he looks as if he has the weight of the Union on his shoulders and feels every ounce of it.

Lion at Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

And my favorite viewpoint of the Marin Headlands from the Palace of the Legion of Honor in the Presidio.

And George Segal’s often overlooked Holocaust Memorial sculpture.

Then we took off for Sonoma. I’d been introduced sufficiently to a Tour Director’s concerns to modify my usual recommendations to fit Gwenn’s needs. Funny, it seemed to take no modification at all. Because the places I recommend are equally accessible to the individual, to a large group or to varied and divergent interests. So, with apologies to Tour Directors everywhere who do this professionally, here’s my list of what to do in Wine Country — especially when time is limited or you have a group of people who aren’t all wine connoisseurs:

1. Go to Sonoma, not Napa. Okay, go to Napa if you want faux chateau or to taste only the most expensive wines. But, if you can only go to one town in Wine Country, make it Sonoma. There is unique shopping, history, farmers’ markets, great restaurants for every taste and budget level and at least a dozen tasting rooms where you can taste nearly 100 local wines. And that’s just if you wander around the 8 acre historic Plaza!

2. For destination wineries, pick those with more than just wine. My criteria is that the winery should have beautiful grounds, history, eccentric owners and tasty wines. Three go-to wineries that meet those criteria in spades are Buena Vista (birthplace of fine winemaking in California), Gundlach-Bundschu (oldest continuously family owned winery in California) and the winery to go to when you can only go to one: Benziger Family Winery, the first biodynamically certified winery in the U.S. For my money, Benziger’s got it all. If the wine bores you, the winery is as much about ecology, biodynamic farming and geology as it is about the vino. The site is unique (at the foot of an extinct volcano that was sacred to Native Americans), and historic (Jack London drank here).

Benziger Family Winery

Trust me and spring the extra bucks for the Partner’s Tour which takes you, in a biodiesel powered tram, up into the steeply terraced hillsides to see the actual grapes used in the wine you will experience in an exclusive tasting in the wine cellars.

3. Dine on the Plaza. No matter your budget or your tastes, you’ll find a restaurant you like. And all will undoubtedly feature fresh Sonoma-grown produce and locally, sustainably raised meats. We chose Girl & The Fig for a French Country dinner, but went casual at lunch with a sandwich and salad from The Cheese Factory which we ate under the shade of the Plaza’s trees.

4. You might want to book a room in one of the hotels on or off the Plaza. Gwenn was a good sport about our accommodations. I didn’t make her sleep alone in the tent cabin alone as John the Baptist has sighted seven coyotes up there recently. But that did leave her on an air mattress in the barn. And, of course, she was mauled by terriers and subjected to their 4AM “bathroom break”.

I’m not sure if Gwenn left with all the information she needed. But I loved my time as a Stunt Tourist and Faux Tour Director.

Benziger Tasting

And, Gwenn and the rest of you, if you discard everything else I say, trust me on the Benziger Partners’ Tour.