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Sweet Retreats

Mansions of Mystery: Pigs, ghosts and sculptures combine to make a stay at the Mansions a delightfully eccentric experience.

Running away with a loved one on Valentine's Day needn't involve leaving town

By Zack Stentz

I used to hate Valentine's Day with a burning passion hot enough to have martyred those two eponymous Roman saints all over again. The annual appearance of hearts and cherubs in shop windows triggered painful childhood memories of that dreadful custom of elementary-school Valentine card trading. (Why in the world are we teaching pre-adolescent children how to engage in courtship rituals?) As future Miss Congeniality in the desk next to mine sat before a huge pile of Crayola'd mash notes, I had to content myself with the one letter from the kid whose mom made her write a note to everyone. (God bless you,
Jill's mom, wherever you are.)

But as I got older (and into a happy relationship, finally), I began to appreciate and even enjoy the things that separate Valentine's Day from Thanksgiving, Labor Day and other nationally enshrined holidays.

For one, it involves no baking or barbecuing, a big plus in my book. Also, instead of forcing us to bow before the altars of family, country or religious obligation, Valentine's Day gives us free rein to indulge in that other necessity enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness. And though it comes a little too early in the year to establish a firm link with pagan fertility rituals, there's still a whiff of Old World decadence about the holiday, with its champagne, chocolate and strawberries.

But here's the rub: Nearly everyone in the Bay Area seems stuck in the rut of grabbing one's significant other and heading out of town each Valentine's Day, toward putatively romantic spots in Monterey, Mendocino and the like. And nothing ruins the romantic mood like sucking exhaust while sitting in a stationary car behind a long line of produce trucks, skiiers and fellow romantic escapees.

So as a solution, why not spare the air and one's own sanity by playing tourist for Valentine's Day? We have it on good authority that the rest of the planet regards San Francisco as an incredibly romantic location. And why should the out-of-towners have all the fun while the locals flee like escapees from the sack of Byzantium, when a whole city's worth of love-friendly lodgings stand waiting? Submitted for your approval are some San Francisco hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts sure to facilitate great feelings of love, be it eros, philos or even agape.

Hotel descriptions written by Steve Bjerklie, Giancarlo Davis, Christa Palmer and Zack Stentz.

The Abigail Hotel

Adjacent to the Civic Center and within a few blocks of the Opera House, Davies Symphony Hall and the public library, the Abigail exudes an intimate and hospitable ambiance. Each bedroom is decorated with a blend of antiques, contemporary impressionistic fabrics and an array of down comforters. One might enjoy feasting on the fare downstairs at the Millennium Cafe, whose food will transport the vegetarian gourmand to more refined planes of flavor. With the Civic Center park across the street, the Abigail Hotel might be the perfect place to argue about nightingales and larks over the soothing strains of city life. 246 McAllister St.; 415/861-9728 and 800/243-6510.

The Archbishop's Mansion

As anyone who's ever surreptitiously nuzzled a partner in the back pews at Notre Dame Cathedral can attest, a strange frisson results when one mixes the sensual and the spiritual, and the Archbishop's Mansion fulfills such vaguely sacrilegious desires. As its title implies, the palatial domicile was built in 1904 for the Archbishop of San Francisco; since it's become a cozy B&B subdivided into 15 private rooms and suites. Is it romantic? Let's put it this way: The rooms and suites, carrying designations like the Don Giovanni Suite and the La Boheme Room, typically get booked solid for Valentine's Day six months in advance. Fireplaces in the rooms provide an added layer of coziness, making it tempting not to bother venturing downstairs at all. And the wonderfully archaic, deep bathtubs are perfect for using in ways the old archbishop could scarcely have imagined. 1000 Fulton St. Rooms $129­$189, suites $215­$285 ($385 on weekends); 415/563-7872.

Gallic Symbols: The Cornell's tricolor and fleur-de-lys hint at the French ambiance inside.

Cornell Hotel de France

Forget Democrats and Republicans, gays and straights. The population of San Francisco can more relevantly be divided into these two categories: Anglophiles and Francophiles. For those who prefer Provençal rustic and red wine to Victorian filigree and a pint of bitter, the Cornell is the place. This unpretentious, old-fashioned gem (built in 1910) marinates in an aura of Gallic romanticism. The cage elevator that whisks guests to their rooms is authentic enough to make you feel like Jean-Paul Sartre heading upstairs to meet Simone de Beauvoir. And the Bush Street location, two blocks from Union Square, offers numerous opportunities for strolling and dining, without dealing with parking hassles. But why bother leaving the premises? The Restaurant Jeanne d'Arc (no jokes about well-done roasts, please), downstairs beneath the main hotel, offers an excellent four-course country French meal for $22.50. And on Valentine's Day itself, the restaurant offers a special French Valentine's dinner, featuring filet mignon, meringue and cream pastries, and, of course, asparagus. 715 Bush St.; winter rates from $65 (doubles from $75), summer rates from $75 (doubles $90); 800/232-9698.

Bob Pritikin
Talking Head: Mansions proprietor/magician Bob Pritikin with the hotel's resident ghost Claudia.

The Mansions Hotel

"You are received in the grand foyer by the music of Bach from the parlour," reads the brochure. "A large macaw hollers 'hello' from his perch. You are in for a most unique adventure." Well, there was no sound of Bach when I walked in, and the big blue bird didn't utter a word, but a unique adventure it was anyhow. Decorated in crushed velvet, tinkling chandeliers, stained glass, brocade and candelabra, this sprawling 1887 Victorian mansion pulls off a delicate blend of the wacky and the spooky. Myriad corridors connect one oddball room to another, bulging with antiques and memorabilia such as Jack London's typewriter, sculptures by the late Beniamino Bufano, and an International Pig Museum. Quirky hotelier Bob Pritikin collected the pig art as a tribute to resident ghost Claudia, who, according to Pritikin, had a passion for pigs. But it's just as fitting a tribute to Pritikin, himself being the resident ham. As creator and star of The Mansions' magic show and dinner, Pritikin apparently plays a mean "Moonlight Saw-nata"--and lest you be lulled, he'll pull out the talking head of dear old Claudia served on a platter. But don't be put off, because a visit with this Addams Family on Green Acres offers some definite romantic possibilities. Take the beautiful Four Poster room: Though its decor is white, the room is anything but sterile. Furnishings include a raised, canopied, queen-sized maple bed, a working fireplace, and a private wrought-iron balcony overlooking the surrounding terraces and sculpture gardens. 2220 Sacramento St., between Laguna and Buchanan. Doubles run $107­$253, including private bath, breakfast, nightly magic shows, palm readers, a round of billiards and a possible encounter with hauntress Claudia. 415/929-9444.

The Maxwell Hotel

For the theatrical. Literally only yards away from the Geary and Curran theaters, the Maxwell is the new incarnation of the Raphael, San Francisco's first boutique hotel. While regulars lamented the closing of both the Raphael and its famed restaurant, Mama's, the Maxwell's attention to Art Deco details (hand-painted lamp shades, ox-blood red brocade, Hopper prints on the walls) and the buzz over the new brasserie, Gracie's (opened by the hot Mootz & Co. team of Vertigo fame) should soothe the melancholy. This 153-room hotel is the place for romantic theater fantasy: Put on your greasepaint at your room's elegantly hand-tiled vanity, work on your script at a period writing desk, call down to the front desk for a portable foot spa. Or play roles with your lover late into the night in Gracie's, who is a fantasy herself (created from old photographs and vaudeville tchotchkes), while dining on oysters and baked Alaska; the restaurant doesn't close until 2 in the morning. And for the truly adventurous: Rooms on the third floor are not yet renovated and still feature the Raphael's loud old decor, which seems to have been inspired by the set of "Laugh-In." 386 Geary St. Rooms $99 and up, suites $195. 888/734-6299.

Nob Hill Lambourne

Valentine's Day falls on a Friday this year, which means you and your partner probably will spend the daylight hours running the office gauntlet, stressing through stupid meetings and fending off phone calls. At day's end, repair to the 20-room Lambourne for a deep-tissue massage or exploratory body scrub before settling into your quiet, softly decorated room and its hand-sewn Restonic mattress. Classical music plays on a Proton sound system, and a VCR stands ready to entertain (the hotel has two free video libraries). The bed's down pillows, each the size of a new Lexus, beckon and promise. No chocolates await, however: Comfort yourself with the packet of vitamins and relaxing herbs. If a bit of business still needs to be done, finish it off using your in-room fax machine or even the complimentary Internet hook-up--the front desk has free laptops. Hoping for a necktie fantasy? Dialogue your lover in the hotel's private conference room, which is available to guests for meetings of all kinds. After the negotiations, burn off extra energy on a variety of exercise equipment; staff will happily install it in your room. Or call down for the house tarot or psychic reader, who can give you the outlook for future romance and/or NASDAQ quotes. 725 Pine St.; rooms and suites $175$275; 800/274-6466.

The Petite Auberge

A Parisian bower somewhat anachronistically situated between the theater district, Union Square and a stolen hubcap's throw away from the Tenderloin, the Petite Auberge (the "Little Inn") will satisfy any lovelorn Francophile with its sybaritic country theme, complete with an elaborate mural of a rustic market scene in the dining area. Comfortable queen beds, armoires, delicate lace curtains and (in most rooms) fireplaces set a romantic scenario for any amatory escapade. The dining area is a perfect place to sup on tea and madeleine, and fall into reveries of loves and lovers past. For $220, the Petite Suite is armed with nearly every amenity (king-size bed, spa tub, private patio, VCR, private entrance, refrigerator and Champagne) to fulfill many a French fantasy. And for the fully Gallic effect, Cafe Bastille and Cafe Claude as well as galleries and shops are conveniently located nearby. 863 Bush St.; "Cozy Queen" rents for $110; 17 rooms with queen bed, fireplace and sitting area rents for $140­$160; petite suite costs $220.00; 415/928-6000; call 800/365-3004 for reservations.

The Prescott Hotel

Snap on the Barry White on the Bang & Olufsen stereo system. Stir up a warm blaze in the two-sided marble-faced fireplace. Romance your beloved with supper in your own private dining room (or make goo-goo eyes over a meal at Wolfgang Puck's Postrio downstairs). Soak together in the private hot tub out on the private sun deck. Bump into Kenneth Branagh or Eddie Murphy in the elevator. For a Valentine's getaway that involves straight-up luxury, the freshly redecorated Mendocino Penthouse on the seventh floor of the Prescott will fit the bill. And if $1,200 a night sounds a bit pricey, there are 164 "cheap" rooms on the lower floors: They all feature the kind of comfort and quiet that attracts a sizable entertainment clientele. Movie celebrities filming or exhibiting in town stay at the Prescott, as did Ray Davies for three weeks during his Alcazar Theater run. Stars from the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Blues Festival and Asian Film Festival likewise have enjoyed stops there. Before holing up in a room on Valentine evening, be sure to spend a few minutes in front of the glow of the first-floor living room's house-size fireplace and admire the gorgeous Karl Baumann watercolors from the '30s and '40s hanging on nearby walls. 545 Post St.; rooms $195­$245, suites $245­$1,200 (for the penthouse); 415/563-0303.

Sense and Sensuality: The Miyako's futon suites offer Japanese serenity in the heart of San Francisco.

Radisson Miyako Hotel

No one does elegant sensualism like the Japanese, and couples wishing to experience firsthand the pleasures offered by the nation that gave us The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan can save airfare to Tokyo by checking into one of the Radisson Miyako Hotel's futon suites. While the hotel's other rooms have faintly Nipponesque touches, the futon suites look to have been wholly transplanted from Kyoto. The scent of tatami mats spices the air as one enters, and the exotic vibe is augmented by the Japanese-style deep soaking tub in the bathroom and the mini­rock garden set off in one corner of the suite. The whole scene is authentic enough to make one consider ensconcing oneself with a loved one, popping Ryuichi Sakamoto on the stereo, living on nothing but pickled ginger and sake, and re-enacting scenes from In the Realm of the Senses--or better yet, one of Yukio Mishima's stories. (A word of caution: Avoid Mishima's story "Patriotism" and his novel Runaway Horses, which both end rather violently. The cleaning staff will thank you for it.) 1625 Post St.; futon suites $299, futon rooms $199; romantic packages available; 415/922-3200.

Hotel Rex

Not far away on a fog-choked night, Brigid O'Shaughnessy finished off Miles Archer in a dank alley to begin The Maltese Falcon. One can find a first-edition copy of the classic by Dashiell Hammett at The Bookstall, a rare-book shop that happens to occupy the space adjacent to the Hotel Rex's lobby. Inside the hotel proper, wander into the world of "Rex," a fictional San Francisco arts-and-literary gadfly of the 1930s. Pore over Rex's collection of classic books at an authentic Arts and Crafts period desk in the lobby's library, which is as fragrant and dark as a cigar humidor. Or read pages from San Francisco's Social Register of the '30s: they're shellacked onto the Rex's elevator doors. (The wall of the elevator stations on each floor bears a quote by a famous writer describing San Francisco; the third floor features Steinbeck: "A gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue Pacific sky.") The Rex's rooms are like small, private salons: handsome, hushed and appointed in a bygone San Francisco style, back when the city was a low skyline of white jewels and Sam Spade prowled the hills and docks to solve his partner's murder. If you and your Valentine lover want to get to the bottom of it yourselves, join the Dashiell Hammett tour, which frequently begins in the Rex's lobby. 562 Sutter St.; rooms $130­$350, executive suites from $165; 800/433-4434.

Washington Square Inn

With the stately church of St. Peter and Paul in the foreground, the Washington Square Inn seems to effectively capture quiet European elegance without its superficial pretension. The rooms are individually decorated with English and French antiques, and the hearth downstairs is nothing less than a raconteur's paradise. The Inn is a perfect point of departure (a local newspaper appears at your door in the morning) to explore the surrounding neighborhood of North Beach, complete with a surfeit of legendary cafés, the eternally Freudian Coit Tower, and notable swing and jazz venues galore. Other features include complimentary hors d'oeuvres and wine at night, tea and cookies in the afternoon, or the requisite coffee and croissant in the morning. 1660 Stockton St.; 415/981-4220 or 800/388-0220.

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From the February 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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