TripAdvisor VIP survey

TripAdvisor asked me about my favorites restaurants, hotels, and places to travel, plus my travel suggestions for San Francisco. Here’s the interview:

VIP Survey: Laura Fraser

Author Laura Fraser (photo by Cristina Taccone)

What’s your favorite hotel (and why)?
The Hotel Alto Atacama in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It’s a low-key, elegant, environmentally-friendly lodge with all-inclusive meals, wine, and wonderful outdoor excursions in the incredible desert and volcano surrounds. The adobe architecture melds into the landscape, and it’s peaceful and cool in the rooms. At night, you can climb a hill and use a telescope to see all the stars in the southern hemisphere.

What’s your favorite restaurant (and why)?
La Ciccia, in San Francisco. The owners, Lorella and Massimo, serve authentic Sardinian cuisine in a cozy neighborhood restaurant. It’s amazing food with no pretensions; when I go there, I always feel like family.

Can you tell us about a “hidden gem”– like a non-touristy, neighborhood restaurant– you’ve found in your travels?
There’s a little restaurant on the island of Filicudi in the Aeolian archipelago north of mainland Sicily called Villa la Rosa that serves the best pasta sarde anywhere. The dish tastes like the fresh sea breezes all around.

What’s the best travel advice you’ve ever received from a friend?
Learn to speak Italian fluently.

Please tell us about your best and worst travel experiences.
My best travel experiences are always the simplest ones–a fresh meal on a terrace with a sunset, a swim. Somehow, these experiences almost always happen in Italy. My worst experience was being assaulted, once in Egypt, and once in Samoa. It’s good to travel with a friend.

If a traveler had only one day to spend in your hometown, what are the top five things they should make sure to see or do?
San Francisco is such a wonderful town. I would tell people:
– Take a walk in Golden Gate Park in the arboretum.
– Go to the Farmer’s Market in the Ferry Building.
– Wander around Valencia Street in the Mission to take in the funky boutiques, then eat a pizza atDelfina or have a pastry at Tartine.
– Take a bicycle ride in the Presidio, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then eat at the Presidio Social Club.
– Wander the streets of Chinatown and North Beach and go in to City Lights Booksellers.

Where do you want to go on your next vacation?

Laura Fraser is the author of All Over the Map (Harmony Books), the follow-up to her New York Times bestseller, An Italian Affair.

A quick escape to Sardinia in San Francisco: my favorite restaurant

I’m having the pre-book jitters, in a big way.

The thing about writing a memoir is that when you’re writing it, alone in your office, you get obsessed with trying to strip things down to an essential emotional truth, more naked than naked. It doesn’t matter, because there you are alone in your office with nothing but a dirty coffee cup staring back at you. Who cares if you’re naked.

Then it hits you that the damn thing is going to published. That people are going to read it. Your mom is going to read it. The guys you dated and gave fake names to and then described in the book may read it. Friends you went to high school and college with are going to read it. People you don’t know are going to read it and cast judgment on you. They will compare your book with Eat, Pray, Love, even though you wrote your first memoir before Elizabeth Gilbert wrote hers. They will call it “chicklit.”

Then you will want to call up an airline and book a ticket somewhere far, far away, which is your usual antidote to any kind of stress.

Instead, you have to stick around, send out emails announcing the book, do all the social media networking that is required these days, and pray someone buys the book. You have to write targeted Facebook ads and personal essays that tie in with the book and go on the radio and try to explain just what the heck you were trying to say.

It’s all overwhelming. The thought of being so emotionally naked in just a few days is freaking me out.

So tonnight I went to yoga with a friend, which was calming. Then, since we were nearby, we went to my favorite restaurant in San Francisco.

Here’s another time when I ought to keep things to myself, but instead I am spilling the truth about something that ought to be kept private. My favorite restaurant in San Francisco: La Ciccia.

“La Ciccia” means a full, happy, chubby belly, which is the perfect antidote to stress. We popped in to the restaurant and Massimo and Lorela made us feel right at home, speaking in Italian, greeting us like family. All my worries melted away with a glass of prosecco and the anticipation of a Sardinian meal.

We were just going to have appetizers, but one thing led to another. There were grilled sardines on the menu, for instance. And there was spaghetti with bottarga. When there’s spaghetti with bottarga on the menu, there is no way to say no. Then there was tuna with an olive sauce. And carta da musica, the flatbread with rosemary that is famous in Sardinia. Massimo brought out some housemade spaghetti with tuna conserva, just because he knew I would like it, and I did; I nearly swooned. He also brought some fresh ricotta and some little hot pepperoncini with tuna stuffed inside, along with some cherry tomatoes with little anchovies…I was transported to Sardinia. WE had vermentino, we had cannonau, we had a wonderful time.

I was with my friend Cecilia, a size 0, who managed to put away half a plate of the tuna conserva before an entire portion of the spaghetti with bottarga. After the main dish, Massimo brought over some gelato he’s working on: one with bottarga, another with goat cheese and fig, and another with malvasia and dried prunes. The bottarga gelato was interesting–how often do you get a fish aftertaste with gelato? The others were perfectly sweet and balanced.

The atmosphere at La Ciccia is so friendly and unpretentious, and the food is so good, that I was in Sardinia for a few hours this evening, where nobody speaks English, and nobody is going to read a new memoir coming out on Tuesday. On Tuesday, I’m sure my dread will be replaced with good cheer, since I’m fortunate to have so many friends and well-wishers in my life, but for today, I was happy to escape to Sardinia, right here in San Francisco.

When Home Competes for an Ardent Traveler’s Affections – and Wins

When I stepped off a ship last October after a month at sea and saw the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, gleaming in the morning light, my heart fluttered. It was the same giddy feeling I’d had the first time I saw the bridge, 25 years ago, when I drove someone else’s Buick Riviera all the way from Denver to California and finally through the tunnel that frames the bridge’s magnificent towers, the bay and the city beyond: I’m home.

But as I disembarked, I had to rub my eyes as it slowly dawned on me that the Golden Gate Bridge was not where it was supposed to be. It was in Lisbon, of all places, and I wasn’t yet home. I was staring at the 25 de Abril Bridge—built by the same company that constructed the Bay Bridge and painted international orange; a San Francisco mutt of a bridge—and I yearned for the real thing.

That Portuguese bridge, built with 2.2 billion escudos and as many good intentions, sort of spoiled my trip to Lisbon. Not that Lisbon isn’t a fine place to visit: It’s full of cheerful tile-faced houses, nice statues of Vasco da Gama, excellent grilled anchovies and boutiques where French clothes cost a lot less than they do in France. But even though Lisbon is an old town—settled 3,000 years ago and founded, legend has it, by Ulysses himself—the capital was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt 20 years before the Spanish ever laid eyes on Mission Dolores, and that faux bridge kept making me feel like the city was a second-rate San Francisco. Hills? We’ve got hills. Hippies with tattoos? We invented them. Ocean, wine bars, restaurants? Check. And you call this an arboretum?

Perhaps because I’d traveling for more than two months, I felt homesick. But San Francisco always tags along when I travel, eventually making me feel jaded about even the most exciting places. Paris seems so gray and serious next to San Francisco’s coastal light and whimsical dollhouses. Helsinki is matter-of-fact and boring compared to our free-spirited city. In Manhattan, 200 people snake in a line through Trader Joe’s just to buy dinner, the storied Greenmarket has paltry pickings compared with the Ferry Building, and the sidewalks are slush pools in winter (or it’s beastly hot and muggy in the summer). Don’t get me started on Los Angeles.

That sense of comparing everything to home doesn’t just happen in the cities. I can be standing on the cliffs of a pristine Sardinian coast, awestruck, and the thought will occur to me: “This is almost as pretty as Point Reyes.” When I rent a bicycle in Stockholm and pedal through its lovely parks, I can’t help thinking that from my house in the Haight, I can bicycle across the bridge into Rodeo Valley and see a bobcat in the wild.

So why travel? For one reason, I can’t help it; as Vita Sackville-West wrote, “I have got the Wanderlust, and got it badly.” San Francisco attracts free spirits (it has the highest population of Aquarians and Leos per capita of any major city, and if I need to explain that to you, you haven’t been here long enough), so I’m at home where I’m restless. For another reason, my neighborhood is foggy and depressing as hell in the summer. Some days I feel as if I’ll scream if I see another grimy suburban kid eating old pizza crusts in front of one of Haight Street’s 18 head shops, trying to sell the contents of a free box for buds. Other times, San Francisco seems too precious and pretty: When I watch people in Hayes Valley waiting 45 minutes for a fetishistic cup of coffee, I want to flee to a country where they draw you a quick, perfect espresso, as they’ve been doing for centuries, and you can bolt it down at the bar and get on with your life.

And so I travel. Sometimes I’m so infatuated with a place I forget about San Francisco for a while. Southern Italy silenced the craving I always have at home to be perched on a stool at A16 watching baby fava beans drizzled with olive oil come out of the oven, or sitting at a table at La Ciccia eating pasta fregola or grilled fish. In Tallinn, Estonia, I was too enchanted with the winding medieval alleys and blossoming trees to consider how much I love walking the quaint and curvy streets above my neighborhood, and how lovely the pastel Victorians on my street look when the periwinkle-blue ceanothus trees are in bloom.

After a week or two of traveling, SF starts cropping up in my consciousness, often as a negative comparison, the way a new crush sitting in a cafe always seems more handsome and exciting than the guy watching DVDs on the couch back home. In Copenhagen, I cursed San Francisco’s bike lanes, which you have to share with Muni buses, while northern European cyclists have concrete barriers between themselves and 10-ton vehicles. St. Petersburg made me realize how puny our museums are compared with the collections of Catherine the Great and subsequent Soviet plunderers.

But that initial phase doesn’t last. After a month on the road, San Francisco beckons irresistibly, no matter where I am. Two years ago, I was so tired of the fog in this town that I bought a little house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (where real estate is considerably less dear than in SF), thinking I’d live there half the year. I thought I could be happy in that artsy colonial community, eating tacos, listening to live music, and basking in the brilliant sun. But little by little, SF snuck up on me. The vegetables in San Miguel were shabby and tasteless compared to the ones at home, and there was nowhere to buy Greek yogurt, not to mention bottarga. The burritos in the Mission were better. Mexico’s yoga teachers weren’t as good as mine. I missed the community of writers I work with, South Park on a sunny day, skimming through the shelves in the Booksmith, the shopkeepers on Haight who know me by name, running into random friends I’ve made over 25 years and bicycling across the real Golden Gate Bridge.

Little by little, I’ve found myself spending less time in my second home than I’d imagined, and more time in my first. That’s the best thing about being a San Franciscan: My wanderlust gets to thrive in both directions.

Laura Fraser’s first memoir, An Italian Affair (Pantheon), spent 22 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list; the sequel, All Over the Map (Harmony), hits bookshelves June 1.

Originally published in 7×7 Magazine

Back on my bicycle in San Francisco

Bicycling, European-style

One of the things that impressed me most when I was traveling in northern Europe was the widespread respect for bicycles. I rented bikes in Stockholm, Brugge, St. Rochelle, and watched riders in Copenhagen and Amsterdam (where they pull 1000 bikes out of the canals per year). Unlike here, bicycles aren’t considered a sort of cute way to get around. The cities run on bicycles; they’re a time- and energy-saving alternative in crowded cities. They aren’t even an alternative—they’re the main form of transportation. There are separate lanes for bicycles, with barriers between them and the traffic. Bicycles are the perfect way to get around crowded towns.
In San Francisco, bicycles have been getting a lot of press lately. The city recently found that bicycle ridership is up 53% since 2006. Instead of this being a cause for cheer, among all of us recycling, Prius-buying Green San Franciscans, it’s a cause for a concern. Bicyclists are running red lights. Critical Mass is running amok.
I’m a long-time cyclist, and used to ride my bike to work all the time. It’s a fast way to get around, and you build exercise into your day, even if your fashion options are a bit limited. When my office moved from near Van Ness and Market to South Park, near the ballpark, I tried the ride from my flat in the Haight, which is considerably more challenging, having to cross downtown and South of Market. The first time I did it, I broke my finger. A Muni bus was headed my way, I jumped the curve, and fell so I wouldn’t hit a pedestrian. So I stopped riding my bike to work. I didn’t want to die commuting.
After two years, I recently tried again. Now Market Street is supposed to be more bicycle-friendly, with fewer private cars. There are more bicycles painted on the street delineating lanes. But the way it’s set up is ridiculous. The bicycle lanes disappear into Muni lanes, meaning that supposedly you, the bicyclist, are supposed to squeeze into a small lane with a Muni bus. At 8th Street on Market, private cars turn right, leaving bicyclists nowhere to go, no room, constantly in danger of being hit. At other intersections, people don’t use their turn signals when turning right. On streets where there are supposed to be bicycle lanes—Folsom—trucks use them to double-park while they’re delivering, and cars use them as right-hand turn lanes. It’s really dangerous out there.
I sympathize with people who think bicyclists should follow traffic laws. If you want cars to respect you, you have to stop at stop signs and not just breeze through. You can’t assume you have the right of way when you arrive at an intersection after a car. But there needs to a much more serious effort to encourage bicycling in San Francisco (not to mention the rest of the country), and to make it safe.
Copenhagen was a nirvana for bikes (oh, and for health care). San Francisco could be. But every time I leave the house with my helmet I’m afraid I’m going to break another finger, or worse.