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San Francisco bike tour: Scents, sounds and sights

  • Streets of San Francisco Bike Tours guide and co-founder Eoin Canny explaining the history of mural art in the Mission District during a tour in San Francisco.AP

  • Timothy McCarthy, of Berkeley, Calif., consulting a trail map at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, Calif., north of San Francisco.AP

  • Winemaker Bruce Regalia, left, chats with Tim and Melissa Booth, of Albuquerque, N.M., during a wine tasting at Velo Vino Napa Valley in St. Helena, Calif.AP

  • Paula Froke, of New York, riding along the Embarcadero in San Francisco during a Streets of San Francisco bike tour.AP

Reveling in the lush green canopy above and savoring the fragrance of eucalyptus trees as we pedaled through the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, we paused for a few moments to take in the scene: San Franciscans young and old wandering by on foot, on bikes or in strollers; balls and Frisbees sailing through the air; friends sipping coffee and chatting.

Against this backdrop, our tour guide enlightened us with tidbits of history and local color. We were on a tour, but we felt nothing like tourists. We felt as if we belonged there.

Just then I noticed a tour bus chugging along a nearby street, and I realized why touring San Francisco by bike was the way to go. Stuck on the bus, those visitors could only look out the windows at places we were experiencing with all our senses.

In all we pedaled an 18-mile (29-kilometer) route that took us farther and wider than we ever could have gotten on foot, with stops for delights that included treasures tucked away in the park, a riveting view of the Golden Gate Bridge, street murals in the Mission District, and vibrant street scenes in the Castro and Haight-Ashbury.

Our tour was run by Streets of San Francisco Bike Tours, launched in early 2011 by a group of friends who are passionate about both San Francisco and bicycles, and who'd worked as travel guides internationally before returning home to lead their own tours.

Since my boyfriend, Timothy McCarthy, and I both love bikes, it's natural that we would gravitate to a city bike tour. (We love wine, too, which is why we also gravitated to the heavenly pairing of bikes and wine called Velo Vino Napa Valley. More on that in a bit.)

But even if you're not a frequent bike rider, these tours can be for you, as long as you're reasonably fit. SoSF provides city bikes with easy gearing, and the pace is relaxed enough to keep you comfortable and enjoying the sights. There are plenty of stops along the way, and the bikes have baskets to tote what you need for the day.

There's a choice of four basic tours, ranging from nine miles (14.5 kilometers) in three hours to 18 miles (29 kilometers) in six hours, and some custom options too. Somehow, they manage to wiggle around — not up— almost all of the famed San Francisco hills.

Our journey started in Alamo Square Park, looking out on the "Painted Ladies," a row of exquisite Victorian houses against a backdrop of the city below. Guide and SoSF co-founder Eoin Canny set us up on the bikes and gave us an overview of the day as well as some safety reminders. Then we were off, and immediately overcome by the simple joy of turning the pedals around, feeling the breeze, and savoring new sights. It was like being 10 years old again.

After a few more stops in Golden Gate Park, we pedaled to the Presidio, a woodsy former military post now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation area, with spectacular views down to the San Francisco Bay. Then it was on to Crissy Field, with the Golden Gate Bridge rising from the fog in the background, and some magical moments listening to water music through the Wave Organ, an "acoustic sculpture" on a jetty across from Marina Boulevard.

A cruise down the Embarcadero took us to the Ferry Building, whose grand past recalls the history of commuting by boat on the water rather than by car over bridges. It was the perfect place to pick up what amounted to picnic supplies, which we then enjoyed on the vast grassy lawn across the street, as kids and dogs frolicked around us.

Onward we pedaled, checking out AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, before heading on to the Mission District and an extended stop to chat with an artist painting another addition to the neighborhood's famous street murals. Timothy and I are big fans of street art, so Canny gave us a look at some more murals, on the Women's Building, and then of course the Duboce Bikeway Mural in celebration of our favorite activity.

By the time we got back to Alamo Park, my diehard New York-ness was giving way to a new love for all the quirkiness that is San Francisco, while Bay Area native Timothy was enamored of local lore he'd never known. Best of all, we felt as if we'd truly experienced the city in a personal way.

To cap off our visit, Canny offered tips on culinary treats in the neighborhood.

Smitten Ice Cream, a few blocks down the street, turned out to be the perfect choice. Our taste buds practically jumped up and down with joy when greeted with the freshest and most flavor-packed ice cream imaginable - olive oil (yes!) for me, salted caramel for Timothy — made from scratch in 60 seconds with a liquid-nitrogen-powered ice cream maker. (Hey, we earned it with all of our biking!)

Before our trip was over, we also sampled several options north of San Francisco. Topping the list was a stop at Velo Vino Napa Valley in St. Helena. The name sums it up: a haven for lovers of wine or bicycles, or both.

It's the creation of Gary Erickson, who made his name by developing Clif Bars (named after his father) to sustain himself over long bike rides. Typically those long rides end in celebration with a glass or two of wine. You start to see the connection.

After Clif Bars started filling the jersey pockets of cyclists everywhere, Erickson turned his passion for sipping wine into a passion for making wine. The next logical step: Velo Vino, where visitors can simultaneously taste Clif Family Wines and ogle all of the cycling photos and memorabilia mingling with wine glasses and Clif Family Farm products. On the morning we were there, winemaker Bruce Regalia stopped in and chatted with other tasters.

Our only regret: that we hadn't been there on one of the days when they offer bike rides starting at Velo Vino, with rentals available from the nearby Calistoga Bike Shop.

Instead, we went on to Napa Valley Bike Tours in Yountville, where we'd arranged to rent road bikes for a self-guided tour of Napa and Sonoma valleys. While we chose to go it alone, the company also offers a variety of tours and packages as well as private group tours.

The next day brought one final stop on our mini-bike-extravaganza: Point Reyes Outdoors in Point Reyes Station, where we rented mountain bikes and took to the trails around the Point Reyes National Seashore.

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If You Go ...

STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO BIKE TOURS: 385 Linden St., San Francisco; http://www.sosfbiketours.com or 415-448-7673. Tour prices range from $65 to $115 depending on distance. The Food Tour, $95. Custom options available.

VELO VINO NAPA VALLEY: 709 Main St., St. Helena; http://velovinonapavalley.com or 707-968-0625.

NAPA VALLEY BIKE TOURS: 6795 Washington St., Yountville; http://www.napavalleybiketours.com or 707-251-8687. Full-day bike rental options include hybrids for $39, road bikes for $65, mountain bikes for $50, tandems for $78, electric assist bikes for $55, kids' bikes for $25. A variety of tours, vacation packages and custom packages available including Classic Napa Valley Bike Tour (with stops at three or four wineries), $139 per person, tasting fees not included.

POINT REYES OUTDOORS: 11401 State Route 1, Point Reyes; http://www.pointreyesoutdoors.com or 415-663-8192. Mountain bike rentals, $42 a day.