On one such blazing afternoon, to the delight of my cruel, cruel roommates, I discovered that Ocean Beach isn't that kind of beach. You know, the kind where you can actually go swimming without contracting hypothermia. And thus I learned perhaps the greatest paradox of life in San Francisco: water, water everywhere, but nowhere decent to swim.
After years of tireless investigation, I have nonetheless managed to find some spots to get my swim on. And to spare you the trauma, I humbly offer this highly biased and woefully incomplete San Francisco Swim Guide.
First off, the municipal pools. Rumor has it there are eight of them, though an informal poll reveals that nobody can name more than two. For the most part, these are strictly utilitarian affairs, better for lap swimming than splashing about. But if slimy locker room floors and the heady scent of chlorine don't faze you, they're not a bad bet. One swim at any city pool will run you $3, though purchasing a scrip of 15 passes is a better deal if you plan to visit often. For more information, click your way to www.ci.sf.ca.us/site/recpark_page.asp?id=1861.
The best of the bunch by far is the recently renovated Mission Pool, an outdoor swimming hole where you can lounge on deck chairs and relax to reggae music in between laps. Adult swim hours draw a funky crowd looking to beat the heat of the notorious Mission microclimate. Be sure to call 695-5002 before you go, though — this pool is only open in the summertime, and the hours are ever-changing.
If you desire a slightly more upscale natatorium, there are numerous gyms and hotels in San Francisco that offer day passes to the public. The spanking new Jewish Community Center on California Street has a blue-tiled beauty with high ceilings, sauna, and steam room. The fee for nonmembers is $15, and they tell me gentiles are welcome. USF's gargantuan Koret Center pool is one of the few in the city where you're likely to have a lane to yourself. It's $15 to drop in, but people who live in the neighborhood qualify for discount subscriptions. And if you can convincingly fake an air of entitlement, you may be able to join the guests at Hotel Nikko's gorgeous, sun-drenched pool and spa.
Chlorine's not your speed? Don't despair. There are places in the city to swim with the horizon filling your goggles and the tang of salt in your mouth — provided you can brave the cold. Aquatic Park, just below Ghirardelli Square, features a sandy little cove with calm waters, and anyone can jump in for free. Sure, it'll freeze your balls off, but you're sure to impress the tourists. There's even a makeshift swimming lane — the row of pink buoys marks a brisk half-mile loop running parallel to the shore. Wear a wetsuit if you must, but expect the old men in Speedos to roundly mock you. If you need a place to stash your stuff, check out the Dolphin Club or the South End Rowing Club, just beside the Hyde Street Pier; they open on alternate days. For $6.50, a day pass will give you access to the locker room and clubhouse, including cushy shower and sauna facilities.
Just west of the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach boasts a wide expanse of sand ideal for sunbathing. Be forewarned: the surf is impressive, currents can be swift, and the water here is even colder than in the Bay. But exceptional views of the bridge and the Marin Headlands beyond make this the best place in the city to frolic in the waves. Or at least jump in, thrash around screaming, and run back out.
For those delicate flowers who value their fingers and toes too much to hazard the frigid north Pacific, a trek to the East Bay will reward you with some first-rate swims. Lake Anza, the jewel of Berkeley's Tilden Park, is a great place to get wet after a hike. The murky waters and algal smell will bring you straight back to summer camp. And if you can elude the lifeguard's whistle, a jump off the giant rocks opposite the swim area qualifies you as a total badass.
Up in the Oakland Hills, Lake Temescal's shallow shores are ideal for families with young kids. The rest of us would be hard-pressed to submerge ourselves past the kneecaps, but the water is warm and inviting, and the beach is great for sand castles. Bring along some burgers to toss on the lakeside barbecue pits after you've dried off.
The East Bay's best kept secret is Strawberry Canyon, near UC Berkeley's stadium, which offers two sizable outdoor pools. Broad swaths of green grass are studded with nubile young students lounging poolside at the upper pool (sadly closed for renovation this summer), while the lower caters more to the baby set. Both pools are blessed with deep areas for turning somersaults and goofing around, along with the requisite lap lanes. For a flat fee of $5, you're free to soak in the sun all day long.
So suit up, slather on the sunscreen and get ready for some fine summer swimming … just as soon as that fog burns off.
If You Swim …
Jewish Community Center (JCC)
USF Koret Center
South End Rowing Club
776-7372 or 929-9656
Strawberry Canyon Recreation Area
Centennial Drive, Berkeley
Tilden Regional Park (off Grizzly Peak Blvd.)
(510) 636-1684 or (510) 562-PARK, ext. 7
6500 Broadway, Oakland
Weary of the sizzling sidewalks and dripping humidity of August in Manhattan, I was good and ready for the chilly San Francisco summer promised by Mark Twain's timeworn quip. But my first season in the Bay Area turned out to be a scorcher by SF standards — some days, the thermometer soared to 75 degrees or even 80. Pale flesh poured forth from mothball-scented summer frocks. Old men clustered on the corners to kvetch about the “heat wave.” Dogs sprawled supine in doorways … hell, some people even went out and bought fans.