By LAURIE M. FISHER
SAN FRANCISCO -- Guided walking tours give visitors intimate insights. A narrated stroll through neighborhoods of & quot;painted ladies & quot; identifies detailed architectural craftsmanship and colorful history of a bygone era. Across the bay, hikers experience the fragile ecosystem that supports a redwood forest.
On a recent visit to San Francisco, two area experts revealed their favorite haunts on walking expeditions of Victorian Homes and Muir Woods.
Since 1996, Jay Gifford has guided both locals and visitors on a 21/2 hour walking tour of more than 200 Victorian homes. Unlike the larger bus tours, Gifford leads visitors through streets less traveled. He chose a relatively flat route through areas of Japantown, Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow to accommodate tourists of all ages and physical abilities.
& quot;The idea for the Victorian Home Walk evolved from my love for San Francisco -- its diverse neighborhoods and the stately painted ladies that vividly color them, & quot; said Gifford, who explained he started his tour business after he was downsized from IBM. His expertise evolved from research, his own travails restoring a Victorian home and information provided by owners of the homes on the route.
Starting: The tour begins under the grandfather clock in the ornate lobby of the landmark hotel, The Westin St. Francis near Union Square. Here Gifford provided a brief history of the hotel as well as an explanation of the extent of damage of the 1906 earthquake and fires.
Gifford led our group of 15 to the nearby trolley bus stop. Once aboard, he explained that the fires were stopped at Van Ness a wide boulevard that divides the city. Many of the Victorian homes east of Van Ness were built from redwood trees and were lost to the natural disaster.
We disembarked at Japantown across from the Queen Anne Hotel, which is painted various shades of salmon and ornamented around the round turret windows. An example of Queen Anne style Victorian architecture popular between 1890 and 1905, the four-story hotel was built as the Miss Mary Lake's School for Girls.
Antique decor: The building once housed an exclusive gentlemen's club. After several owners and subsequent abandonment, the property was restored in 1980. Today, the hotel's 48 guest rooms are decorated in period antiques. Walkers were encouraged to roam the halls and lobby and even peek in an unoccupied room.
Back on the streets, we walked past rows of what were once middle-class homes, now in varying stages of restoration. Gifford noted that many of these Victorians sell for more than $800,000 depending on location and condition.
Along the way, Gifford pointed out the different styles of Victorians. Italianate style, popular between 1860 and 1880, features bay windows and intricate moldings. The stick style that was popular between 1880 and 1890 was more simple, with squared windows and flat facades.
Color schemes: While Victorians were originally painted shades of white and cream, more recent owners have added their own mark by choosing shades of pastels, deep jewel tones and even gold ornamentation. Gifford explained that the bright-colored palates became fashionable during the tumultuous 1960s. From that time, the term & quot;painted ladies & quot; became synonymous with San Francisco Victorians. The blooming gardens in front of many homes adds extra color to the streetscape.
The restored homes were an aesthetic contrast to what Gifford dubbed the & quot;smothered & quot; Victorians, whose original fa & ccedil;ades are covered with stucco or aluminum siding.
Undoubtedly, the mansions in Pacific Heights, many with views of the bay, were the most impressive of the tour. We walked past some famous residences including the location for the film & quot;Mrs. Doubtfire & quot; as well as the house from the television show & quot;Party of Five. & quot;
The tour ended in the Victorian commercial district of Union Street, where visitors were encouraged to shop and sample the restaurants.
Nature hike: For those who long for less cement and more greenery, Tom's Walking Tours connects with nature. Tom Martell, an experienced Sierra Club guide, picks up guests at their hotels and drives 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge to hike in his backyard, Muir Woods at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
We started our walk about 9:30 a.m., before the bulk of busloads of tourists arrived at the park. Along the pathway, Martell pointed out the history of the flora and fauna of the forest including the difference between the coastal redwoods in Muir woods and the Giant Sequoia, inland near the Sierra Nevada.
The Bohemian and Cathedral groves have the biggest trees in Muir Woods, he said. One is 252 feet tall and 14 feet white. Some are at least 1,000 years old. The towering trees benefit from the fog, soaking in the moisture, he explained.
A few lessons: Martell identified stressed trees, where dozens of shoots sprout from the roots. He also explained the function of the burls, which are masses of dormant buds that grow on the side of the redwood. The burls grow if the trees are injured to produce another tree. The thick, spongy bark protects the tree from fire damage. A chemical called tannin makes it resistant to attack from fungus and insects.
Once off the cement path, we came across a fallen redwood and were able to see the relatively shallow root system. The roots are generally only 10 to 13 feet deep but may spread from 60 to 80 feet, he noted.
After a moderate climb, we ate a picnic lunch on a large tree stump. On the return loop, Martell pointed out steelhead river trout as well as some oversize crawfish in a clear stream. We were surprised that we didn't see much animal life in the forest, except a garter snake and chipmunk. Martell explained that the shaded conditions limit the plant food supply.
The closer we hiked to the snack bar and gift shop, the more humans we encountered. Our only regret after the three-mile adventure was the imminent return back to civilization.