The royal standard
I feel as if I'm in a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com (more You've Got Mail, perhaps, than Joe Versus The Volcano).
Outside, the mercury is plummeting while rosy-cheeked pedestrians, swinging shiny shopping bags stuffed with seasonally wrapped cargo from Neiman Marcus, negotiate the swarming sidewalks and everywhere - in stores, on the streets, in taxis, but especially here, in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, the finest luxury hotel in San Francisco - a soundtrack plays courtesy of the Great American Songbook.
Ella Fitzgerald's beautiful contralto, purring through this remarkable space through speakers that are doubtless as expensive as they are invisible, seems appropriate. Adding slightly to this air of unreality is the fact that I find myself standing before a beautiful little (well, about 2.5 metres by five metres) chateau made entirely of ... gingerbread (about 180 kilograms of it, I learn).
A small crowd has gathered to contemplate its liquorice-thatch roof, its kitchen of marzipan and glistening sugar chandeliers. Children and parents alike marvel at the apple elves tending to candied planter boxes filled with cookie crumb soil and fondant flowers. A confectionary marvel.
But then the Palace has never done anything by halves. When it was built in 1875, it was the biggest hotel in the world. Each room had its own bathroom - an architectural precedent - and it featured the first "rising rooms" that ferried guests to its upper storeys.
But then the great, 42-second earthquake of 1906, the most violent seismic shakedown in American history, ripped open this magnificent structure in the same way that an iceberg would annihilate RMS Titanic just six years and three days later. It took three years to rebuild it.
The centrepiece of this Phoenix-like resurrection is the Garden Court. Often described as one of the world's most beautiful public spaces, it's the first thing any visitor walking into the lobby of the hotel from New Montgomery Street sees (when the gingerbread chateau's not in residence, that is!).
Back in 1875, it was the hotel's carriage entrance. These days, it's a glass-domed, marble-pillared, palm-studded oasis of genteel, turn-of-the-century elegance punctuated, at intervals, by glittering Austrian crystal chandeliers. Even if you're not fortunate enough to be staying at this address on a visit to San Francisco, it would be a mistake not to make a date here for Saturday afternoon tea or to indulge in a chocolate-dipped strawberry or two over Sunday brunch.
Weekday-bound visitors don't miss out, though: the daily lunch menu is a triumph of fresh, seasonal produce and beautifully re-imagined favourites (grilled bone-in cowboy steak, for instance, with smashed fingerling potatoes and caramelised onions).
A little later, warmed from within by a Tuscan kale and cannellini bean soup and from without by a woollen coat, hat and gloves, I head back out into the gathering winter dusk to visit just some of the many attractions that lie within explorers' walking distance of the hotel: Union Square to the west, the City Lights Bookstore on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway to the north and the fabulously steampunk spectacle that is the manual turning on a revolving wooden platform of a century-old cable car at the corner of Powell and Market.
I gravitate, as if by inexorable magnetic force, down Market to the fabled Embarcadero, the city's eastern waterfront famously bookended by the Ferry Building to the south and the bustling Pier 39 to the north. (There's no sign of Tom Hanks, but the concierge at the Palace is quite possibly the most charming and efficient I've ever encountered.)
After a hot toddy amid the gracious wood paneling of the Pied Piper Bar & Grill, I retire gratefully to my room, keen to establish the comfort credentials of surroundings that are graciously appointed with traditional mahogany furnishings, a palette of soft butter yellows and thick, noise-deadening carpet.
It's not large, but it's well-proportioned and manages to feel spacious enough - thanks, no doubt, to its four-metre-high ceiling. As I slide into bed, a bed so vast and white and soft that, for just a moment, I feel like a child princess in a fairytale, I'm vaguely aware that I'm groaning audibly with the deep, sensory satisfaction of it all. Sleepless in ... San Francisco? It's seems very unlikely.
The writer was a guest of My USA.
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TOP MARKS Staff everywhere are unfailingly polite and helpful, the concierge team particularly impressive.