I LOVE THE SMELL OF CHLORINE IN THE MORNING. DON'T BE FOOLED BY NAYSAYERS WHO INSIST that San Francisco isn't warm enough for outdoor swimming, or that it's just not that flavor of a city. A truly dedicated water baby can find summer anywhere. Maybe I'm affected by a case of "You can take the girl out of Texas ..." or maybe I just love the idea of blue sky reflected in turquoise water. In any case, with an average of 160 sunny days a year, San Francisco is prime territory for hunting down watering holes.
And as I've discovered in these parts, they usually come heated and with a view. I enjoy these opportunities to consume our city's amazing vistas via elevator rather than steep hill. Pools are my happy place, period. But when you put a skyline behind those sapphire waters, it's comforting and indescribably luxurious. So I set out on a little adventure to find the city's outdoor rooftop pools.
I first decide to check out Potrero's UCSF Bakar Fitness & Recreation Center. Nothing tricky here – I pay my day fee of $15 and settle into a lounge chair on the rooftop pool next to the gym. I start out with some weight training, because, in my opinion, pools are not for exercise. Pools are for relaxation. The regular patrons of this pool do not share this opinion with me; the pool is separated into lanes and packed with serious swimmers. (With serious swimmers bodies. Not that I noticed.)
The best I can manage is a dog paddle, and I'm easily intimidated by the rules and etiquette of sharing lanes. I stick to horizontal sunning in the lounge chairs and only venture in with my kickboard (the training wheels of the water) when it gets less crowded. Luckily there's no shortage of chaises and chairs, and no one seems to mind a loiterer like myself.
While this pool is in one of the warmest parts of the city, it can get incredibly windy. But not today. It's 70 degrees with a light breeze and a clear blue-sky view of downtown. (We're due south of the financial district with an unobstructed sightline to the skyscrapers.) You could say it's glorious. I don't even think I'll need to use the sauna in the locker room to warm up afterwards. But I do overhear a parent yell, "Lay down, you'll get warm quick" to his kids, and a row of little lizards is now on the pavement beside me.
The pool at Bakar is gorgeous, but the vibe is more "swim team practice" than "order me a piña colada." So when my mom arrives in town for a conference, I head over to the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway and add my name to the room so I can get some pool action. Voilà! Free weekend-full of summer. (And besides, vitamin D is an underrated social lubricant, especially when it comes to family frustrations.)
I venture up to the sixth floor and find the stunning pool tucked between an array of historic buildings: classic old San Francisco charm at its best. And, yes, these historic buildings are pretty successful at blocking the wind. Though Nob Hill isn't nearly as warm of a neighborhood as Potrero, I'm totally comfortable today. One of the handy wind-blocking buildings is the 20-story hotel itself – it's only mid-afternoon and the pool is already covered in shade. I remind myself to come earlier in the day next time.
The chic Europeans serenely sunbathing on my left make me feel like I'm at a ritzy private party – if I just tune out the screaming, splashing kids in the pool. Serenity now. Back to that piña colada: Ordering room service from the pool is difficult but not impossible. Friend and fellow pool-o-phile Nate Bolt has attempted to call the front desk from his cell phone, but I don't see waitstaff or a phone up here. Luckily, I had lunch and a cold beverage from the Whole Foods across the street.
My friends from the B-F-East Bay need a post-party crash pad in the city, and don't want to sleep on my couch. Great. I book them a room at the charming budget hotel Best Western Americania, which recently got a poppy makeover from new owner Joie de Vivre, and land myself a little swim and sun.
I guess when you live in Concord you come to San Francisco for culture, not warm temperatures, so they head to the SFMOMA and leave me to my afternoon of superficial pleasure. I discover that the pool is tiny with room for only about eight people, the water is freezing, and I'm the only person not speaking German. But look at this view! I feel like I'm in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires, admiring the city's best modern architecture from this paved slice of paradise. Too bad room service is not on the menu at this budget hotel though, because I could use a drink. And I think I might get mugged on the way back to the BART station. But it's worth it.
Showing up unannounced at an acquaintance's luxury apartment building with a towel and sunscreen is a bold move. But now that I’m sitting by the pool at The Paramount, I realize how totally worth it is. The water is deliciously warm, and the third floor location offers a bit of a view without excessive wind. (With brick building facades all around, I feel more nestled into the city than towering over it, but it's nice.) Plus, there's a wall of glass surrounding the pool. Next to the grill and picnic tables. Next to the cabana. Next to the lounge chairs. (Would it be crazy to move into this apartment building ASAP?)
There is not a soul out here, and while there are stripes on the bottom of the pool indicating lanes, there is no one here to tell me to stop doing underwater somersaults across them. This is marvelous, perhaps the best pool yet. The Paramount seems to understand the kind of luxury that's important to laid-back San Franciscans. After my swim, I check out the rooftop terrace and find panoramic vistas that give Bernal Hill a run for its money. Please move here and invite me over. I'll promise to call first.
You too can turn this town tropical. Think positive and hound that 10-day forecast – and when you see a warm spell coming, head to UCSF Bakar Fitness & Recreation Center for the day for $15 (or get a monthly membership for around $100/month), book an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway for roughly $140/night, or the Best Western Americania for around $120/night. Or go big and move into doorman building The Paramount, with studios starting around $2,200/month. If none of these are in your budget, consider asking Mom to add your name to the room next time she comes out.