by Karen Rubin, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It is rare to stay in an accommodation that makes you smile constantly or that imbues you so completely with the spirit of a place. That’s the Green Tortoise Hostel, in the North Beach section of San Francisco.
There is no better way to immerse yourself in San Francisco ‘vibe’ – it literally embodies the spirit of San Francisco.
From the outside, the Green Tortoise Hostel is a modest wood-framed Victorian building that somehow escaped destruction of the earthquake and fire.
Don’t be discouraged by the glass door that looks pretty institutional, or the sign that tells you the door is locked after 7:30 pm and you have to be buzzed in or the steep staircase to the lobby floor or the warning “no visitors!”. Once you present you enter the lobby area, the trepidation fades away and you feel like you are part of something special.
I am immediately pleased by the beautiful architectural features that hint at the glorious past of this building.
Hostels always have a special personality and this one is particularly special. A sign on the “ballroom” (apparently, once a restaurant) invites you to partake in free vegetarian dinner on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights (Pasta Primavera, Mexican taco night, and Curry, rice and salad; come at 5 pm if you want to help cook, dinner is 7-ish), and a day-by-day list of activities: free sangria, pool tournaments, pub crawls, $5 dinner nights, dinner crawls (Sunday: 4 North Beach restaurants, $9.95), and outings to popular San Francisco events like the San Francisco Beer Olympics), and even tours (Saturday: Redwoods & Pt. Reyes bus trip, $40).
I get my key (handing over a $20 cash deposit; I can rent a towel for $1), walk through the lobby, through the computer/lounge area where there is a pleasant sitting area (they even have drink holders in the chair), and climb another set of steps to a narrow, labyrinthian set of hallways.
I’ve booked a “standard private room” (you can also book a shared room). It is small but not claustrophobic – clean, a queen-sized bed (very comfortable), a sink, a flat-screen tv (but only accesses a video library). It is most pleasant. (The rate, $131 was comparable or less than Air BnB.)
The main difference with an actual hotel is that you don’t have a private bathroom – this is European style. But that isn’t really a problem, either. There are five bathrooms on the floor – each clean and comfortable, one person at a time.
The biggest surprise is on the main floor: The Ballroom. You can see how this was once a very grand place –the stained glass, the intricate moldings in the ceiling which may have been gilded at one point but now is coated in peeling brown paint. It used to be a restaurant and hotel, I am told and has been a hostel since the 1970s. Now, it is charmingly faded from that glory (though not decrepit, with colorful new carpeting and such), as you would imagine if the proletariat overtook the bourgeoisie.
The ballroom is where you can help yourself to free breakfast every morning 7:30- 10:00 am—bagels, cream cheese, jams, fresh fruit, make your own eggs, organic oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and OJ (you wash your own plastic dish when you are finished). There is also a refrigerator where guests can keep their food, or take from “shared” items.
During the day, people can hang out in the ballroom, like a giant lounge – there is a small stage and some musical instruments. The ballroom is open until 2 am.
There are more surprises here: the hostel offers a sauna (dry) on the second floor accommodating up to six people at a time –you can check it out for 1 hour (free).
They have an arrangement with Dylan’s Bike Rental to rent for $21 for 24-hours (a discount from the $30 rate), and the hostel provides a bike storage room, as well as lockers where you can stow your stuff.
Before I arrived, I received a confirmation letter describing the place quite honestly saying:
- We are a comfortable backpackers hostel in North Beach with European style accommodations made up of shared and private rooms.
- Our median age of guest is between 20-30 years of age, but we welcome all ages.
- Our hostel is about community and creating a social experience. Our guests are made up of travelers from around the globe.
- We promote ourselves as a PARTY hostel, so we welcome all guests to participate in our nightly events.
- All our bathrooms are shared along the corridors, but private use (no en-suite bathrooms in the rooms in any of our buildings).
- Our reception is on the 2nd floor and there is no elevator, only stairs to all the rooms (rooms are on 3rd and 4th floors).
- Unlike traditional hotels, we do not provide sheet changes daily.
- We are in a vibrant neighborhood full of beat generation history, cafes, bars and restaurants.
- There are several Adult Entertainment clubs on the next block and the area can be noisy on the weekends and in peak season.
All of this proves absolutely true, and just adds to the experience.
The owners of the hostel (who also own a hostel in Seattle) also operate Green Tortoise Adventure Travel, offering trips as short as a day trip to Muir Woods & Wine Country, to as long as a month, via a specially outfitted 36–passenger coach that converts from seats in the daytime to sleepers at night (a rolling hostel). The trips are designed around “appreciation of nature, tolerance, cooperation and self direction.” There are itineraries to Baja, Pyramids and Playas, the Yucatan, Yosemite, a National Parks loop, Alaska (415-956-7500, 800-867-8647, www.greentortoise.com).
They also book Alcatraz tours (which actually get booked up weeks in advance) and other sightseeing trips.
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