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San Francisco's hostel environment

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ken Vollmer is not your typical tour guide. With his black dreadlocks, heavy black boots and a knapsack that hangs on his shoulder as naturally as skin, he's the kind of figure one might expect to encounter in the budget-travelers' ghettos of Bangkok or Katmandu.

Yet here he is, standing in front of San Francisco's City Hall, speaking animatedly to a group of parents and kids about the colorful origins of America's favorite city.

The Friday-afternoon gig is volunteer work for Vollmer, 29, a former computer-game designer who took off to see the world when the dot-com industry took a nose dive. Upon return, he wrote a book, "The Wanderlust Survival Guide," about the practical aspects of long-term journeying.

Vollmer knows and loves his city -- and like any good tour guide, he wants his charges to know and love it, too. His three-hour tours wind through half a dozen neighborhoods and incorporate skillful weaving of fact and folklore with practical information such as where to get a cheap meal in Chinatown and how to negotiate the city by the Muni bus and BART.

Conducted free for guests at one of San Francisco's best lodging bargains -- the City Center Hostel -- the tours are Vollmer's way of scratch- ing a chronic itch to see more of the world. "It's fun to meet people who are out there doing what I'd like to be doing," he says.

It's fun for hostel guests, too.

The City Center Hostel at 685 Ellis St., where Vollmer's tours begin, opened two years ago in what was the Atherton Hotel. It's the third property in San Francisco and 10th in Northern California for the Golden Gate Council of American Youth Hostels, a division of a nonprofit organization, Hostelling International, that manages 130 budget properties in the United States and hundreds more worldwide. A bunk in a shared room at City Center costs $22 midweek.

Known to most Americans as places where backpacking college students stay while slumming around Europe, hostels are associated in most people's minds with the word "youth." Yet by no means are all those who use them youthful. In fact, says Hostelling International, aging baby boomers are the fastest-growing segment of hostel users. Families, too, are turning to hostels in increasing numbers -- not merely to escape steep hotel rates but because hostels offer a communal kitchen where guests can store food and prepare meals.

"No use wasting restaurant meals on these two," a woman from New Hampshire confided while placing bowls of cereal before her two preschoolers at City Center one morning in May. "We wouldn't even be traveling here if there wasn't someplace with a kitchen for us to stay."

At a nearby table, a mom and three somewhat older kids, two of them wearing San Diego sweat shirts, looked on with bemused expressions as they dug in to their toast and eggs.

To attract more families and couples, hostels in recent years have converted some traditional, same-sex dorm rooms, which typically sleep six to 10, into private rooms with double beds or two sets of bunks.

"Our surveys showed that people wanted more privacy, and hostels have responded," says Barbara Wein, executive director of American Youth Hostels' Golden Gate Council.

My family has long turned to hostels for budget visits to the San Francisco area. The tradition started in 1987, when I moved from Texas to Sacramento and began using the Fisherman's Wharf Hostel (then called the San Francisco International Hostel) as a base for solo forays to the city. At $9 per night with free parking thrown in (current rates of $22-$29 per person also include a continental breakfast), it was a steal, even if it did mean sleeping in an assigned bunk in a dorm room shared with strangers.

Invariably, I learned, they were nice strangers -- even if they sometimes snored. I soon learned that with earplugs and a book light, I could create my own cocoon within the shared space.

Later, as a parent, I introduced my family to hosteling. The money we saved by not staying in hotels, combined with the savings realized by preparing our own meals on site, went instead for admissions to museums and attractions, cruises on San Francisco Bay, children's theater performances and, once, tickets to the symphony.

Our biggest experiment came three summers ago, when I booked weekend reservations for nine members of my extended family, visiting from out of state, at the Fisherman's Wharf Hostel. By making plans far in advance, we snagged a pair of side-by-side private rooms with ocean views. It was almost as good as a hotel -- and there's no hotel in the city with a location this good.

Another year, the kids and I traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge and into the folded hills of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where we bunked at what has to be the most romantic hostel in the system (if hostels can be termed romantic). The Marin Headlands Hostel is a turn-of-the-20th-century former Army post in a dreamy rural setting. We awoke to gauzy views of grazing deer and fog-shrouded cypress trees.

More recently, we've discovered the aforementioned City Center Hostel, where most rooms have private baths rather than the "down the hall" facilities typical at most hostels. A room for two parents and two children under 12 runs around $75.

While American Youth Hostels' basic intent of providing safe, inexpensive accommodations hasn't changed over the years, some rules and regulations have loosened up, especially in San Francisco and other major cities.

Use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs remains strictly forbidden, but curfews and access hours are more relaxed. While many hostels require guests to leave the premises during the middle of the day, the three San Francisco hostels are open around the clock.

Chore requirements, too, have been eliminated at the San Francisco hostels, although most other facilities in California and around the country ask guests to pitch in voluntarily with a bit of vacuuming, wiping down counters or sweeping floors before they leave.

"Chores are a way of keeping costs down -- and also a way of encouraging community in the hostel," Wein says. "Generally, it's a just five-minute chore. Most people don't mind helping out in some way."

Another change is the advent of tours such as Vollmer's, along with other programs geared to facilitate camaraderie among hostelers. Storytelling sessions, musical events, evening movies on video, and excursions to Giants and A's baseball games all are designed to help travelers meet and mingle. The San Francisco hostels also offer commercial excursions to Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument and the wine country.

As my sons and I returned to the City Center Hostel one evening during our most recent stay, a group of about 20 hostelers -- Australians and Japanese, mostly -- was gathering in the lobby for a "pub crawl" led by a local volunteer. Most in the crowd appeared to be in their 20s, and most were wearing the standard international youth uniform of T-shirts and jeans. Among them stood a middle-age couple attired in comfortable khakis. They looked game, if somewhat bemused.

"I'm gonna quit after three; gotta be to the airport at 6 a.m.," I heard one of the scruffier-looking Aussies say. The offhand comment left me wondering, vaguely, whether he meant three drinks, three pubs or 3 a.m.

With the departure of the night crawlers, our gang migrated up to the hostel's mezzanine lounge, where a young man in a shirt and tie was plunked on a plush green sofa, reading a magazine. This was Maurice, a lawyer from Montreal in town for a legal conference, shepherding his per-diem travel allowance by staying here instead of at a standard hotel.

Later, I chatted with a proud grandmother from St. Louis en route to a rendezvous with her Stanford-attending grandson, and with two AmeriCorps volunteers living at the hostel for the duration of their assignment.

Downstairs in the kitchen, pots of pasta boiled as travelers chatted in a half-dozen languages. "I forgot milk!" a woman in running shorts exclaimed, and three people spoke up simultaneously to offer her a dash of theirs.

By the time the kids and I headed up to bed, we'd exchanged pleasantries with a veritable United Nations of travelers. We may not have traveled far from home to get here, but it was a multilateral pleasure to mingle with those who had.

Travel wise: Northern California hostels

What: Hostels certified by Hostelling International offer inexpensive, dorm-style accommodations, self-service kitchens, dining rooms, common rooms with sofas and tables, showers and other amenities, depending on location. Some hostels have private rooms for couples or families.

Who: Hostels in the United States are open to all, though some in Europe have an age limit. Minors under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

How much: A bunk in a dorm room at a Northern California hostel costs $17-$22.50 general, $12-$15 for children under 12. Group rates are available. Guests who are not members of Hostelling International are charged an additional $3 at some locations. Photo ID must be shown at registration.

Membership: Hostelling International membership fees are $18 per year for those 55 and older and $28 for ages 18-54. Those 17 and younger can join for free.

Safety: Safety and security are priorities at all Hostelling International facilities. Use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs is prohibited.

What to bring: The San Francisco hostels provide bed linens and towels. At other Northern California hostels, only blankets are provided; guests can bring their own sheets or rent them on site for a nominal fee. Sleeping bags are permitted only at the Point Reyes and Marin Headlands hostels.

Most hostel lodging is in bunk rooms segregated by gender and sleeping six to 10. If you're a light sleeper, bring earplugs. If you like to read in bed, a flashlight or a clip-on lamp with an extension cord will prove useful.

Hours: The three hostels in San Francisco allow unlimited access 24 hours a day, but others require guests to vacate the premises between 10 a.m. and late afternoon.

Chores: At most hostels, guests are asked to carry out a small morning chore, such as vacuuming a room or helping to clean the kitchen. Chores are not required at the three San Francisco hostels.

Special events: Free neighborhood walking tours, evening pub crawls, acoustic music and travel discussion groups are scheduled regularly at the San Francisco hostels, along with excursions (for a fee) to outlying areas such as Muir Woods, Napa, Sonoma and Yosemite National Park.

Reservations and payment: Reservations are required at least 72 hours in advance, but it's advisable to book weeks or even months ahead for private rooms and stays on holidays or summer weekends. Credit-card payment is accepted over the phone; ask about cancellation policies. A few beds at every hostel are saved for walk-ins.

For more information: www.norcalhostels.org; Hostelling International headquarters in San Francisco, (415) 863-1444; or stop by the Sacramento hostel at 925 H St. (916-443-1691) between 5 and 10 p.m. and see for yourself what it's all about.

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