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'Forest bathing' and more: Trying out Airbnb's 'experiences'

Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News on

Published in Travel News

It's the question no local wants to hear when they're entertaining friends or family from out of town -- "Can we go to Fisherman's Wharf to see the sea lions?"

Or even worse -- maybe your loved ones suggests a Segway or double-decker bus tour.

Nothing sucks the fun out of a Saturday afternoon like fighting through hordes of tourists pointing cameras at enormous, barking marine mammals, lugging armloads of shopping bags and chowing down on clam chowder.

But, thanks to a new feature from Airbnb, there's now an alternative to traditional sight-seeing. Since launching its "experiences" feature last November -- a major step that put the home-sharing startup on track to become an all-inclusive travel platform -- Airbnb has tripled the program's reach, and now offers more than 1,800 offbeat activities hosted by locals in 30 cities around the world. That includes 300 experiences in San Francisco, ranging from a ramen cooking class, to a sailing lesson on the Bay, to a tour of the Mission District's murals. There's also a handful outside the city, including a trip to a Watsonville farm, a cultural walking tour of Berkeley and a beer-making class in Santa Rosa.

I tagged along on two, to get a taste of what these excursions are like:

On a recent Friday morning, two groups of strangers met on a street corner in San Francisco to check a unique experience off their sight-seeing itinerary: "forest bathing."

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Started in Japan as a way for urban dwellers to re-connect with nature, forest bathing essentially means taking a leisurely hike, with plenty of pauses to do things like talk to a tree or listen to the sounds of nature. For this group of four tourists, it meant a walk through Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve -- a little-known eucalyptus forest near Twin Peaks in San Francisco.

"For people visiting San Francisco, I think it's a great way to see a side of the city that you might not otherwise see," said the day's host, 29-year-old Julia Plevin, who lives in San Francisco's Mission District.

Plevin started the trip by inviting everyone to spend 15 minutes walking slowly and silently through the eucalyptus trees shrouded in early morning mist. Later she instructed her charges to imagine that they had just landed on Earth, and asked them to make observations about the plants growing in the foreign landscape around them. Yvonne Scharf, 54, of San Diego, quickly got into the game, pointing out a fern and a moss-covered log to her friend, Linda Rickard, 57, as if it were the first time she'd seen such things.

Scharf, a lover of trees, had wanted to show her friend Muir Woods, but decided it was too difficult and expensive without a car. Paying $25 per person for a forest bath at Mount Sutro seemed like a perfect alternative.

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