The one time I wished I were stranded in a foreign airport I was grounded at home by work.

I should have been at San Francisco where officials would be explaining how SFO was leading the way in refining the airport experience. I'd put up my hand when the opportunity to visit San Francisco's international airport arose because I wanted one of my favourite musicians, Chuck Prophet, to show me around the city.

Everything was set when work got in the way. So I made arrangements to visit at a later date but then discovered Chuck would be playing in San Francisco when I was originally supposed to be there. And not at one of San Francisco's many music venues that help give the city its special vibe, but at the airport as part of a music programme that has featured some of the big names of the local music scene.

The aim of the You Are Hear programme is to make the music part of people's journey, Marc Capelle, a musician who runs the programme, tells me once I finally get to San Francisco.


Capelle is a friend of Chuck's and speaks highly of him and his live act before running off a list of other artists who have performed at the airport, such as alt-rockers Kelley Stoltz and John Doe, who have both played in Auckland, and others who are better known closer to home.

"We do almost any genre and style of music that's going to bring a positive aspect to this environment," Capelle says.

"We have people coming out and having lunch and watching some of the performances."

SFO spokesman Doug Yakel says the programme is just one way to make the airport experience more enjoyable. But it is also one of the ways the airport associates itself with the city it serves. "An airport is a reflection of a region's values," he says.

That concept is also captured by the Napa Farms Market at the airport's Terminal 2. Run by former chef and food lover Richard Hoff, who makes the trip from Napa Valley every day, it is part market, part store and part restaurant. With farmers' markets popping up all over San Francisco, the Napa Farms Market gives a taste of what's on offer, with a range of local, regional and organic offerings. For Yakel, Napa Farms Market is just another way Terminal 2, with its funky ergonomic seats, shops and open spaces, is meeting the changing needs of travellers.

Formerly SFO's international terminal, Terminal 2 closed in 2000 and stood empty except when movie makers needed to shoot airport scenes. Then in 2008 SFO began a US$383 million ($462.7 million) project to turn it into a state-of-the-art domestic terminal. When it reopened in April 2011 as home to Virgin America and American Airlines, it was the first terminal in the US to achieve gold certification under the internationally recognised green building programme LEED. The San Francisco Arts Commission commissioned work by local and national artists and reinstalled pieces from the airport's collection.

SFO is a registered museum, meaning as well as the permanent aviation museum in the international terminal, the airport is home to an ever-changing array of exhibitions in all terminals.

Airports, though, are essentially points of arrival and departure and SFO has established itself as a key connection for travellers between the US and New Zealand. Since Air New Zealand began flying to San Francisco in 2004, its schedule has grown from 81 flights a year, peaking at 365 in 2007 and reaching 300 last year. Passenger numbers have grown from 25,693 (2004), peaking at 90,420 (2007) and hitting 88,596 last year.

With the Louis Vuitton Cup running through July and August and the America's Cup through September, San Francisco is expecting a record number of New Zealanders to visit the city this year. If they're lucky they may even get to see Chuck Prophet play.

I'm still waiting.

Let me tell you where to take a hike

Got time between flights to get out of San Francisco's airport? Jump on a BART train.

* Get off at one of the Mission District stops (24th St Mission, 16th St Mission). This is the US but it will help if you speak Spanish. Don't worry, most shops have an English speaker to help you. Do try Mexican food. This is north of the border but still fantastic.

* Mission Delores, at the intersection of 16th and Delores Sts, is an interesting five-minute walk from the 16th St Mission station. The Mission Delores Parish comprises the original adobe mission building and basilica. The original structure was founded in 1776, and is the oldest original intact mission in California and San Francisco's oldest building.

* Take a bus from Mission St to Haight St. This is hip central. It's more commercial now than in its hippie heyday but still a great street to explore, especially its music stores. Be sure to visit Amoeba Music. San Francisco musician Chuck Prophet rates it as "possibly the best music store in the world" and manager Tony Green, a Kiwi, likes to think that's true. Its website is also worth a look. Find out what artists buy when they visit the store at the "What's In My Bag?" page. Before you leave the street, get an amazing spicy Cuban sandwich at Cha Cha Cha, a couple of shops down from Amoeba.

* Get off at Powell St and step into the middle of the city's shopping options while China Town is a five-minute walk away. Weekends and most evenings there are street performers. Some are street crazies but still talented.

* Get off at Embarcadero Station and you are only 200m from the Ferry Building and boutique food shops. Sample some of the best cheeses in the region at the Cowgirl Creamery.

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to San Francisco.

Duncan Gillies travelled as a guest of SFO San Francisco airport.