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Living Afloat: Sausalito and San Francisco Bay

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Living Afloat: Sausalito and San Francisco Bay
The sailboat Freda B. from SF Bay Adventures. Photo courtesy of SF Bay Adventures

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I have been repeatedly warned that as soon as I cross the bridge, it will be 20 degrees warmer. The incredibly helpful staff at the Four Seasons, while assisting me in planning my day trip to Sausalito, informed me that a key to life in San Francisco is to “always dress in layers.” So, taking my cue from the bridge, I begin to shed my own jacket and sweater as I whirl past the enveloping clouds into the shining rays waiting just ahead at first landfall.

I have been repeatedly warned that as soon as I cross the bridge, it will be 20 degrees warmer. The incredibly helpful staff at the Four Seasons, while assisting me in planning my day trip to Sausalito, informed me that a key to life in San Francisco is to “always dress in layers.” So, taking my cue from the bridge, I begin to shed my own jacket and sweater as I whirl past the enveloping clouds into the shining rays waiting just ahead at first landfall.
As I pull off the first exit at Vista Point, it feels like I have entered not just another climate, but another country. Leaving the damp, cold cosmopolitan city behind, I am transported to what could be the French Riviera — all huge open skies, still blue waters, and sailboats rocking lazily in the sun. Vista Point offers the best view of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the sweeping cityscape behind it. Even locals riding their bikes across the bridge stop here to appreciate the majestic beauty of the city they live in.

But this is a temporary stop. My destination is further north still, just a short drive down the gently winding cliffside. Known as a sleepy seaside community, Sausalito has become a go-to attraction for tourists, who teem from the sidewalks of the main street, milling in and out of the many souvenir shops, cafés, and small storefronts that abound. But I forge ahead, past all the trinket shops, out to the far end of town in search of the ‘old-timers’.

This is the term lovingly used for the locals who call Sausalito home, many of whom built and continue to maintain the thriving houseboat community that first originated here in the 1960s. During the Second World War, war ships were built in the surrounding factories. When the war ended, residents started buying the excess ships. By the 1960s, a small community of free-floating boats began to take shape. With time, the harbour passed rules for the floating homes to be docked and the resulting houseboat community was formed.

Now, all houseboats are permanently built within slips along shared common docks that act as walkways between the homes. The houseboat styles run the gamut from old wooden gypsy boats to manicured homes one might expect to see on a suburban street. The beauty of this community is that each ‘boat’ and each owner is allowed full freedom of expression. There are no aesthetic rules to follow beyond the common city ordinances, so the personalities of the owners shine vibrantly with each new step down the dock. Many homes are coloured in beautiful pastels with bright plants lining the gangplanks, lending the floating community a vivid Crayola quality.

Realtor Michele Affronte, a self-admitted old-timer who has lived here for 22 years, has agreed to give me a tour of the floating home community, which is a surprisingly rare opportunity. Aside from occasional speciality tours organised by Michele and the annual Sausalito Floating Homes Tour that takes place each September, the community remains closed to the public throughout the year.

Michele also handles the majority of the houseboat sales and rentals in the area through Bradley Real Estate. However, visitors looking to experience a quick weekend vacation will be sorely disappointed. Harbour rules stipulate that all rentals require a minimum 30-day stay, a measure instated to preserve the tranquillity of the community. But for those wanting to experience an extended stay and a true taste of Sausalito living, a houseboat rental is the perfect option. The city is just a short bus or ferry ride away and everything else one needs is within direct walking distance.

A view through a waterway with the colourful floating homes of Sausalito on either side
The floating homes of Sausalito. Photo by Lola L Falantes

I discover that many of the Sausalito community members are retired or work from home, which provides an opportunity to bond closely with their neighbours. The residents enjoy active social lives, gathering at their local haunts to mix, mingle, and be merry. On weekends, the 50s-plus crowd gathers for happy hour at Saylor’s Restaurant & Bar before heading to the Seahorse Ristorante Supper Club to dance the night away to live swing and salsa music. Another favourite hotspot for residents is Bar Bocce, an Italian restaurant where friends gather for cocktails around a large open outdoor firepit and play bocce on the private stretch of beach just beyond the patio, all while enjoying what is rumoured to be the best pizza in Marin County.

I quickly learn that food is serious business in Northern California, the home of the original farm-to-table movement and the current artisanal cooking trend. The residents here seem to have an innate reverence for fine food. This is apparent in Sausalito, which prides itself on hosting restaurants that serve the tastiest fresh seafood in the Bay Area. Many city dwellers take pilgrimages out to Sausalito on the weekends, riding their bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge, taking a kayak out for the day, eating lunch at one of the many delicious waterfront restaurants, then biking or ferrying back home.

Fish is a charmingly casual order-at-the-counter restaurant that serves the catch of the day and focuses on sustainable fishing practices. Locals stop here after a day of kayaking to enjoy the freshest fish available, along with a cold handcrafted beer. Le Garage is another well-revered favourite, a seaside French bistro offering exquisitely-executed steak frites, niçoise salad, and steamed mussels. Sipping a chilled glass of rosé and watching the lines of yachts and sailboats bobbing gently in the sparkling blue waters, I cannot help but imagine myself suddenly dining in Cannes.

I finish my immersion into Sausalito culture with a San Francisco Giants sail and bay tour offered by SF Bay Adventures, which departs from Sausalito at sunset. Unsure of what is in store, I am pleasantly surprised to find a sweet old-fashioned sailboat — the Freda B. — docked in the slip upon my arrival. Jazz music plays softly as we board the deck. The wonderfully charming staff welcomes me, offering blankets, beverages, and anything else to make my trip as comfortable as possible. A Pinterest-worthy set-up of wine, beer, bottled sodas, tea, and hot chocolate further puts my mind at ease — this is a strictly classy affair. I am also surprised to find that the dozen other guests are all Bay Area residents treating themselves to a special night out, several of whom are die-hard Giants fans seeking a new way to experience their beloved baseball team.

After a brief safety talk, we set sail into the bay and beyond the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun begins to set and the sky shifts into a soft pastel pink. We glide through the water behind Alcatraz — a view not normally available from the city — travel under the Bay Bridge, and pull into McCovey Cove outside of AT&T Park. We anchor in the water here to enjoy the second and third innings of the game, which can be viewed on the Jumbotrons inside the open stadium or on the large flat screen TV on our deck. The boat staff serves hot clam chowder from The Seafood Peddler, a Sausalito institution, to keep us warm as we take in the game.

 Sailing under San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. Photo by Sarah Prikryl
Sailing under San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. Photo by Sarah Prikryl

I smile to discover several kayakers floating around us in the cove, in hopes of capturing a home run ball — a tradition that started many years ago and continues to grow. No balls sail our way tonight, though our crowd cheers to see our boat featured on the Jumbotron between innings. The 4th inning signals the start of our return home. As we pull back under the Bay Bridge, the starry night sky appears above our heads and the city lights twinkle off the distant waters dreamily, creating a hauntingly beautiful image that lingers in my head long after I have departed.

Heading back into San Francisco, the peaceful, slowed-down pace of Sausalito stays with me. As I am warmly welcomed back by the staff at the Four Seasons, I feel as if I am still floating on air from my beautiful day spent at sea. I am reminded how experiencing the world through the eyes of others widens one’s own scope. The Sausalito floating home community serves as incredible inspiration — rebels whose unique form of resistance was creating quiet, gentle lives connected to nature, great food, and each other. It reminds me that truly anything is possible: whatever life one wants to live, there are others who share the same vision and are willing to make it a reality.

Published on March 10, 2016
Location: Sausalito, San Francisco
Country: United States Of America ›
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