Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Beauty In My Backyard

Having lived in the Bay Area for more than a decade now, I always appreciate it, but sometimes forget just how amazing every place can be. For instance, Christmas Eve Day was an overcast, cold (Northern California cold; all you Midwesterners, pipe down) kind of a day, perfect for a late breakfast to warm the bones. We headed out to try someplace new, the Lighthouse Café in Sausalito: I ride by it on my bike, daily, and it was always busy. Seems like a good sign.

**WARNING: Mini Dining Review ahead...skip down if you don't care (also will be posted on Yelp)**

The café is right on Bridgeway, the main approach to Sausalito, but before downtown. From the outside, it's kind of cool and kitschy, with a scaled down, two story lighthouse built in to the structure. Inside, small, with a long counter by the open grill, and several booths. Two people service the whole place, plus the cooks.

While the look of the place is classic working-class coffee shop, the food and prices are very definitely Sausalito. Nearly $40 for breakfast for two is ok once in a while, but the food here was not worth the price. Amy's pancakes looked like they'd been beaten down to prevent any fluffiness, and not quite finished; my 3 egg omelet, while good, was hardly worth the $10 menu price. Service was OK; they were pretty busy, and had their hands full. They also have a Scandinavian influence on the food, so it's good for any hardy Nordic types, hankering for a taste of the homeland.

Food: 3 stars
Price: 2 stars
Service: 3 stars
Overall: 2.5 stars

REVIEW DONE...on to other things.

Thus fortified, we headed for a drive. We decided to stay local, and headed out to the Headlands, by means of the greatest tunnel ever invented. If you've not had the chance to drive in the tunnel from Sausalito (Alexander Ave.) to the Headlands, make a point of doing so. It's one lane, so you wait on either end for 5 minutes for the traffic to clear before you can proceed. Once you get in, it's pure 1940's military: you can almost hear the jeeps roaring through. On the other side, you are transported instantly into a pristine wilderness; you'd have no idea that you are 10 minutes from San Francisco.

Most residents think the Headlands are where you take your out of town visitors for a great view of the Golden Gate: that road, right off 101 that snakes up to the top. True, but that's just the beginning of this national treasure: 9/10 more is open to hikers, riders, surfers, and casual drivers, and the Alexander Ave. tunnel is the best way to see it. You come in on the valley floor, with the cliffs of Hawk Hill on your left, and the ridge separating you from Tennessee Valley on the right. Broad, open plains, with meandering trails and brush are hung with fog from the nearby Pacific, and you drive through converted Army buildings, now turned to residences.

The Headlands Center for the Arts is here: Presidio-era buildings now converted for artists to have working studio space overlooking the serenity of the valley. A major horse boarding and jump-training facility catches your eye as you drive on. You reach a fork: turn right, and it's Armstrong Beach, a hidden gem for surfers and birdwatchers, open to the vast breakers of the Golden Gate. Turn left, and it's on to Point Bonita, with it's former batteries and classic early 1900's lighthouse. With the grey of the day, I snapped a quick picture, as the winds chilled around me.

From there, on to the lesser-traveled roads and the former Nike missile facility, now standing as a sentry over the Marine Mammal Center and the open ocean. A few roads more, and you are in the back roads of the Headlands Center, visiting an open Hostel and dodging fallen trees and startled deer.

We crossed out again through the tunnel, amusingly watching two cyclists waiting patiently for the light to turn, along with the cars (unbeknownst to them, the tunnel has dedicated bike lanes on either side). We came out on the other side, and did a short u-turn into Fort Baker. While still a working Coast Guard base, most of the classic buildings were abandoned with the Army, years ago, and now the Bay Area Discovery Museum is the biggest draw...but not for long. An investment group has purchased most of the grounds, and is now turning it into an ultra-chic resort. They are refurbishing all of the classic buildings as guest bungalows and adding to this wonderful setting.

Outside of Treasure Island, this area has some of the most stunning views of the city and bridge to be had; the picture to the right was snapped with my cameraphone from the secluded marina in Fort Baker, which I had never visited. Isolated, with the raw power of the surf held by a jetty, it's seconds away from the Golden Gate (as you can see), with a breathtaking view of the City's skyline. Yet, it feels like you are walking in some remote wilderness: an undiscovered gem in the midst of the dazzling Bridge and Sausalito downtown.

We finished our explorations by heading back to Sausalito proper, and visiting the twisted roads and hillsides that make the place so unique, complete with surprising apartment complexes and adorable cottages. Some coffee to fortify, and we headed home. The whole trip? Less than 10 miles from our doorstep.

Yep, it's a pretty nice way to spend a holiday: vacationing, in your own backyard.

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