Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco is a place dripping with charm but lacking the Bay area traffic that is so much a part of any visit to that fascinating city - a place where you can gaze at the San Francisco skyline, but not fret about the hassles of navigating through the "Big City."
Look up the term "bedroom community" in the dictionary and it must have a picture of Sausalito, the tiny bayside berg that basically is a narrow slice of waterfront hugging lush hillsides covered with spectacular view homes. Way back before the turn of the century, San Franciscans figured out that Sausalito—with its postcard views of the city and nearby Tiburon—was the perfect place to get away from the city, yet still never lose sight of the city.
Of course, until 1937, commuting to Sausalito was not quite so convenient. Ferries were available, but construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was what finally made Sausalito easily accessible. Today that traffic across the Golden Gate goes both ways - folks traveling to the city to work, but tourists and San Franciscans also coming to Sausalito to enjoy a lazy day browsing in the town's colorful shops.
This town of just 7,500 residents will swell with tourists on any day there is decent weather - which is most of the time - and visitors also arrive by regular ferry service from San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Conversely, Bay area visitors will use the ample parking in Sausalito and take the ferry to visit tourist attractions in San Francisco.
We decided to make a night of it in Sausalito - stay in town long after the day crowds have returned to city and truly soak up the waterfront atmosphere by staying in a luxury hotel perched on one of those Sausalito hillsides. Arriving in town prior to check-in time, the first order of business was to visit the many shops along Bridgeway, the "main street" of Sausalito.
Like other California luxury seaside towns, the gallery is King in Sausalito and trendy clothing stores are not far behind. Some of the shops offer expensive jewelry, while others offer specialty items such as the unusual papers at Pinestreet Papery or the nautical gifts at the Harbor Shop. Thankfully, Sausalito has not turned into a tacky tourist town - most shops are tasteful, and there are only one or two tee-shirt shops.
Many of the shops are located in historic buildings on the west side of Bridgeway while, on the east, shoppers enjoy an ever-changing slide show of waterfront views. The Sausalito Yacht Harbor and other docking areas stretch along as much as two-thirds of the length of the waterfront. Some shops and restaurants are built on pilings out in the bay, reminding us of many Puget Sound towns we visited while residents of the Pacific Northwest. The visitors on this bright sunny day were all ages and many found comfortable places along the waterfront to just sit and people watch. Out in the bay, a parade of luxury yachts were streaming in and out of the docking areas and, over to the north, there was a constant view of downtown San Francisco. Ferries would arrive and depart every couple of hours.
After a sandwich with a view at the Bridgeway Cafe, it was time to check in at our hotel - the Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa, located in the middle of the action down on Bridgeway. This boutique hotel looks a little smaller than it is - the hotel, in fact, has a total of 63 guest rooms and suites, 19 of which have views overlooking Richard's Bay. The hotel is built along the hillside and features a variety of units ranging from Victorian to contemporary rooms and suites. Stairways, pathways and courtyards connect the units and the unconventional layout keeps you guessing about what walkways and viewpoints you'll discover around the next corner. In fact, there is much more to this hotel than just accommodations—this is one of those spa resorts that is so rapidly catching on with travelers of all ages.
Our unit was like a mini-suite - probably about 400 square feet not counting a large bathroom area. Everything in the room was updated. A contemporary four-poster king-size bed was the centerpiece and the room included a mini-bar/entertainment area, small hide-a-bed couch, fireplace, an overstuffed chair and a writing desk. In the bath area, we found both a large shower and a oversize bathtub, as well as a spacious dressing area. Our unit had a mini-view of the bay - just enough to see some water at the end of the courtyard, but we're told the hotel has several units with panoramic views of the bay.
Soon it was time for dinner and it wasn't hard to find the restaurant that had been recommended to us by several people even before we arrived in town. The Spinnaker is perched on pilings out in Richard's Bay with a perfect, unobstructed view of the San Francisco skyline. Even from our table - which was a row back from the floor-to-ceiling windows - we could enjoy the skyline's changing backdrop as late afternoon turned into evening. It's difficult to remember a time when we have had better service in a restaurant - we enjoyed our prawns and salmon, but the service - and the view - really stood out.
After dinner it was time for a walk along the waterfront, taking in the evening views and marveling at the number of expensive yachts tied up in the harbor. It was like a boat show - all types of trawlers, sailboats, powerboats and, of course, the houseboats that many people associate with Sausalito. As we neared the entrance to our hotel we noticed that one of the local bars was featuring live music played by a four-member folk group and that, by 8:30 on a Monday night, a crowd was already starting to gather.
After a restful night's sleep, we enjoyed a relaxing breakfast and another walk along the waterfront - we just couldn't get enough of those views. Soon it was on to San Francisco and some other Bay area attractions, but one other good place to visit in Sausalito if you have children is the Discovery Museum, near the Golden Gate Bridge. There are fun activities for kids of all ages, and the bridge is so close you can walk over and get a close-up view of the best-known landmark in the San Francisco area.
Art lovers will want to mark Labor Day on their calendars, as that is the time each year when the Sausalito Art Festival brings in more than 20,000 pieces of art. Ongoing since 1952, the festival features paintings, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, fiber art, fine glass, woodwork, mixed media and photography. There is entertainment on three stages while visitors also enjoy gourmet food and wine.
Whether it's a quiet weekend getaway or just a day trip on the ferry, a trip to Sausalito has a way of removing stress and, at the same time, helping you appreciate the natural beauty so prevalent in the Bay area. And if you're looking for a fun stop on your next Northern California vacation, this is it.
WHERE: Sausalito is just a few miles north of San Francisco and hugs the shoreline just after you cross of the Golden Gate Bridge.
WHAT: Sausalito is charming, historic and easy to visit. Parking is plentiful and it's easy to walk the waterfront and enjoy the shops while leaving your car in one place all day. Restaurants, fine shops and galleries abound.
WHEN: Any time of year. During winter, the area gets up to seven inches of rain per month so dress accordingly; summers are mostly warm and dry. Always look for travel deals and vacation packages, although they may be harder to find in this exclusive suburb of San Francisco.
WHY: The waterfront location, and proximity to San Francisco, makes this an ideal getaway experience that lets you get as much - or as little - of the Big City as you want. This is not one of those cheap vacations where you rent an inexpensive motel room and head down the interstate; Sausalito is a more exclusive destination and the shops are not inexpensive. That said, sometimes you'll find last minute travel deals in Sausalito, which would be a great overnight stay on your next Northern California vacation.
HOW: For more information on Sausalito, please go to www.sausalito.org or phone (415) 331-7262. For more information on the Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa, please phone (415) 332-0502. There are a half-dozen or so lodgings in Sausalito. Photos courtesy of Beth DiLego and the Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa.
(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Sausalito is your idea of a California vacation, be sure to check out California Weekend articles on other destinations not far from the Bay area: Monterey, Point Reyes and Bodega Bay.