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Extreme packages

Bay area hotel offers up-close look at the Great White

By CARY ORDWAY

While California resorts generally offer such things as bottles of champagne or breakfasts or 60-minute massages as a way to add more value and appeal to their lodging packages,a luxury hotel in Tiburon has gone one step further: How about a few hours in an underwater cage getting up-close and personal with Great White sharks?

If you had to hide your eyes during Jaws, this might not be the vacation package for you. But there are certain people out there whose idea of the perfect getaway is not really chocolates on the pillow or cookies and milk for an evening snack. When they think amenities, they think adrenaline and going underwater with sharks is just one of many adventure activities that savvy marketers are offering tourists today.

This adventure is offered by the Lodge at Tiburon, a stylish lodging in a San Francisco Bay community known for its colorful shops and nautical scenery. The hotel has teamed up with Incredible Adventures to offer guests a day out with the sharks and a night to unwind in their upscale guest room all for one package price.

Surprisingly, the shark adventure is not just for adrenaline junkies. Sheri Lewis, of Incredible Adventures, says that a wide range of people sign up including both divers and non-divers, young and old. The most common denominator is a fascination with sharks, Lewis explained, although there are some people who just go on this adventure to face their fear of sharks.

Typically, the cage dive adventures are an all-day excursion and begin about 6 a.m. with a departure from Tiburon on the Tamalpais, a vessel also used on the Angel Island ferry route. The trip to the Farallons - a group of islands known as one of the best places in the world to view Great White sharks -- is about three hours each way, with participants generally spending several hours at the diving site. The object is observe the sharks as they feed on the seals in the Farallon Islands' protected preserve.

The steel cage, which is 8 by 10 feet and can hold seven or eight divers, is lowered to just under the water's surface. The divers are rotated out every half hour, which means that a typical group of 16 divers will get plenty of "face" time with the Great Whites - assuming they are feeding that particular day. Weather can cut a trip short or it may just be a day that the sharks choose not to show up.

"There is a chance you're not going to see them," said Lewis. "It's not Seaworld."

That just adds to the adventure for people willing to brave potentially rough seas, don wetsuits and jump below the ocean's surface into a frigid world they may never have experienced. For those who have not dived before, the Divemaster conducts a short course on how to operate the breathing system. The connection is like a snorkel's mouthpiece and divers breathe air that is pumped down from the surface. Without this apparatus it would be difficult to get divers and tanks all within the relatively small confines of the cage.

While the water isn't clear like the Caribbean, divers still will get a decent view of Great Whites that are 15 to 20 feet in length. Unlike the pictures on TV where you might have seen Great Whites in a feeding frenzy, the process you'll observe here will be more orderly. The tour operators aren't "chumming" the waters, but rather lowering a cage in an area where it's likely you'll be able to observe sharks feeding in their natural habitat.

The obvious question for the weak-kneed is: Are the shark cages safe? After several years of offering this particular outing, Incredible Adventures boasts a 100 percent safety record. The cages are strong and carefully designed so that participants don't accidentally leave something hanging out - say a foot or a finger. And, since the sharks are more interested in the seals, it's not likely you'll have them bumping on your cage eyeballing you as their next meal.

For those who are interested in sharks but not keen on taking the plunge, so to speak, the tours allow for topside viewing. Typically four or five people pay a little less and come along just to watch the shark fins from the boat. While the weather can be changeable, the boat is a double-decker loaded with amenities and is so well-equipped that it is often chartered out for parties and dinner cruises. Lunch and snacks are provided for your adventure along with wetsuits. Participants need to bring their own snorkel masks and a good dose of Dramamine - anti-seasickness medication - is recommended before you leave shore.

Back on shore for the evening, guests at the Lodge at Tiburon can have dinner at Three Degrees, the lodge's restaurant, or take a break in the cozy Library Lounge with its crackling fire. On Day Two, lodge guests will most likely take some time to explore the charming town of Tiburon, which includes 40 unique shops, art galleries and restaurants.

The Tiburon Peninsula actually forms the east border to Richardson Bay, just a short ferry ride from downtown San Francisco. The area is a picturesque, leisurely kind of place with bikepaths, tree-lined sidewalks and expensive homes. The views are spectacular just about in any direction.

An interesting side trip would be to take the Tiburon Ferry to Angel Island State park, where many locals and visitors enjoy hiking and biking.

Nearby Belvedere, right at the end of the Tiburon Peninsula, is known for its stately mansions and manicured gardens and lawns. It was here that many of San Francisco's wealthy built their spectacular vacation homes back at the turn of the century.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: The Lodge at Tiburon is on the Tiburon Peninsula, located on San Francisco Bay a few miles north of downtown San Francisco. The area is reached by car and ferry.

WHAT: The Great White Tiburon package is an unusual opportunity to see Great White sharks up-close in a controlled environment. The package includes accommodations, or you can purchase the adventure separately.

WHEN: The shark tours are conducted September through November, when it's like to observe the most feeding in the Farralon Islands.

WHY: This package offers you an excellent opportunity to combine a world-class adventure with a stay at one of the Bay area's most luxurious small hotels.

HOW: For more information, phone 1-800-762-7770 or visit www.thelodgeattiburon.com. Prices for the Great White Tiburon Package start at $1,060 for cage divers and $560 for top view, and include one night of accommodations at the hotel. Tickets for the shark adventure also are available without lodging included.

Photos:  Great White shark (photo courtesy of Incredible Adventures); guests get up-close look at feeding sharks (photo by Tim Taylor); Lodge at Tiburon (photo courtesy Lodge at Tiburon).

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles onYosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.


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