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Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Commuting" to San Francisco

"There's no boat."

It's a sweaty mile-and-a-half run along the Embarcadero from the Golden Gate Ferry terminal to the Blue and Gold Fleet's dock. But when you've misread the schedule and the other company's last trip of the day is in fifteen minutes, you duck and weave through the crowds like Seabiscuit.

We know ferries. Twice a day, regular as the tide, my husband and walk down the gangway to join the cargo of commuters shipped across Puget Sound between our little island and Seattle. We understand slippery docks, crowding and "schedules" that can best be described like the horoscopes in the newspaper: "For entertainment purposes only."

So it seemed reasonable to spend a recent visit to San Francisco doing what came naturally: Commuting by boat from the suburbs to the city.

Sausalito is a friendly little community whose wedding-cake tiers of houses gaze coolly back at the rolls of fog that tumble through the Golden Gate to engulf San Francisco's towers. The town is served by two ferry lines, or you can cheat and ride the bus across the Golden Gate Bridge. With good timing, it's possible to take BART from San Francisco Airport to the Embarcadero, wheel your luggage a couple of blocks to the ferry terminal, hop on a boat across the bay, and walk to one of Sausalito's hotels, most of which are close to the dock.

"Home" for this trip was The Gables Inn, a cluster of wooden Victorian buildings hugging a hill. Our room was tiny and a bit dark, but homey, with a sublimely comfortable bed, incongruously huge flat-screen television and deep jetted tub. Our wing had a private entrance under a tangle of jasmine vines, opening to a quiet street lined with expensive clothing boutiques and knickknack shops.

The big city shimmered across the bay, but at first we were content to relax nearby. We hiked around Sausalito's spiraling streets, admiring the dazzling views and cantilevered mansions. We folded real-estate fliers into our pockets like lottery tickets. We strolled along the waterfront for miles in the springlike 70-degree November sun, feeling we had somehow cheated nature and skipped a season.

But eventually we had to go to the "work" of San Francisco sightseeing. So we downloaded the ferry schedules and hopped a late-morning Blue-and-Gold Line boat back to the Embarcadero.

Once in the city, we gave ourselves over to the usual tourist sights: We walked down Lombard Street, watching tourist minivans zigzag dead-slow among the hydrangeas. We hiked up Telegraph Hill and circled the Coit Tower's muscular Depression-era murals before crowding into the elevator with the wisecracking operator. At the top we squished camera-bag-to-backpack-to-fannypack in a hubbub of German, Italian, French, Chinese and Brooklyn to snap the usual tourist photos. We hiked down to North Beach and ate authentic Pittsburgh-style sausage sandwiches stuffed with French fries. We ambled down to Fisherman's Wharf, expecting only t-shirts and ice cream and human statues posing for quarters under squealing seagulls. Instead we were pleasantly surprised by a maritime museum with a collection of historic vessels from a square-rigger to a houseboat.

Generally we felt smug at our carlessness. "Imagine," I said, "all those poor souls paying to park!" Like an old hand I had done my due diligence and knew there was no ferry service on Thanksgiving Day. We stocked up on nonperishable delicacies in the Ferry Building's shops on Wednesday night.

Thanksgiving dinner was local nuts, fruit, cheese, bread and salami, balanced on a luggage stand and washed down with an excellent Napa Cabernet. Not a single underdone drumstick or dirty dish in sight.

But as we knew from our lives at home, the ferry giveth and the ferry taketh away. In addition to the sprint-inducing schedule mix-up, we had to contend with a dearth of late-night boats, making a leisurely dinner in San Francisco proper nearly impossible unless we were willing to spring for a cab across the bridge, which we weren't. Fortunately there was plenty to eat in Sausalito, and we agreed to save the urban fine-dining extravaganza for another visit.

This time we were content to gather at the city terminal each dusk. We melded in with the briefcase-bearing office workers and the kids in their "Mt Tamalpais High School Red-Tailed Hawks" backpacks. We crowded aboard the boat, plugged our smartphones into an empty outlet and browsed the Chronicle online while others ordered beer and Bloody Marys at the bar. A group ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we passed Alcatraz. Glancing up from his phone my husband nudged me and murmured "Tourists!"

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