The iconic Golden Gate Bridge
The iconic Golden Gate Bridge
The Marin Headlands might be just over the Golden Gate Bridge, but they feel a million miles away from the bustling city.
The Marin Headlands might be just over the Golden Gate Bridge, but they feel a million miles away from the bustling city.

San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the most exciting mega cities of America and its impact hits visitors with a bang right from street level to 40 floors up.

They explore the city, visit its famous landmarks, marvel at the bridge, but few realise that across the other side, on Highway 101, there are so many new and different places waiting to be explored.

The concrete jungle, wonderful though it may be, is behind you and the Golden Gate Headlands are in front just waiting to be explored.

The journey across the Bridge alone is worthwhile because of the stunning views of San Francisco, Alcatraz and the Farallon and Angel Islands then, almost immediately, you come to one of San Francisco’s most unusual neighbourhoods, a unique waterfront suburb of houseboats where families live year round on the water.

A few kilometres beyond, there is one of the oldest forests in the world made up of old-growth coastal redwood trees with an average age of between 500 and 1 000 years and then the picturesque waterfront town of Sausalito, which is on the edge of The Marin Headlands, one of the largest urban parks in the world.

The houseboat community is an elite mainstream living area with more than 400 permanent “floating homes” as they are called, through Gates 5 and 6 near the Main Dock area.

It began when old and abandoned ships in the Marin Ship Yards were de-commissioned at the end of World War 11 and were taken over by people who wanted an inexpensive place to live.

These first inhabitants were little more than water squatters, for there was no sanitation, no mains water supply and no electricity, but it was quirky, quiet and serene, a great place for walking and only a few kilometres from downtown San Francisco.

It was also unique and peaceful, there were no shops, hoardings or cars and it was completely minus concrete and steel and so it began to attract writers, artists and naturalists, including the famous Otis Redding who wrote Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay while he was living here.

It also became the home of 23 permanent bird species and 10 others who used it as their point of migration.

As the houseboats began to be upgraded, residents gradually obtained power from grid cable, running water and sanitation and so they were required to pay taxes.

House boaters, as they are called, now have a long-term lease with the port and pay property taxes and berthing fees, are connected to waste, electricity, sewage lines, telephones and cable TV. The main drawback, they say, is carrying shopping and garbage along the piers, but it’s well worth it.

Today, some of the houseboats are still the tattered and improvised survivors of decades past. They are a wonderful mixture of imagination and eccentricity and deserve just as much attention as the ones which are architect designed and look like conventional homes, though they are all built on a large floating box, a barge or a pontoon floating on the water.

The same ingenuity has worked wonders on the dockside neighbourhood. There are “streets” or boardwalks over the harbour at right angles to the dock side so that house boaters can walk to see friends who may live further over the water though, with continuous gentrification, many now have their own kayak if it’s too far to walk. Many residents have also lined the docks with plants in pots to substitute as a garden. These houseboats are now legitimate real estate on water.

There are even some houseboats, or floating homes as they are called in America, that can only be described as “floating castles” and cost in the region of seven or eight figures, sometimes plus, and these can be found on Kappas Marina, A Dock, Issaquah Dock and Liberty Dock.

One houseboat has battlements, another has three staterooms, 56 port holes and a waterfall cascading into the water but the most over the top is probably the “Taj Mahal”, at the end of Johnson Street and a few blocks north of “Downtown”, which looks uncannily like its namesake.

“Forbes Island” had three staterooms when it was originally built, 56 portholes, a waterfall cascading into a hot tub and a light house. This is now a restaurant docked near Pier 39.

Fortunately for the houseboaters it’s an easy walk to the shops of nearby Sausalito, which is also in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.

This is a small and beautiful hillside town with fewer than 8 000 residents, is full of art galleries and boutiques and has a picturesque waterfront promenade, a marina boardwalk, a harbour full of vessels and wonderful views across the bay. This is also a beautiful 25-minute trip from the San Francisco Ferry Terminal Building straight into the town or a few kilometres on the north of the Golden Gate Bridge on Route 101.

Sausalito is also on the edge of The Marin Headlands, which are a must for all visitors with a car. Conzelman Road is a one-way circular road that winds along the south shore of the headlands as far as Hawks Hill when it becomes a pedestrian path but, along the way, there are many varieties of marine life that cluster on the large rocks at the water’s edge that are still much as they were 200 million years ago. Unfortunately they are only uncovered during low tide.

At the Point Bonita Lighthouse the road becomes a pedestrian path that winds up to Hawks Hill where there are wonderful views at the summit. This is an area that needs time to explore and, for visitors who want to stay overnight, there is an affordable hostel or accommodation in historic buildings that once belonged to the military.

The central part of the Marin Headlands in Hawk Hill is famous for hosting the largest known flights of diurnal raptors when kites, falcons, eagles and osprey

arrive each autumn. It is also home to bobcats, coyotes and rabbits and there are usually seals and whales to be seen in the sea.

There are many historic military forts in this area. Forts Cronkite and Barry are the most famous and are preserved as historic sites and also the SF 88 Nike Missile Site.

Muir Head Hostel offers affordable accommodation in historic homes.

Muir Woods are about 20km north of San Francisco and also in the Golden Gate National Park Recreation area.

Just as the houseboats are not typical homes, Muir Woods are not typical woods. In fact, the redwoods are among the oldest in the world and thought to be at least 1 200 years old.

Often growing as tall as 115m, they are recognised as the world’s tallest living things in spite of growing from a seed as small as a tomato seed.

Surrounded by so many huge trees, people expect that this must be a birder’s paradise yet, surprisingly, there are only 50 different bird species because the redwood’s tannin repels insects.

Winding in, out and around these massive giants, there are kilometres of paved paths for walking alone or with rangers, an even wider variety of unpaved walks and 1.5kms specially prepared for wheelchairs.

There is also a leisurely paced 3km walk for birders, which is of interest to beginners and advanced birders.

Muir Woods are open every day from 8am to sunset and there is a notice board at the entrance giving times of guided tours, including special walks for birders, though no reservations are required for time with “Road Kill Nancy”, who gives talks on her collection of bones, skins and skulls from various animals!

All this – and just across San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Bridge. - Sunday Tribune