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All Aboard for Poetic Best of San Francisco Bay

July 06, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

SAN FRANCISCO — It's a poem set to music. The poem is San Francisco at night as seen from the bay, and the music this evening is jazz.

It is also a story untold or little more than mentioned in many guidebooks and travel reports about San Francisco.

I've been guilty of the same oversight, but now my wife, Elfriede, and I have shared a wondrous evening that has made us realize that the City by the Bay is at its romantic best when enjoyed while cruising, dining, wining and dancing on the moonlit waters of the bay.

We boarded the Commodore Hornblower at the Berkeley Marina Marriott Hotel as guests of a private charter with a Stanford University group. The music for dining and dancing was provided by the Model A's, a popular Bay Area jazz band that has played on inland waterways and the high seas from San Francisco and Marina del Rey in Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, the Inside Passage to Alaska and the Danube.

The musicians include band members who, in their other lives, are executives of nationally known corporations.

A benevolent Mother Nature provided the glow of a crescent moon without any of the legendary San Francisco fog. The city supplied the mirage of its skyline, shimmering in the bay.

Open to the Public

As travel reporters, our first question of the Hornblower's officers was: Could such an experience as this be possible for a visitor to San Francisco who was not fortunate enough to be the guest of a private charter?

The answer was definitely yes.

Five Hornblower luxury yachts cruise San Francisco Bay. The flagship of the fleet is the 151-foot City of San Francisco, designed to resemble a turn-of-the-century bay steamer.

Hornblower Yachts has an artful brochure announcing: "Our office is ready to take your reservation for a romantic dinner cruise for two, or a celebration for 750 people." That is the maximum number of passengers who can be accommodated for dining and dancing aboard the City of San Francisco. Our chartered Commodore Hornblower can carry up to 150 guests.

In addition, San Francisco and the North Bay are served by 17 ferries sailing under the ensigns of the Golden Gate Bridge District, the Red & White Fleet and the Blue & Gold Fleet.

Jazz on the Ferries

Besides its regular ferry services, the Golden Gate Bridge District is cooperating with radio station KJAZ to sponsor Jazz on the Ferries this summer. The Bruce Forman Trio is featured July 25; Dave Bell & Ginger von Wening on Aug. 22 and the Joyce Cooling Trio on Sept. 26.

Every Friday evening until October, the Red & White Fleet will offer a musical dinner cruise from 8 to 10 p.m. The groups will rotate from Hawaiian Luau to Country, Big Band Sounds of the '50s & '60s and Latin Fiesta.

According to the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, all 17 ferries serving Bay Area waterways can be described as "snug scenic cruisers with food and drink bars, glassed-in observation areas and open promenade decks."

This is a revival of the heyday in the early part of this century when San Francisco Bay harbored the world's largest ferry fleet of more than 50 side-wheelers, sternwheelers and propeller-driven ferries carrying 50 million passengers a year, along with horses, drays, baggage carts and, subsequently, utomobiles.

But that romantic era began to fade with the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. Now the era is returning with cruises for leisure hours, and with reliable water transit schedules that are working with subway and surface transit systems to induce thousands of commuters from Marin County to leave their cars at home.

Literary Wonderment

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, came to San Francisco in the early 1920s, he crossed the bay by ferry at night and wrote of looking back at "the league-long field of lights, the great twinkling sky signs, all beating upward against an overhanging cloud."

Jack London, Bret Harte, Frank Norris and many other writers gazed with wonder earlier upon the city at night and its reflections in the bay.

The glow of the city began for us before we boarded the Commodore Hornblower, as we looked out at the sailboats and power cruisers in the Berkeley Marina and toward the skyline of San Francisco.

Then we were moving out across the water with the hills of Berkeley behind us. For a time we cruised parallel with one of the longest walking piers we've seen in any harbor. It was obviously a favorite of walkers, joggers and fisherfolk.

Off our port side the skyline of Berkeley melded into the silhouette of Oakland. Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge were coming up ahead. The Model A's began to play "Up a Lazy River."

As we sailed under the Bay Bridge the crescent moon was poised just above it, while the remainder of sunset was like the stroke of an artist's brush behind the bridge.

Freight Being Loaded

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