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Rich Man's, Poor Man's Bay Area : Money or not, here we come for a quiet stay at the beach

June 16, 1996|JON GARCIA | Garcia is a freelance writer based in Northern California

SAUSALITO, Calif. — We'd made it to the Bay Area. Now our goal for the weekend was to stay within one hour of Market and Embarcadero--yet be as far away from even that concrete jungle as possible. My traveling companion and I figured hiking the Marin Headlands north of the City would be a good start, and walking the wind-swept beaches of Pigeon Point 60 miles south would be a fantastic finish.

A drenching rain Friday night kept us in Berkeley for a late dinner at Cancun Taqueria (the best Mexican food in the East Bay). But Berkeley is still part of an urban sprawl, so we left, hoping to hit Marin by midnight.

San Francisco's thick, trademark fog shrouded the Golden Gate, jamming traffic on the 1 1/2-mile span. We made it to our hotel by 12:30 a.m. Wanting to treat Susan to a spectacular view of the skyline, I had picked The Inn Above Tide in Sausalito, the exclusive (read expensive) bay-side community across the channel from the exclusive (read very, very expensive) community of Tiburon.

The rooms, decked out in boating decor, had a certain measure of decadence (the fireplace was lighted by the flick of a wall switch) and the price was a bit steep. But watching the sun rise over the bay from our private balcony while eating complimentary strawberries washed away most of the sticker shock. We were so spoiled I had a feeling that we'd never get out of there before booking a second night--and before I'd need a crowbar to pry Susan out of the room. I almost did.

We had worried the rain and fog would ruin our view and dampen our hike through the Headlands at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The morning sun bathed Sausalito in warmth, but couldn't quite cut through the clouds that shrouded the rolling green and brown hills. As we wound up Somerville Road in the fog, our white four-door, mid-size rental car seemed like a speck beneath the bridge's monstrous northern tower.

Somerville Road led us to Conzelman Road which, in turn, led us onto Fort Barry, a former military outpost that is now part of the 15,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Ruins of abandoned, World War II military batteries dot the cliffs and hills of the fort, connected by miles of marked and unmarked trails--paths of temptation for adventurous hikers.

We parked near the top of one of the hills, where the fog pulled back to reveal a concrete tunnel burrowed in the hillside. The sign above the mouth read: "Construction No. 129."

As we walked into the dark tunnel I started to whistle the "X-Files" theme song and wondered aloud if these relics of military history had really been laid to rest by the federal government. At the end of the tunnel was a wide concrete crater ringed with rusted bolts. This is where 16-inch guns were to have fired 2,100-pound shells at enemy ships up to 27 miles away. But the ships never came and the guns were never installed after it was determined they'd be no good against enemy planes.

After we'd hiked for two hours, the abandoned batteries began to blend into one another, but the fog burned off and the views kept getting better as we trekked west toward Point Bonita.

Our favorite spot, however, was at the end of the coast trail. At a small, unmarked turnout off of Conzelman Road, we found 162 steps that led us down a cliff to a magnificent black-sand beach. The maps make no mention of this cove, but the hillsides were covered in wildflowers..

At the base of the cliff, we found a lone fisherman packing up his gear for the day."Not many people know about this place," he said, smiling. "I don't even know the name, I just know how to get here."

We climbed back up the cliff, careful to miss the poison oak, and into the car for the hour-long drive south to Pigeon Point. Highway 1 winds through some of the state's most beautiful coastline and just when I thought I'd found scenic heaven, around the bend appeared Pigeon Point. The point's majestic 115-foot, white brick lighthouse is surrounded by four bungalows now operated by Hostelling International. It was late afternoon when we checked in, rented sheets, signed up for morning chores (a requirement) and booked a time at the hostel's cliff-side hot tub (our after-dinner treat).

*

We had paid for bunks in men's and women's dormitory-style rooms ($11 apiece, not including sheets), but ended up in our bungalow's one private room ($38 a couple) when its occupants mysteriously left. Each bungalow has a shared bath, and two bungalows share a kitchen and sitting room. (The hostel takes guests of all ages, but be forewarned that private rooms are booked through the end of the summer and dorm-style beds, we were told, should be booked three weeks in advance.)

A quick ride back up the highway to Pescadero Road took us into the tiny, two-street town now known for the burial site of Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old pilot who crashed in April. The flags were still flying at half-mast in her honor.

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