MILL VALLEY, Calif. — It was Sunday morning, and while any normal person would be sipping coffee and perusing the paper, I was soaring over San Francisco Bay in a custom-built aquaglider--a propeller-powered, pontoon-equipped contraption that looks like a cross between a go-cart and a pterodactyl.
Thrilled to death and scared silly, I craned my neck and looked below--way below, 2,000 feet below, to the bay's churning waters. With my heart racing and the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge looming ahead, I couldn't help but think that this was a weird, though wonderful, way to celebrate an anniversary.
No doubt at that moment, my beloved--the one who had talked me into this joy ride--was somewhere on terra firma, enjoying a peaceful Sunday.
Having married a year ago, Jay and I wanted to celebrate, but with limited time and a fairly limited budget, we decided to play tourist in our backyard, or in this case, airspace. Jay claimed we could stay near our Marin County home and still enjoy a sojourn into a parallel universe. Looking down at Chiclet-size cars traversing the bridge and a sea lion lolling in the tide, I agreed: a parallel universe, indeed.
In fact, the past couple of days had been wonderfully otherworldly, starting with the Acqua, a boutique hotel that opened in Mill Valley in late '99. Upscale in ambience with an ultra-cool, minimalist decor, it also was reasonably priced at $160 a night, plus tax.
Our room, with its pale green arched ceiling and small balcony overlooking Richardson Bay and Mt. Tamalpais, was a soothing blend of Zen simplicity and modern comfort. After checking in Friday evening, we sank back into two stuffed chairs facing the floor-to-ceiling window, sipped wine brought from home and watched the water's reflections dance across the walls. Maybe we hadn't ventured far, but we felt a world away from our daily routine.
That night we strolled to Piatti, a nearby restaurant. Our window seat gave us a great view of the water and the sunset, and the service couldn't have been more gracious. We stuck with Italian comfort food: capellini marinara and fritto misto with blood orange aoli, plus a few Piatti specialties, including a roasted beet salad with arugula and warm goat cheese, and a luscious chocolate souffle for dessert. Every dish was excellent and moderately priced, with entrees starting at $12 and appetizers at $6.
Saturday dawned bright and clear, perfect weather for the surprise I had planned for Jay. I had promised that we would venture into unexplored territory. He was only slightly disappointed when I handed him the map of Angel Island, home of a former military installation and later an immigration station dubbed the Ellis Island of the West. "On bike or by foot?" I asked.
Jay laughed and chose the hiking option. After a quick breakfast of fresh fruit and scones at the hotel (included in the nightly rate), we grabbed sandwiches at a deli and set off to catch the hourly ferry that leaves from nearby Tiburon. A half-hour later, we were lacing our way across the island among hikers and campers via the Northridge/Sunset trail.
After the Spanish-American War, American troops, some of whom had been exposed to smallpox, were quarantined on Angel Island. Later, from 1910 to 1940, thousands of Chinese immigrants and Japanese picture brides were detained here.
Barracks have been renovated into a museum, but some buildings have been left largely untouched. We walked through the old hospital, where the paint was peeling and miniature sand dunes shifted on the floor as the ocean breeze slipped in through broken windows. The building's disrepair made it all the more poignant a reminder of its past.
All too soon it was time to head back for the 4:20 ferry and our hotel. After a quick shower for Jay and a long soak in the tub for me (how could I pass up such a large, luxurious bathtub and the Acqua's chichi toiletries?), we dressed for a dinner at Mikayla, the restaurant at the Casa Madrona Hotel in Sausalito, where we were married.
I wish I could say we were greeted like long-lost family. But the hostess seated us in the restaurant's equivalent of Siberia and barked at me when I mentioned I had requested a window table. "We can't help it if the day staff makes promises," she said.
As happens to so many restaurants in charming seaside towns, Mikayla seemed to be suffering tourist fatigue. The prices were steep (averaging $28 per entree), the service was rushed and the food varied in quality.
We'd both been tempted by the "wild mushroom soup topped by Gruyere crouton" ($10 per bowl). But when it arrived, we looked at each other in disbelief.
"I guess we didn't read closely enough," Jay said, pushing his lone crouton across the watery broth.
"Yeah, but we lucked out," I replied. "It said 'mushroom,' and we must have at least five in here."