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WEEKEND ESCAPE

At every turn in Tiburon, a point of view

Handsome panoramas, historic hikes and a bayside inn await in the Marin County town and on nearby Angel Island.

June 08, 2003|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Tiburon, Calif. — Lunch was modest: a turkey sandwich on wheat. But the view was first class. "Drop-dead gorgeous" was the way a fellow hiker described the panorama below as we picnicked on a hillside.

To the left was the Bay Bridge; in front was San Francisco's skyline; to the right were the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin County towns of Sausalito, Belvedere and Tiburon. Sailboats glided with the wind on a sunny Saturday morning.

We were at Angel Island State Park, a hilly retreat in San Francisco Bay. The neighboring island "gets all the attention," said docent Jim Leuker, leader of our nature hike. "Everyone's heard of Alcatraz. No one's heard of Angel Island even though it's 20 times bigger. It's the undiscovered jewel of the bay."

He wouldn't get an argument from those of us trailing him around the island. We were too busy gawking. Every corner we turned brought another stunning vista.

But that seemed to be true of everywhere I went on this mid-May weekend. I had flown north on Friday to join San Jose friends Marty and Chip for a few days in Tiburon, a picturesque bayside community of about 9,000 residents. Like nearby Angel Island -- 10 minutes away by ferry -- Tiburon is hilly, and views of the water and San Francisco's skyline are commonplace. That doesn't mean they come cheap, though. The average home price tops $992,000.

"Tiburon is a status symbol," said city employee and longtime resident Joan Palmero. "People say they know they've made it when they can afford to live here."

It's easy to understand why they would want to. Tiburon is a charmer, its tiny New England-style village winding up a hillside. Bakeries, shops and restaurants beckon visitors. At the other end of town, a greenbelt borders the scenic bay front, lined with benches for lovers or strollers or picture takers.

On sunny days -- like the weekend we visited -- waterfront restaurants fill with visitors, some off visiting yachts, some from surrounding communities, some ferry passengers from San Francisco. Sam's Anchor Cafe, founded during Prohibition by Maltese bootlegger Sam Vella, is a hot spot.

"Whenever the sun shines, it gets really crazy," manager Mary Russell said. About 600 people can be served at tables on a deck that overlooks the water.

The city shares three sailing clubs, including the tony San Francisco Yacht Club -- the oldest on the Pacific Coast -- with Belvedere, an even wealthier community next door (average home price: $1,075,000). Tiburon's Web site boasts that the area is "home to some of the best sailors in the world." Although tourists aren't invited inside these private clubs, the high-priced sloops tied up in the harbor are fun to fantasize about and to watch, especially during races and regattas, held on Friday nights and many weekends during the summer.

We had a grand view of it all -- the yacht club, races in the bay, the crowd at Sam's, Angel Island's forested shores -- from our deck at the 23-room Waters Edge Hotel. Well, it wasn't ours alone. It was a deck all guests share at the sleek bayside inn.

Expansive views

We had snagged an Internet rate, paying $175 for each of our accommodations. Some rooms have private decks, but they're tiny, and the views aren't particularly good. The view from the common deck, however, was expansive and offered a front-row seat on the action.

The 2-year-old hotel had other pluses too: fireplaces, skylights, vaulted wood ceilings and plush featherbeds. Although there isn't a restaurant on premises and therefore no room service, a wine-and-cheese reception is held each evening, and continental breakfast is served in guests' rooms. Another benefit is the hotel's proximity to the Angel Island ferry, which loads next to the Waters Edge for the one-mile trip. (Round-trip tickets are $6 for children 5 to 11, $8 for passengers 12 or older.)

I had visited Angel Island once before, with a boyfriend when I was a Bay Area college student. We hiked and picnicked and enjoyed a sunny day. I couldn't wait to see how the island had changed.

It hadn't. No one had subdivided it for bay-view lots, erected a resort hotel or lined its shores with fast-food restaurants. It's still undeveloped, with abundant wildflowers and oak, bay and madrono trees. We spotted deer grazing on the hillsides and laughed at waddling raccoons as they crossed the trail in front of us.

Thanks to our Angel Island Assn. docent, we learned some rich history too.

As we circled the island, Leuker talked about the Miwok Indians who used it for thousands of years as a fishing and hunting site. Then he told us how the U.S. government moved in nearly 150 years ago, establishing military installations. Artillery batteries were placed on island hillsides during the Civil War and beefed up at the end of the 19th century. Nike missile silos were added during the Cold War.

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