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The view? It's golden

Cavallo Point, a national park lodge on the San Francisco Bay, reimagines the resort as an eco-center. The location is hard to beat.

September 28, 2008|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

SAUSALITO, CALIF. — Sometimes the simplest things are the most sublime. At a new national park lodge called Cavallo Point, a porch, a rocking chair and a view combine to become profoundly inspiring. This vast, peaceful spot near Sausalito was once Ft. Baker, a military post built in the early 1900s to protect San Francisco Bay.

Now 50 acres of it contain an upscale hotel, restaurant, lounge, spa and environmental institute, constructed and restored with exacting ecological standards and set within the Golden Gate National Parks. Many buildings aim directly at the Golden Gate Bridge; its vivid orange span is within walking distance.

San Francisco sits just across the bridge, but its temptations hardly overpower your desire to stay put, as you soak up scenery from a porch perch. The painterly image of the site's 33 restored historic buildings -- their red-peaked and gabled roofs contrasting with the green Marin County mountains, blue bay waters and glowing bridge -- tends to leave an indelible impression.

Operated and partly owned by the team that runs Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, Cavallo Point shows that real wealth and luxury aren't always about what you own but about what you appreciate and protect.

As the first national park lodge to open in almost a decade and the first to open in the 21st century, the $122-million Cavallo Point is also a worthy model for sophisticated future hotels. After nearly a decade in development, the lodge, its educational programs and even its spa represent a seamless blend of the picturesque past and the sustainable future.

During the Labor Day weekend, I booked the least expensive option, a Bayside Kober King room for $250 a night (plus $35 for National Park Service and environmental fees). The room occupying the second story of the Colonial Revival house had vintage woodwork, original windows and an olden-days floor plan (the bathroom sink is in the living room) that keep the historic vibe intact.

Our forebears, though, made do without the additions: the king-size bed, plump leather chairs, organic Coyuchi linens, water-saving bathroom fixtures, ceiling fans, iPod dock and 32-inch flat-screen TV. I felt like a time traveler.

So did many of the San Francisco residents I met during my stay. Some hadn't visited Ft. Baker since their childhood trips to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, which moved into restored fort buildings in 1991. All were eager to experience this formerly forlorn and historic site.

Lonely no more, the lodge now has families and dogs overflowing from the resort's porches and onto the thick grass. Guests wander to the spa, where a tea bar is open to all guests. (Spa note: Best steam room ever, with a spicy aroma and quiet steam.)

My 9-year-old son, Eli, spent most of a day zooming through the museum and, down at the water's edge, fishing for crabs and poking jellyfish. He was too busy to care that the lodge has no pool. Instead, we explored the place.

Most of the Victorian-era buildings that contain 68 guest rooms once were officers' quarters. Painstaking restoration retained the gently creaking stairways, rippled old window glass, wood plank floors and patterned tin ceilings. Thousands of the tin tiles were removed, numbered and plunged into a deep freeze to crack off a century of lead paint. Each tile was then placed back in its original spot.

Builders were just as careful with the modern part of the resort, which opened July 1. Thirteen ecologically advanced, contemporary buildings with 74 guest rooms were sited on a hillside to capture breezes and views. The Fort Baker Retreat Group built them to the U.S. Green Building Council's gold LEED standards.

Contemporary rooms have priceless views of the bay and bridge, as well as sustainable features, such as bamboo cabinetry, denim insulation, radiant heat floors and solar panels.

The place gains some of its wattage from stars -- the Hollywood kind. I spotted actors Peter Coyote and Bebe Neuwirth (or her double) at Murray Circle, the upscale restaurant, and at breakfast, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was relaxed enough to appear in a casual track suit and ponytail. The guest book is filling with other famous names, including Carlos Santana, Sammy Hagar and Robin Williams.

The rich contrasts extend beyond seeing celebrities in a national park lodge, the usual habitat of fanny-pack tourists. The modern buildings are the epitome of this century's green building efforts, and the historic buildings were hailed as the last century's modern standard. Photovoltaic panels and gray-water recycling systems coexist with 1900s radiators, wood stoves and fireplaces.

Hotel guests and park visitors frolic with their dogs across the public lawn where 90 years ago, troops marched in rigid formation. (Military personnel remained onsite until 2000, when the property transferred to the National Park Service.)

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