Old Fave, New Face

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Morrison is a Times columnist, co-host of KCET's "Life & Times" and a commentator for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

The weather was awful, but I went anyway--to spend one of El Nino's most ferocious weekends here on the theory that not every getaway may be sunlight and rosebuds, but can still be an adventure.

Sausalito is fabled as a cultural never-never land, both light years ahead and decades behind. Where else can an hourlong flight from Burbank take you back 30 years? I walked in on a conversation in a jewelry shop just in time to hear a retro-haired clerk telling a friend, "Well, he used to play drums in Jimi Hendrix's band."

My weekend home base, the Hotel Sausalito, is a great place to cuddle up, whether for reasons of rain or romance. The 1915 building that was once reputedly a bordello was extensively remodeled last year in a "French Riviera" style, in keeping with this city on what some call the Northern California Riviera.

Now run by a Scottish couple who enlivened my stay with their off-kilter Glasgow wit, the hotel and its 16 rooms and suites ($125 to $250) are themselves enlivened by the work of San Rafael designer Linda Applewhite. She cozied up the place with warmly patinated terra cotta apricots and pinks and ochres--but not a speck of blue, because, as Applewhite notes, blue is the color of the hotel's star-turn, the ocean waters of Richardson Bay.

I had brought some work with me, but even though the good-size desktop had a phone and computer port, I hunkered down in the cloud of a bed for a while, writing as the rain soughed outside my windows. Having splurged on an outside corner room, I could look across to the small park and the ferryboat landing where legend holds that bootleg liquor was smuggled in the 1920s. I could look down and see the dark roots of rain-drenched blond joggers.

On the theory that a piece of the pleasure of a weekend getaway is a gorgeous bathroom you don't have to clean, the Hotel Sausalito did it right--an un-European bath with a glassed-in shower so large it would rent for $900 a month in Manhattan, and a pottery-framed mirror studded with iridescent chunks of glass.

In short, these are rooms that beg for a 48-hour "Do Not Disturb" sign. But then, I was traveling solo--and Sausalito awaited.

Like Marin County itself, Sausalito labors under an easy-to-lampoon reputation for the touchy-feely and self-absorbed. The Whole Earth Catalog has been published here for 30 years. It was in a Sausalito eatery that, in 1982, a writer scribbled on a place mat what would become a bumper-sticker mantra: "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."

Millions of people see this town in fine-weather events such as its Labor Day arts festival. But I stamped through rain puddles like a 5-year-old to explore. I splashed along the water's edge, past bobbing houseboats, home to writers and funky folks. Est founder Werner Erhard lived aboard a yacht here. In a quirky way, I was relieved that the rain prompted many merchants to close early on Saturday, because my absolute belief is that when you're out of town, you cannot spend real money or gain real weight.

In fairer weather, I would have spent a lot more unreal money, for besides its art-haven reputation, Sausalito is GHQ for charming and marginally useful bibelots.

As for gaining real weight--on a Saturday afternoon, you can lurch from coffee house to pastry shop to sandwich bistro. I slid into the waterfront Sausalito Bakery & Cafe for spanakopita and Greek salad, sharing the premises with an old man who looked like Greta Garbo's father in "Anna Christie" and an old woman who looked like the tweedy ornithologist in "The Birds."

The Bay Area twilight was brilliant in the reflected rain, but it deprived me of an hour's reading on the hotel's now rainy terrace. So, what the heck, I dined: at Angelino's, another restaurant on waterfront Bridgeway street, where the bread is homemade and every dish carried past my table--the petrale sole, the steamed mussels--was fragrant and lovely. But so too was my gnocchi.

If gawking expended calories, a visitor could come home a few pounds lighter. The vistas, even between storm clouds, are superb, and the higher up you climb, the better they get.

I passed on the hotel's complimentary pastry-and-coffee breakfast next door at Caffe Tutti and ascended the hill to the Alta Mira hotel and restaurant, where the brunch--mark the cinnamon eggnog French toast, and the crab and shrimp omelet with champagne caviar sauce--makes you wish every weekend had two Sundays. Afterward, I went strolling in the rain, along streets twining among lichen-dappled trees, admiring gardens of calla lilies and hyacinths, walking for hours, until I ran out of hillside and then doubling back to the hotel.


What Southern California forfeits by its fine weather is the luxury of getting out of wet clothes and into a dry martini, as Robert Benchley said, or a heap of warm bedding with a good book and nothing to do until . . . dinner. A friend wanted to go to a Mexican restaurant in Tiburon. It had better be good, I warned her; this was like taking Newcastle to the coals. (Guaymas lived up to its billing. The menu--poached octopus cocktail instead of shrimp, marinated cactus strip and onion salad--was a great Marin spin on Mexican.)

So I defied El Nino, and won. The only regret about the weekend was that the flight home was right on time.


Budget for One

Hotel Sausalito w/complimentary breakfasts, two nights: $385.00

Air fare, round trip, Burbank to San Francisco: 81.00

Door-to-door airport van: 60.00

Lunch, Bakery & Cafe: 8.00

Dinner, Angelino's: 48.65

Brunch, Alta Mira: 16.00

Dinner, Guaymas: 25.00

FINAL TAB: $623.65

Hotel Sausalito, 16 El Portal, Sausalito, CA 94965; tel. (888) 442-0700 or (415) 332-0700, fax (415) 332-8788.

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