Hang Time Over the Golden Gate

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."

The main course gave us heart. Prices being what they were, we shared the seared ahi tuna. It was wonderful and just enough for the two of us. Dessert was another story. Billed as cappuccino pot de creme , it tasted more like the pudding you'd find in schoolchildren's lunch bags.

The next morning, as I flew over the bay with San Francisco Hang Gliding Center owner Bodhi Kroll in his incredible flying machine, Mikayla was reduced to a dot in the distance. Call it a shift in perspective, but zooming along with Bodhi at the helm, I felt all my niggling worries and complaints drift away on the breeze.

I gazed down and spied a whale spouting in the bay, and my fingers slowly loosened their death grip on the seat cushion. Meanwhile, Bodhi kept me entertained, talking to me above the whir of the propeller through a microphone networked from his helmet to mine. "Just so you know," he said, "I've rigged this thing with a completely bombproof parachute should anything go wrong." My grip tightened.

"But it won't," Bodhi said. And I trusted him. Not only is he the only person with an aquaglider in the Bay Area, but he's also the only person licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard to fly such a craft over the bay.

Besides, a couple of years ago I had gone tandem hang gliding with Bodhi off Mt. Tamalpais. Aquagliding was similar, though the enormity of the bay made the experience more dramatic, like a symphony compared with an unaccompanied flute. Before I knew it, the trip was over. A half-hour after the craft's 68-horsepower engine propelled us into the sky, air currents carried us back for a landing in the Richmond marina, a short drive from Marin across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

"Well, how'd you like it?" Bodhi asked. I started gushing. I loved it. My only wish was that Jay could experience it too.

"We're looking at building another one of these, and one of my instructors is working on his pilot's license," Bodhi said. "By fall we'll be flying two at a time."

Perfect, I thought. Just in time for Jay's birthday.

*

Eileen Hansen is a freelance writer who lives in Marin County.

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Budget for Two

Acqua Hotel, two nights: $352.00

Dinner, Piatti: 63.73

Angel Island ferry: 11.00

Dinner, Mikayla: 84.59

Other meals: 23.40

Aquagliding and video, for one: 251.22

FINAL TAB: $785.94

* Acqua Hotel, 555 Redwood Highway, Mill Valley, CA 94941; telephone (888) 662-9555 or (415) 380-0400, fax (415) 380-9696, Internet http://www .acquahotel.com.

* San Francisco Hang Gliding Center, tel. (510) 528-2300, http://www.sfhanggliding.com.

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