The view? It's golden

Times Staff Writer

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.)

The former gymnasium's wood ceiling now arches over elegant weddings. In the surrounding hills, hikers and bikers wind past abandoned concrete bunkers, tunnels, and mine depots that overlook the placid Pacific.

Best of all, this calm oasis, where only silent electric golf carts roll past guest rooms, is a short drive from the bustling city and 21 miles by car from San Francisco International Airport. By design, you can enter another era and another existence at Cavallo Point because the place is positioned as a center of change.

It starts with the big ideas: A hotel can be luxurious and eco-conscious by reusing buildings and adhering to green operations and construction. At the new on-site environmental agency, the Institute at the Golden Gate, groups meet to exchange strategies.

Change also comes from the little details: The carpeting contains recycled fibers. Mini-bars contain refillable pitchers of filtered water. Bath amenities are in metal pump-top containers, not disposable plastic bottles.

Most of all, Cavallo Point aims to change the idea of vacations. They're not just mindless detachment here, but -- for an extra fee -- engaged, inspired education.

A full-time programs director has assembled experts who teach triathlon training, mountain biking and yoga; contemporary art history, knitting and animation; and direct culinary adventures in wine, cheese, olive oil and holiday entertaining. A cooking school offers demonstrations and hands-on cooking, directed by Kelsie Kerr, a former Chez Panisse chef.

The programs can be pricey -- $1,755 for a five-day yoga retreat; $1,800 to learn about wine and food; and $2,700 for a gourmet golf getaway.

Though I didn't sign up for programs (none were appropriate for kids), we still had an educational vacation. We learned about the late San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, whose "Farley" strips decorate the Farley Bar. We read captions on historic photos throughout the lodge buildings and toured the adjacent Marin Headlands.

I embarked on a culinary education, tasting nearly half of executive chef Joseph Humphrey's menu of organic, locally sourced food, including his "compressed watermelon," chocolate croissants and trio of exotic bird eggs. The children's menu was so yummy that I ordered from it for myself, and my grilled cheese earned envious glances.

Not every item from this respected chef was perfection, the result of his crew's poor timing and the wait staff's stumbling. Wine fanatics could endure the delays by scanning the wine list's 2,000 selections, culled from the 13,000-bottle cellar.

Throughout the grounds, guests gather at fire pits, along the public porches or wander along the quiet paths. Indoors, they may encounter galleries displaying painting, photography and sculpture.

There's a lot to contemplate while rocking on a porch here, particularly this: Cavallo Point may be historic, but at its core, the resort encourages the exploration of potential, whether you're a sophisticated adult, a nature-loving kid or a 100-year-old Army post.

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valli.herman@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Cavallo Point -- the Lodge at the Golden Gate

* * * *

New and noteworthy: A $122-million investment restored a 1900s military post into an eco-conscious, casually luxurious national park lodge.

The stay: Laid-back leisure partners with outdoor exploration, touring nearby San Francisco, Sausalito and Marin County and surveying the property's transformation.

The scene: Adventurous travelers, curious Bay Area locals and celebrities go to check out the gourmet restaurant and views, and decompress in the spa and cozy lodge rooms.

Deal maker: Stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, plus access to nearby national park nature and city amenities.

Deal breaker: Lurching food service and limited food options can cause crankiness.

Stats: 601 Murray Circle, Ft. Baker, Sausalito; (888) 651-2003, www.cavallopoint.com.

Rooms: Standard rooms begin at $250; suites begin at $450.

Rating is based on the room, service, ambience and overall experience with price taken into account in relation to quality.

* * * * * Outstanding on every level

* * * * Excellent

* * * Very good

* * Good

* Satisfactory

No Star: Poor

On travel.latimes.com

See more of the former fort that is now a luxury resort at latimes.com/cavallo.

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