Tiburon's Beckoning Views

Tiburon's Beckoning Views
Docent Jim Leuker, center, explains some of the area’s geography to a group during a nature walk in scenic Angel Island State Park. (Rosemary McClure / LAT)
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 madroño 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.

The island had another grim use from 1910 through 1940, when it received the nickname Ellis Island of the West. An immigration station opened; its function was to exclude most Chinese immigrants. About 175,000 Chinese were held and interrogated there. Some were forced to stay in the spartan camp as long as two years.

Our six-mile nature hike took us to the station, where some of the immigrants had carved bittersweet poetry into the walls. We also visited Army installations as we circled the island.

"After World War II, the Army pretty much turned off the lights and walked away," Leuker said. That was good news for Californians, who benefited when the island was turned over to the state for a park in 1962.

Today, Angel Island is used primarily for recreation. There are tours by bike, on foot and by tram. Or you can do your own thing, picnicking on the lawns or beaches, swimming in the bay, kayaking, walking trails. Marty and Chip decided to take a 90-minute tram tour ($10.50) instead of the three-hour nature hike (free, but donations happily accepted). They were impressed with the guide's knowledge and with the knockout views.

When we returned to Tiburon around 4 p.m., we watched diners jostling for space at Sam's and decided dinner could wait until the crowds thinned. By 7 p.m., we were able to get a window table. The dinner menu ranged from $15.95 to $21.95. We tried cioppino ($21.95), a spicy stew of shellfish and fresh fish; and seared ahi, prepared with an orange-ginger sauce ($18.95). Both were savory and satisfying.

We were equally impressed with another waterfront restaurant, which we had tried Friday night. Guaymas specializes in Mexican classics and grilled meats and fish. My mariscada, a fajita-style mixture of marinated fish, shellfish and vegetables ($20.50), was excellent, as was the service. The view — well, it was another stunner, of course.

On Sunday morning, I realized all the broad vistas had made me lose track of another favorite vacation pastime: shopping. I had ignored the urge to splurge for too long, so I strolled the streets of Tiburon. Alas, the shops were cute, but their offerings were limited. My favorite was For Paws, where a pet lover with $3 could buy bacon-flavored croissants or doggie cannoli — handmade with yogurt and wheat flour.

With my return flight to Los Angeles approaching, I gave up on the shops and walked down to the greenbelt along the shore. It was another sunny day. Angel Island loomed green and beautiful. In the distance, San Francisco's high-rises and hills were clearly visible. Sailors tacked back and forth across the bay, their spinnakers adding splashes of color.

It was, as the hiker had described it the day before, another drop-dead gorgeous view.