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Island hopping in the San Francisco Bay

Updated on July 25, 2016
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Patty Burness specializes in culinary & wine tourism & luxury travel. Get up close & personal with the best of her worldwide adventures.

Sunset view from East Brother Light Station
Sunset view from East Brother Light Station | Source

Island hopping often conjures up images of white sandy beaches and tropical breezes, jetting off to Hawaii or the Caribbean. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But it’s the unusual places that will sometimes catch your imagination. Exploring the San Francisco Bay does just that. See the sights, learn some important history and enjoy a slice of paradise in the San Francisco Bay.

Get stunning views from Angel Island
Get stunning views from Angel Island | Source

Angel Island is a favorite getaway for hiking, biking and marvelous views. What some don’t realize is that the Army occupied the island in 1863 to protect the Bay. And during World War II, it was a major transfer point to the Pacific. But it is its use as an immigration station from 1910-1940 that is so horrifying. Of the more than one million people who wanted to enter the United States (many call it the Ellis Island of the West), close to 175,000 Chinese immigrants were detained for two weeks to six months before being sent home or allowed to enter this country. The original immigration center reopened to the public in 2008. Poems, carved into the walls of the barracks by the detainees, tell emotional, poignant stories.

Ride a Segway around Angel Island
Ride a Segway around Angel Island | Source

It’s exhilarating to drive Segways around the island. Ride these two-wheelers and take in the natural beauty and spectacular views while cruising past old Army camps and Nike missile sites. The outside road around the island is about five miles, but with trails everywhere, visitors have lots of other options.

Stop at the Angel Island Café before boarding the ferry to back to Tiburon. Time enough to have delicious homemade soup and sandwiches. Finish at the Angel Island Cantina with a cold beer, a glass of wine and live music weekends in the summer.

The Rock
The Rock | Source

The ferry ride from Pier 33 in San Francisco to The Rock takes only 15 minutes. After a short hike uphill, enter the cell house through an entrance once used by inmates. An all-digital audio tour gives the inside scoop about life (and death) at this former federal penitentiary – with more actual accounts from inmates, guards and families who lived there. Many archival museum pieces are now on display including prisoner artifacts – knives carved from scrap metal and kitchen utensils, handcuffs, and shirts and jackets – and old photographs. Alcatraz is maintained by the National Park Service (celebrating its 100th anniversary) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

The Alcatraz gardens have come back to life
The Alcatraz gardens have come back to life | Source

The Alcatraz gardens are extraordinary. With the help of the Garden Conservancy, landscaping once tended by prisoners was uncovered, restored and replanted to reflect its original luster – roses, irises, fuchsias, pansies, and more can be in full bloom depending on the season. You can even volunteer to help out. And with the beautiful flowers, the array of birds and wildlife and the knockout views, it is difficult to fathom “hard times” in such a setting.

Historic East Brother Light House & Victorian Bed & Breakfast
Historic East Brother Light House & Victorian Bed & Breakfast | Source

Looking for a little time away? You’ll find the East Brother Light Station (EBLS) has it all – fascinating history, gorgeous scenery, scrumptious food and a dreamy overnight stay. Board a launch in Point Richmond, and within ten minutes, climb up a steep ladder (the height changes with the tide) to your unique hideaway.

This 130+ year-old Coast Guard Station is only one of two functioning lighthouses in the Bay (the other being Alcatraz). The rectangular lighthouse was built to prevent ships from veering off course en route between San Francisco and Sacramento. Its automated beam flashes every five seconds. The original fog horn and signal used to be powered by diesel which replaced steam in 1939. The one currently in use is automated and operates every 20 seconds from October 1st – April 1st.

The historic lighthouse’s Victorian Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast opened in the 1980s after a massive restoration of the entire island to its original glory. The island is run by a nonprofit organization and all of the services are provided by a couple who live there year-round.

The cistern and fog horn station at EBLS
The cistern and fog horn station at EBLS | Source

Without their own water supply, EBLS counts on rainwater and a cistern to collect what’s needed. The 50,000 gallon capacity has to last from one rainy season to the next. Showers might be cut short due to water level and length of stay.

Others (up to 4 couples) enjoy the island at the same time so guests gather to share sparkling wine and hors d’oeuvres on the patio in the late afternoon. Climb atop the lighthouse for striking sunset views, then join everyone for a four-course dinner in the dining room. Menus change seasonally and many ingredients come from their garden. The summertime menu includes gazpacho, shrimp and grits, and garlic and curry-rubbed pork tenderloin. For dessert, savor homemade blueberry pie with whipped cream.

Each of the five rooms is named for its view – the West Brother, for example, overlooks the EBLS “sister” island and the Bay beyond. Nautical pictures and related artifacts set a maritime theme throughout the house. You’ll be lulled to sleep by the sound of birds, wind and lapping surf.

Find coffee and fruit at 8 even though breakfast isn’t served until 9. It’s another gourmet delight with homemade pastries, granola and maybe a French toast soufflé.

There is plenty of action on the Bay as you can watch boats of all sizes and shapes glide by. It’s a magical spot. Once transported back to the mainland, you’ll realize that EBLS is a perfect ending to your island hopping adventure around the Bay.

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