by Cheri Eplin
If the Heavens were responsible for sprinkling magical dust upon land, Angel Island would definitely be one of the recipients. Set in the middle of San Francisco Bay a stone’s throw from Alcatraz, Angel Island is a perfect place to travel solo- a treat for both mind and body. Yeah, right… now for reality…. if you are a Mommy Diva like me, it can be a great day for YOU and your family!
For the past three decades, Angel Island has attracted cyclists, hikers, nature enthusiasts and history buffs. On this unusually hot day in a notorious windy and fog laden area, it attracted moi, “Mommy Diva,” with two kids in tow – ages two and nine.
Getting to the island was half the fun. Not just half the fun, half fun. I don’t know what it is about traveling in a car with siblings, but if there was a hell on earth, I was burning in its deepest pit. If only I had one of those roll up privacy panels a limo has, I would have traveled sans “mom, he’s looking at me” tirades for the 45 minute ride from the East Bay to where we’d board the ferry in Tiburon. “Oh, look,” I try to distract my lovely offspring through my rear view mirror, “we’re here!”
Alas, the distraction of my mommy mumbo jumbo dance reveals squeals of delight. Tiburon reminded me of the quaint fishing villages you read about in a Steinbeck novel. With its myriad unique shops along Main Street that boast everything from gourmet coffee to women’s clothing, the town of Tiburon is a great excursion in itself as witnessed by hundreds of tourists and locals hustling and bustling along the streets. Some skated, some biked, others strolled, and many hung like bees in a hive around the local coffee shop.
We boarded the Angel Island/Tiburon ferry (the last family-run ferry service in the Bay Area) and Maggie, our animated boat captain, let my sons DRIVE the boat! Boy, were they thrilled. I wasn’t so sure the passengers were, though. We “ferried” along the water where houses stacked along the coast, their windows reflecting a premiere view of the San Francisco Bay. In 10 short minutes, we corralled out of the boat like cattle with dozens of other passengers, some of whom brought their own bikes for their day-long trip around the island, which boasts a rare 360 degree view of the East Bay Hills to Sausalito and of course, the famous San Francisco skyline. Although the bay can be foggy and windy, I lucked out with a rare no wind day and ended up getting sunburned, so be sure to protect yourself with SPF!
The first thing I did was people watch from a bench in front of the visitor’s center while my boys played with other beachcombers. There was a large group of French-speaking picnic goers, a young woman engrossed in a book whose title I couldn’t read, and serious athletic hikers and bikers bustling around Ayala Beach. We then boarded the one-hour tram tour, (think Disneyland trams BUT on dirt roads) which could also be called the “Booby Bouncer,” so be sure to wear a good, supportive bra.
Aside from the breathtaking views and pectoral discomfort from bumps along the road, I found the history fascinating, albeit mostly from a head set and little box that would rival a medieval iPod. Our jubilant tour guide would hop out on occasion to give more detail about how the Miwok Indians once used this island for fishing and hunting. The occasional stops also gave tourists another chance to snap photos of what I consider one of the most beautiful places on earth- San Francisco and its surrounding area. As we neared the end of the tour, I was searching hard for the place I grew up over in the Hayward hills… As I squinted to see if I could make out the shoreline, the damn tram hit a big dip, which with my great abundance up top just about knocked me out! I was sure there were several stretch marks added during that painful jaunt!
Speaking of stretching… if you want to stretch your mind and particularly if you are a history buff, there is enough information to quench your thirst. I was surprised to learn details about Immigration Station, known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” that I never knew about! Within the Immigration Service it was known as The Guardian of the Western Gate. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a series of restrictive laws prohibited the immigration of certain nationalities and social classes of Asians. Although all Asians were affected, the greatest impact was on the Chinese. Because Immigration Station was being remodeled during my visit, I was only able to see the barracks from a distance and view photos and informational plaques at the Visitor’s Center. What stood out for me were the photos of poetry etched into the barracks when some Chinese were detained for up to two years on Angel Island.
After the tour, my boys were famished and so was I. We decided to get a bite to eat before renting bikes for the rest of our journey. Not impressed with the cafeteria food at the Cove Café, as it reminded me of the lunchroom of Bret Harte Junior High, I ordered a tuna sandwich, onion rings, and Pepsi. My kids ordered PB& J’s. Dining on the patio felt more like my neighbor’s backyard with a terrific view of the boats docked at the island. I was surprised when both the sandwich and rings were some of the best I’ve ever had and my boys didn’t complain one bit.
I was reminded of the old adage my mother used to say, “Never judge a book by its cover!”
I returned to the little café counter to satisfy my sweet tooth and was knocked out by their chocolate chip brownie. Marsha, events manager for the island, was a class act in service- she was behind the counter dealing with a long line of patrons as quickly as an automated tennis ball machine.
My only bad experience of the day was fighting for my food with the local wasps that swarmed in droves along the patio. A nearby customer eating ribs (which looked quite delectable, by the way) seemed to bring the entire wasp ancestry in one fell swoop. If you plan in advance, the staff can create a picnic to go.
Next on my list was the physical part of the journey, bicycling around the island. Yeah, right. Unless you’re Lance Armstrong, you will not only be enjoying this trip but working hard for it. Okay, a little (maybe a lot, even?) out of shape, I wasn’t prepared for the incline at the start of the trip. “Just go up that hill a little, turn up there and you can see all the views,” I remember Marsha saying as she hopped from the café to the bike rental station and sent me on my way. Feeling a bit more like I was on Mount Everest and a lot less like I was on a small incline, I was panting and sweating for the first 15 minutes, using quite a few words I hadn’t remembered escaping my lips for a while (of course, my boys were not within hearing distance).
After I professed to lose 40 pounds in the next four months and made a pact to God to start my diet the next day, the brutal (okay, if you’re in better shape, which I’m sure you are, it will be better for you) mountainous trek was worth it. I’m sure the oxygen was not only thinner up there, but the views of the bay were, by far, the best unobstructed views I’d ever seen! Viewing the skyscrapers across the sparkling bay scattered with boats under the majestic Golden Gate made me proud to call myself a Bay Area native.
And I’m convinced, after the bike trip up that hill, that angels really do exist. The ride DOWN with shouts of “whees” and wind blowing through my sweaty hair was, well, HEAVENLY!
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