Hiking and houseboats in Sausalito

Combining the feel of a Greek fishing village and a glamorous French Riviera resort, the San Francisco suburb is home to quirky artistic communities and eucalyptus-framed views.

The Californian town of Sausalito often makes people feel as though they have crossed the Atlantic – even though they have only driven across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Some visitors compare it to a Greek fishing village, others to a glamorous town on the French Riviera. And as different as those places may be, both comparisons to Sausalito – called “the Shire” by locals – stand true.

Eight miles north of San Francisco, Sausalito is technically a suburb of the city, but it is unfair to associate its affluent villas and bohemian houseboats with the typical, staid image of an American ‘burb. Eclectic real estate aside, Sausalito’s handsome trappings include a waterfront promenade full of laidback seafood restaurants such as Salito’s Crab House and Fish, scenic hikes in a number of nearby state parks and resident colonies of elephant seals.

To arrive in style, take the ferry to Sausalito from San Francisco’s Pier 39, where views of the city’s curvy skyline, eerie Alcatraz prison and a few jolly dolphins – if not a migrating humpback – pave the way. For many residents, this scenic ferry ride across the San Francisco Bay is a part of their daily commute.

Until the arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s, the wealthy residents of Sausalito’s hillside communities enjoyed the tranquillity of the bay, where seals outnumbered people. Then the trains brought in labourers, shopkeepers and artisans, many of them Portuguese, to service the new railroad industry. The working-class folk led a rowdy lifestyle on the waterfront, chipping away at the Old World charm in the hills.

Then after the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 and the start of World War II in 1939, Sausalito’s waterfront saw the addition of a major shipyard, which produced 93 cargo ships and oil tankers, and was left to rot when the war ended in 1945.

Seeing an opportunity in the abandoned space, a community of artists and writers from across the bay settled at the waterfront in the late 1950s, turning whatever was left of the shipyard into a flamboyant floating community.

Today, the ragtag collection of houseboats is in the thousands, and residents visit each other in kayaks. Neighbourly visits take place on open decks overflowing with houseplants, garden gnomes and delightfully eccentric decorations. A simple toilet bowl with an empty tank, for example, threatens to rival the iconic Duchamp’s Fountain sculpture; a replica of the Taj Mahal floats on the water; a Chinese pagoda is outfitted with dragons and mermaids.

While most of the artists behind these quirky designs prefer to remain unnamed, sculptor Bill Dan likes to entertain tourists in downtown Sausalito by balancing large rocks on top of smaller rocks. The delicate, more than 3ft-tall rock towers attract crowds to the waterfront promenade, where Dan appears almost every weekend.

Away from the waterfront, the hills of Sausalito beckon via the steep staircase on Excelsior Lane, opposite the little park next to the ferry terminal. The Marin Headlands, which frame Sausalito’s western and southern boundaries, offer spectacular views of the rust-coloured basalt hills that rise above the ocean and explode with flowers and butterflies every spring. Pick up a map at Sausalito’s Visitor Center and dive into a myriad of trails, many of which will take you to the Golden Gate Bridge. Perfect in any weather, the icon stretches proudly over the foaming ocean as San Francisco’s indelible skyline breaks through the fog.

Less than three miles south of Sausalito, there are more hiking routes around the 25 historic army buildings at Fort Baker, a 1905 military outpost in the Marin Headlands. For more rugged views, a half-mile trail leads from the Marine Headland’s Visitor’s Center to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, an active Coast Guard station that is open to visitors on the weekends. The lighthouse stands on a rugged tall cliff, connected to the mainland by a narrow steel suspension bridge. Crossing it on a windy day can make your heart skip a beat or two.

The floating houseboat community is accessible on foot by following Bridgeway street north from the ferry drop off point. Or, you can rent a cycle from Bike and View in San Francisco, ride it across the Golden Gate Bridge and spend the whole day exploring Sausalito by bike.