Waking up on board the converted 19th-century ferry steamboat Yellow Ferry, I see an immense wooden paddle wheel fill the giant window of the master bedroom, splitting the sunlight into angled rays. Between the spokes, from my kingsize bed, I can see a cormorant floating on the calm waters of the bay estuary, occasionally disappearing to dive, then resurfacing, its crested head and elegant neck alert, navigating the gently rippling currents.
On an offshore pontoon, seals bask in the morning sun. Kayaking the previous evening at sundown, we’d glided too close to one of the pups, who had plopped into the water – starting a domino effect of seals slipping into the sea. Pelicans stood on mooring posts at the end of piers, silhouetted against the pink sky.
Sausalito is one of the west coast’s sleepy delights, all the better experienced while staying in one of a collection of stylish houseboats, some newly available to tourists.
On the north side of the Golden Gate bridge in Marin County, Sausalito is a quaint waterfront town, a 30-minute ferry ride (or 10-minute drive) from downtown San Francisco. Pine forests overlook a bay dotted with millionaires’ houses perched on stilts.
In 1976, Fleetwood Mac stayed here while recording the Rumours album at the Record Plant studio close to the old dockyard. According to rock’n’roll folklore those recording sessions were drug-fuelled, as was the Sausalito of the 70s, when the houseboat community emerged from the flower-power era. Those who had gone to San Francisco wearing flowers in their hair had been gatecrashed by a heavier, druggier mob, squatting on vessels, refusing to pay tax and bringing the community to the brink of eviction.
Thankfully, these days the feel of the early houseboat scene, forged from the 60s ethos of peace, love, understanding and ingenuity, has been revived. OK, they have well-paid jobs and families, probably don’t take acid, and play with iPads not guitars, but they occupy a more blissful, alternative plane than the city dwellers over the water. Less a counter-culture movement, it now feels like a diverse, friendly, bohemian community of people that take huge pride in their homes.
The walkways interlacing the Yellow Ferry harbour are beautiful. Colourfully painted boats of different styles, shapes and sizes float side by side. Flowering gardens tumble over railings and plankways, sculptures and artworks litter the scene.
All 22 boats are permanently moored and range from big, swanky affairs with yacht-like modernist design features – big open decks and conservatories overlooking the harbour – to more rustic craft with wood-burning stoves and marbled kitchenettes. The majority are occupied by their owners but some are available for holiday lets. My friend and I stayed on two very different houseboats.
The first, Yellow Ferry, sits at the end of the eponymous harbour. Owner Chris Tellis has lived here all his life and is also the harbour master of the dock. At different times of day you might bump into his neighbours returning home with groceries, setting out to walk their dogs, children on deck doing homework, retirees shooting the breeze. Everybody is seriously laid back.Formerly The Spirit of Seattle, the boat was built in 1888 to ferry passengers across Puget Sound, but was moved farther south to the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in the inland estuaries and straits of northern California, before winding up decommissioned in the Bay area and being renamed.
Chris, who lives at one end of the vessel in opulent self-contained quarters above and below deck, tells me how his bohemian Ivy League-educated parents moved from the east coast to tune into the west-coast buzz in 1956. The well-worn beat generation path, trodden by Jack Kerouac et al.
They bought the ship, painted it yellow and its story since then has been a labour of loving restoration, which Chris takes great joy in explaining.
“The houseboat community began before the hippy movement of the 60s and 70s,” says Chris, who has lived here since he was 10. “These docks were shipyards where they built boats for the US navy. The warships used in the Normandy landings came from here and some of the boats that never made it to Europe later became home to shipbuilders and dockworkers who needed cheap housing after the war. Later, young beatniks discovered this incredible, natural way of life on the water and that’s how it all began.”
Since those times, the community has become increasingly affluent but retains its artistic credentials. Most residents are self-employed: photographers, painters, film-makers, writers, carpenters, sculptors.
The huge paddle wheel that greets us through the master bedroom window is now just for show, a reminder of the boat’s former maritime history. Down carpeted stairs on the lower level, another en suite bedroom has windows at water level, perfect for spotting wildlife. The living room is a magnificent huge space with wooden flooring, a log fire, enormous sofas and beams made of Douglas fir and teak.
The semi-circular windows and French doors give 180-degree views over the bay and neighbouring boats.
Cooking our own food in the oak-panelled kitchen, we feel like we’ve adapted to boating-community life right away. Next door, Chris and his wife, the artist Isabella Kirkland, are on hand to enlighten us on everything from local history to environmental concerns about the Pacific Ocean.
The next day we jump ship to Tobiko, a beautiful little boat on Liberty Dock, a few piers to the east, where the vibe is very different. There are more houseboats in this peaceful aquatic village on stilts – it looks like the city in Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, but with hippies, herb gardens and cats rather than cannons and spears.
I bump into old friends Nathan and Nora Stratton, a couple who first told me about this oasis of calm when I met them a few years ago on a shoot they were doing for Médecins Sans Frontières.
Effusive and hilarious, they invite themselves over for drinks later that evening. The best thing about living here, I ask? “It’s good to know your neighbours, or that there’s only one way out!” Nathan jibes, staring overboard into the depths.
Tobiko is a wonderfully chic, snug little nest. Spread over three floors, the lower level has two bedrooms. The living area on the middle deck is wood-floored with a wood-burning stove, and a winding staircase leads to a cute bathroom with a Jacuzzi.
A raised kitchen sits next to a small dining area, its oak table surrounded by a wraparound window with spectacular views across the Liberty Dock marina. A seagull named Fluffy sits outside keeping us company. I find out his name by emailing the owner of the boat, Shannon Service, a journalist away filming sharks in Costa Rica but easily contactable for any questions we have.
Up on the top deck, we flop into the comfy seats in the afternoon sun, enjoying a couple of beers from the local microbrewery and peanut butter pretzels. Which we proceed to do for quite some time, while snowy egrets breeze past overhead.
The next morning, in the pouring rain, we cycle up the pathway to the Golden Gate bridge. We dry out at the Dipsea Cafe on the road into Marin City, tucking into sausage links and pancakes for breakfast. By lunchtime, the sun has come out and we stop to eat again, at Le Garage, a tricky-to-find French bistro nestled among the jetties where sailboats, yachts and fully rigged sailing ships are tied up.
When evening falls, we visit two local bars: Smitty’s, on Caledonia Street, has a jukebox, pool tables, bar-room banter and a great selection of beers; and at the No Name Bar, a jazz trio is furrowing an acid jazz groove while the free, freshly made popcorn at the bar is as irresistible as the whiskey.
As we leave, the northern California rain slickens the pavements – a reminder of the British flavour of weather in these parts: visit from August to October if you want guaranteed sunshine.
We stumble back to the lights of Liberty Dock and the illuminated walkways. We find our boat with no trouble. Smug and satisfied, we feel like bona fide boat dwellers now.
• The stays on both houseboats were provided by the owners. Book Tobiko, which sleeps six, through airbnb. (The boat’s page says minimum stay 30 days, costing £3,393, but shorter lets are available – email the owner via the website for details.) To book Yellow Ferry, see yellowferry.com. Prices from $350 a night for up to six guests. Flights were provided by Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.co.uk), which flies daily from Heathrow to Los Angeles from £530 return. For further information, see visitcalifornia.co.uk