(credit: Laurie Jo Miller Farr)
With spring break looming, temperatures rising and the price of gas falling, hitting the road around the San Francisco Bay Area is tempting indeed. College students on break but without wheels will find a number of great destinations that are easy to reach by public transportation while delivering a top-rate outdoor setting that feels a world away from the big city.
The famous boardwalk on the beach is a huge draw and economical, too. At the intersection of history and sweets, Marini’s on the Beach celebrates its 100th birthday; what do you say to chocolate-covered bacon? The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum on the ground floor of the Mark Abbot Memorial Lighthouse that overlooks one of the nation’s trickiest places to surf, where Jack O’Neill first developed the wetsuit and leash. Non-alcoholic cocktails are served at the Jack O’Neill Lounge at Dream Inn’s Aquarius restaurant with vintage surfing artifacts and photos, plus unbeatable views onto Cowell Beach. Non-surfers will be delighted at the numerous Segway and bike rental shops around town.
Begin your visit at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. The national seashore, operated and maintained by the National Park Service, offers hour-long ranger-guided tours departing from here at 1:30 p.m. each Saturday, with extra tours added during spring break. Alternatively, get information for a do-it-yourself visit. If you’re headed up to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, it’s 308 steps in each direction. Depending on the weather and the whims of the whales, the Observation Deck is an ideal viewing place through late April, with scopes and binoculars lent by park service personnel for elephant seal sighting as well. Check online for the latest bus shuttle services in and out of San Rafael and book a campsite to enjoy more hikes and spring wildflowers.
Grab your towel, surfboard and hiking gear. You never know how the microclimates of the Bay Area will perform regardless of the calendar. You do know that these three miles of beachfront make it oh-so-easy to forget that you’re anywhere near a metropolis or a college lecture hall. Beach access and parking are free 365 days a year. Here’s a gorgeous, clean beach you can reach without a car, just 20 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Starting on the second Sunday in March, expanded service operates on the Marin Transit route #61. In town, wander in the small community with a few shops, snack bars and historic restaurants, such as the Sand Dollar where live entertainment is featured; it’s been a local favorite since 1921.
The largest island in San Francisco Bay is a state park, has the best Bay Area views, is easily reached by water but is infrequently visited. Without a private boat, access is no problem via ferry service from Tiburon, Vallejo or San Francisco. The journey is half the fun. Take a bike for a day trip, rent one there or see the island via the electric scooter or Segway tour rentals. A hike up Mt. Livermore guarantees exceptional bird watching as well as spectacular views. If you’re coming in a group, there’s a baseball diamond and volleyball nets to reserve for use at the picnic site by Ayala Cove. Reserve ahead for one of the 11 environmental overnight camp sites that come with a barbecue.
Pacific Coast Highway
Considered one of the nation’s most scenic drives, everyone should do this drive at least once. The most rugged shoreline views are at the San Francisco Bay Area end of the 550-mile-long route to Los Angeles. Keep your wits about you as you’re driving along the edge of the pounding Pacific and pull over in the turnouts to watch the surfers. Head for Monterey, where sea lions, whale watching and kayaking await at Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row, and where the 17-Mile Drive’s lone cypress still stands, braving the elements. Heading south, Big Sur is epic, the Hearst Castle is touristy (and worth seeing) and Pismo Beach is perfect for a clambake.