Board a ferry on a winter’s night and see San Francisco from the bay

San Francisco looks great during the holiday season, especially right after dark when the lights come on. It’s as bright as an ornament on a Christmas tree. The city is best seen from a distance. Up close, that’s another story.

But this story only requires a modest trip from San Francisco to the landings around the bay. With a little planning, you can make a one-night round trip from the Ferry Building to Oakland, Alameda, Sausalito, Larkspur, or Vallejo, starting at dusk when the light starts to fade and returning after dark. . Every San Franciscan needs a reminder of why we live here. Try this one out and see.

I try to make the trip at least once in December, mainly because of the holiday lights. When I was a little boy and thought the city at night was full of magnificence, I relished an overnight ferry ride. If I close my eyes I can see it again as I saw San Francisco from the front deck of a ferry years ago: the city towering on its hills, the lights from the windows of downtown office buildings. – city and two big red neon signs. One said CAFÉ WELLMAN, in capital letters; the other was advertising the Sherwin-Williams painting, with an outline of the world repeatedly covered in neon paint.

I bet you a cup of Wellman coffee the world is not like that anymore. And it is not. But the meaning of this city seen from the bay is still there, like an illusion.

Port cities look best on the water: think of New York from the Staten Island ferry or Hong Kong from the Star Ferry. Or San Francisco from the bay.

There was a rain break the other afternoon, just in time for the 4:05 pm Golden Gate ferry to Sausalito. Ferry service has been curtailed at the worst of the virus lockdown as more commuters have decided to work from home. In the good old days, two years ago, the lines of customers waiting to take the ferries stretched around the Ferry Building. No more. Although Golden Gate Transit added a new schedule with more service to Sausalito on December 13, the word was not yet out and the 4:05 boat was nearly empty.

The boat was the Sonoma Motorboat, and we backed off the dock in time and turned north. There was less than an hour left in the day. A few remaining rain clouds caught the light.

The shadows lengthen on a December afternoon and the winter solstice is fast approaching. The low angle of the sun gives a special quality to the light. “The changing light of San Francisco is not that of your light on the east coast, nor that of your pearly light of Paris,” poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote. “The light of San Francisco is a marine light, an island light. … “

The journey only takes 30 minutes, plenty of time to look out over the Golden Gate, to gaze at the spooky Alcatraz Prison Island, and to watch the hills above Sausalito come a little closer. Just after Alcatraz, the wind and the ocean swell cause the ferry to roll, sway and pitch a little, reminding us that we are sailing on an arm of the sea.

Before the pandemic, ferries from Sausalito had a small bar, where regular commuters met on the way home. It was like a little floating club, with stories about commuting and office adventures, music they had heard about on Oakland boats, deckhands who knew everyone’s name, the dangers of seagull poo, even talk about floating romances with happy endings, like ferry tales.

But the bar and snack service has been suspended, pending a better day. It is a loss.

We landed on Sausalito just in time. The commuters returning home got off and we picked up a bunch of new passengers, including a dozen or so who had cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge and were taking the ferry back to San Francisco.

A different crowd. Not the commuters who see each other almost every day, but tourists, to see the sights. They were lucky that day. The city put on the show.

The sun had now set, but it was still clear enough to take pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge with clouds behind. Anna Capille and Jo Ann Garbutt, both British Airways flight attendants in town for an overnight stopover, had taken the ferry just to get on and take pictures. They had been all over the world. They said the early evening ferry ride was something they especially enjoyed doing on their trips to the west coast. “It’s wonderful,” Capille said.

It was dark as we sailed into town. A red light was lit at the top of the Transamerica Pyramid and a white light was on the highest point of Angel Island. They are Christmas lights. Once a year.

After about 20 minutes, the San Francisco skyline began to dominate the skyline.

Ferlinghetti has spent much of his long life in San Francisco. He had heard a lot about the city; he thought it would be a good place for poets, took the westbound train. He saw his new town for the first time from the deck of an Oakland ferry on a winter morning in 1950. “And San Francisco looked like a Mediterranean port – a little white town with mostly white buildings – a bit like Tunis seen from the sea. I thought maybe it was Atlantis, resurrected from the sea, ”he wrote.

But as the Sonoma ferry turned to San Francisco the other night, it looked like Manhattan.

The towers of the Embarcadero Center were surrounded by 17,000 lights, the thousand-foot-tall Salesforce tower sparkled, the square glass skyscrapers that mark the skyline lit at their best for the holidays. The lights on the cables of the Bay Bridge moved like the strings of a harp. The venerable Ferry Building was lit up in Christmas red and green. The city lights reflected off the dark waters of the bay.

The small white Mediterranean town that Ferlinghetti remembered has vanished, like the ghost of Christmas past. But sometimes when the holiday lights come on, the city we have now is awe-inspiring, especially from a distance aboard a ferry on a winter’s night.

The Carl Nolte column airs on Sundays. Email: [email protected]

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