The savvy among us have always known that many of the best travel experiences occur within a 50-mile radius of home. For some of us, however, it’s a discovery we need to make again and again.

For years my wife and I have talked about spending a night or two in a local hostel, but until this weekend we didn’t find the time to do so. But a pre-New Year’s hike in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco, where we live, took Paula into the hostel to see what was available and voila, we were booked for two nights in early January.

At this time of year—winter in Northern California—we could be subjected to dense fog, lashing rain, heavy winds, temperatures in the 40s. I know, this would be positively balmy by the standard of much of the U.S. in winter, but friends from Calgary, Alberta who’ve lived in San Francisco for many years told us when they returned from their annual holiday visit home, “No matter what the temperature is in Calgary, it always feels colder here.”

I grew up in Minnesota and won’t get into that discussion. But whatever the weather, we figured a cold, wet hike would be rewarded with cozy conviviality, hot chocolate, and family board games in our hostel home.

It turned out we had perhaps the mildest weekend in months. A nearly full moon basked in the setting sun over Alcatraz as I cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to the hostel, a ride that would have taken about an hour and ten minutes if I hadn’t stopped repeatedly to take photos. Paula and the girls had driven ahead with our three other bikes and I arrived at dusk, coasting the last mile downhill through the deepening chill, listening for owls as the wind rushed past my ears.

We knew the hostel would be close to full but we didn’t know it would be taken over by a convention of kayakers. The inaugural Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium was under way, with dozens of kayakers from across the country converging on the hostel to train in the challenging surf outside the Golden Gate. They were looking for rough seas and stormy weather, but what they got was, well, California Dreamin’.

They nonetheless got plenty of training in and they were welcoming to those of us who had nothing to do with the meeting. In fact, on Saturday night after a cycle to the beach and a long hike in the hills, we got to watch some extraordinary videos of kayaking in Alaska, and participated in a raffle to benefit the nearby Marine Mammal Center. There were so many donated prizes, all related to kayaking or the outdoors, that almost everyone who bought a ticket won a prize, even us, who picked up a windup flashlight/radio/charger that never needs batteries. It was worth the $10 donation! Plus, our girls got to be part of the show and pick all the winning tickets out of a saucepan.

The next morning we joined a guided bird-watching tour around the lagoon led by Jane Haley, and added quite a few new birds to our life lists. It was a fine way to wrap up a travel experience that required just a 15 minute drive or a little more than an hour by bicycle. Truly a close-to-home experience that felt like a long escape.

When we got home our eight-year-old Érne said, “The next time we go to the hostel can we stay for a whole week? We can go when school’s out.”

“What would we do for a whole week,” Paula asked.

Érne thought barely an instant before replying, “Have fun!”

Which is true. I’m sure we could fill several days with fun even that close to home.

Filed Under Birdwatching, California, Eco Friendly Travel, Family Travel, Feature, Hike/Backpack, Hostels, Marin County, North America, San Francisco, Travel, United States


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