Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Road with Nancy Brown: Three Ways to See the Bay

Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown attempts to find whales, cruises under the Golden Gate and escapes from Alcatraz.

Waiting to Watch Whales

Dramamine: check. Water bottle: check. Snacks: check. Binoculars: check. Sunblock: check. As I scanned my backpack in Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Harbor, my excitement began to build. I found my way to the marina and joined a group of warmly-dressed adults and juniors, eager as I was to search for migrating gray whales. Flashbacks of my first whale watching excursion in Monterey, California popped into my head: dolphins flanked our boat and escorted us out to sea. I remember having my Leonardo DiCaprio moment as I too felt like “king of the world” as the Risso’s dolphins leapt around us in Monterey Bay.

Courtesy of Hornblower Cruises & Events.Our morning in Half Moon Bay began just as promising, with a bright blue sky and clear horizon. We happily boarded the 56-foot Salty Lady and staked our claim near the stern of the boat.

After an hour and a half looking off the port and starboard sides of the boat, we only spotted a common murre. Some passengers began asking when we would reach the whale site. Peter Winch, our naturalist from the Oceanic Society, politely explained that the whales could be swimming anywhere in the ocean. While it was true that we had a seventy percent chance to see whales, lady luck was not onboard the Salty Lady that sunny morning. Fortunately, we enjoyed lovely weather on the Pacific.

My take away from the experience: whale watching is a lot like fishing. There are no guarantees that you’re going to have success—unless maybe you sail with Hornblower Cruises from their San Diego harbor (the company actually guarantees that passengers will see whales, or they'll issue a pass for a future whale watching cruise.) Peter Winch says passengers tend to have better luck in March when the whales' are on their northern route from Mexico.

A Romantic Evening on the Bay

As classmates signed high school yearbooks, the boat rocked and rolled in the San Francisco Bay. The year was 1979, and our high school graduation committee thought a cruise on the Bay would be entertaining, while keeping us hostage for the evening. I vaguely remember learning the gaming rules of craps from some of the parent chaperones on board.

Some 30 years later, I’m back on the Bay. I’ve traded my graduation diploma for a marriage license and tonight is “date night.” Thanks to our FastPass, we have zipped over the Bay Bridge and arrived in San Francisco, gliding into the Hornblower Cruises parking lot with little fanfare.

Courtesy of Hornblower Cruises & Events.As we walk on board the 183-foot California Hornblower yacht, we are serenaded with live music by Amy Foster and the City Beat Dance Band. This is a winter excursion, so most of the passengers are locals. Guests range from young city slickers to middle-aged couples. The keen observer that I am, I spy champagne buckets next to several tables. Dinner aboard a yacht, accompanied by a full moon, does make for a romantic special occasion.

While sailing around San Francisco’s iconic landmarks, the band members share local history and folklore. As we make our way toward Alcatraz, we're reminded of some of the Island’s infamous prisoners, as well as several attempted escapes from The Rock. Rumor has it that one man escaped from Alcatraz, fled to a bar in the city, and was caught within 24 hours because someone hard him bragging about his escape and called the cops. Motoring silently by Alcatraz, lights play on the weathered structures. From Alcatraz, we glide over to Angel Island, and then chart our course to the world famous Golden Gate Bridge.

Like party goers making their way to New York’s Times Square, passengers grab warm coats, drinks in hand, and step outside to admire the city skyline from one of the Hornblower’s three decks. Some people make toasts to one another, stealing kisses and sharing whispers, as we pass under the mighty Golden Gate. The moon looms bright over the East Bay hills, as we finish our dinners and journey back to our City by the Bay.

Alcatraz: A Small Town with One Bad Neighborhood

Imagine being locked up on some of San Francisco’s most expensive real estate. You’re able to hear the sounds of the city float in across the water, yet you know that you’ll never be able to set foot off the island.

Courtesy of John A. Martini.Located only a mile and a quarter from San Francisco, Alcatraz is an island that has sheltered its share of characters. Children who grew up on the island, as a result of their parents working in the U.S. Federal Penitentiary, referred to Alcatraz as, “a small town with one bad neighborhood.”

Rule Number 5 of the Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations, written In 1934, says: “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.”

This is the sign that welcomes visitors on their self-guided tour of Alcatraz. Here, you will learn what it's like to enter Cell Block D, also known as “The Hole,” or solitary confinement. Tour the Alcatraz dining hall and learn why this was the most dangerous room in the prison—hint: it’s the only room with weapons (also known as forks, knives, and spoons.)

When’s the last time you took a ferry ride to Alcatraz? Was it when your relatives were visiting from back East? I have a confession to share: until my recent visit to The Rock, I don’t think I had ever set foot on Alcatraz. I’m glad I did, but I’m also glad I was able to leave.

If You Go:

Whale watching from Half Moon Bay with the Oceanic Society departs for a 3.5-hour tour from Pillar Point Harbor at 10 a.m., returning at 1:30 p.m. Cost is $45. Visit oceanicsociety.org/whalesightings for more information.

Hornblower Cruises offers 2.5-hour dining cruises on the San Francisco Bay Sunday through Thursday, and 3-hour yacht cruises Friday and Saturday, both including a four course meal, with wine and cocktails available for an additional charge. Cost from $99. hornblower.com.

Allow three hours minimum for the tour of The Rock with Alcatraz Cruises. Cost is $26 for a day tour and $33 for a night tour. Skip the lines and purchase your tickets online at alcatrazcruises.com.

What’s your favorite way to experience the Bay? Leave your comments below.


A lifelong resident of Contra Costa County, Nancy D. Brown grew up in Moraga. When she’s not traveling, she lives in Lafayette with her husband and teens. Nancy is the Uptake.com Travel Editor, writes the What a Trip blog and is a Contra Costa Times Lamorinda Sun columnist. Horse lovers will find her at writinghorseback.com. Follow Nancy on Twitter at twitter.com/Nancydbrown.