Tiburon CA, one of the most expensive real estate markets in Northern California, actually offers an affordable way to enjoy San Francisco and one of the many wonders of California: Angel Island. Leave the car in Tiburon and ferry to San Francisco for sightseeing one day and outdoor paradise, Angel Island, another. Three hours south of Tiburon is the Central Coast, home to most of the produce grown in the US. Drive another 90 minutes east and you might hit snow in the breathtaking Sierras. These are just some of the California treasures to discover on a Northern California road trip with college-age kids.
Discovering Northern CA Wonders
My college kids are 2,000 miles away from home, each in a different state, so I am always “strategizing” – er, plotting – ways for us to spend time together. Spring break is a great option, but I have to compete with friend-trips to get time with them. The only way for me to win is to one-up the friend-trip. And pay for it.
The answer for us was five nights through some of the unexpected wonders of California.
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Over the years we have done other California trips: the requisite Pacific Coast Highway 1 road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and via the infamous zip code, 90201, (gorgeous, never gets old); college visits (times 3!); house swaps in Hermosa Beach; and a girls-only trip to San Diego. This time we changed it up and met in northern California to check out Tiburon, take a scenic drive through the Bay Area, then head to national parks, Central California and Southern California. We created our own west coast tour that was close-ish to their college towns and counted as a vacation – to them and to me.
Where is Tiburon CA?
Never heard of Tiburon? It’s the unexpected affordable alternative to pricey San Francisco. But it’s still close enough that you can check out all the cool San Francisco stuff: ride the cable cars (my college kids still love this), visit the world class museums, eat at Dragon Papa (molasses pastry), get a haircut in Chinatown (OK, my son’s thing) and more. It’s our mini-paradise.
Several years ago, we took a family vacation to San Francisco and we did all of the touristy stuff: Lombard Drive, Ghiradelli Square, the Wharf, and Embarcardero. We even biked the Golden Gate Bridge. What do my college kids remember and want to do again? Ride the cable cars. Up and down and sideways. Thankfully an hour was enough this time. Last time we rode all day!
TravelingMom Tip: Stay in Tiburon. Leave the car there and take the ferries. The Blue & Gold Tiburon ferry is a scenic ride across San Francisco Bay. It’s an unexpected wonder itself in car-obsessed California. Captain Maggie, owner of the Angel Island Ferry Company, will take you from Tiburon to Angel Island in just 12 minutes at a cost of just $15 — far less than you’ll pay to park in San Francisco, assuming you can even find a parking spot.
Stay in Tiburon CA
San Francisco is a beautiful city with lots to eat, see, and do. But everything, from parking to lodging, can cost a bundle. Instead, we chose to stay across the Bay at The Lodge at Tiburon on the Tiburon peninsula. Zip code here: 94920.
Tiburon, Sausalito and Mill Valley are upscale suburbs of San Francisco in swanky Marin County, directly across the Bay from the city. On a clear day, you can wave at Tiburon from the Pier in San Francisco. And you can see all of the gorgeous lights and bridges in San Francisco from Tiburon. Golden Gate Bridge? Check.
The Lodge at Tiburon, our home for three nights, is a quaint retreat within walking distance to several cute stores and restaurants.
Unlike the bustle of hotels in the city across the bay, the vibe at The Lodge is cozy and relaxing. The rooms open to an outdoor courtyard secured by alarmed gates. Rocking chairs surround the rock-wall fire pit and the pool is a warm 80-plus degrees. Our room and, our most importantly, our mattress was very comfortable, but the furniture was a bit worn. The small balcony overlooked the pool, and the town of Tiburon, with bay views in the distance.
The Lodge’s restaurant, Tiburon Tavern, promotes farm-to-table American fare with a unique, locally sourced menu. For breakfast, I had the Tiburon Fresh Farm Herb Omelet with thyme and basil grown in their garden. My son ate every bite of his ricotta pancakes with berries and lemon butter. Absolutely fresh and delicious.
Dinner didn’t disappoint, with hearty comfort food like steak or grilled salmon over mashed potatoes and amazing desserts. When you go for breakfast, you’ll want to go back for lunch. And for dinner, too. Locals told us it’s a favorite. And if you have to stay in San Francisco the next time you visit, “reverse commute”- ferry over to Tiburon and enjoy a meal at Tiburon Tavern. It’s fun and worth it.
This is the place for pasta and gorgeous calming views (the Golden Gate bridge view isn’t the only great one in California). Italian restaurants are always a challenge with my family. Inevitably my husband, a first generation southern Italian, and/or our 50% Italian kids will want Italian food when we travel. Thanks to my mother-in-law’s cooking, they are usually disappointed.
Servino’s pasta is good – not Nani good, but good. Calamari is one way we test Italian restaurants and Servino’s passes, but is not a recommend. We tasted several dishes and our favorite was the Branzino tucked in a Mediterranean sauce of capers, tomatoes and olives. And we loved the Brussels sprouts.
This is the spot for pizza and more pizza. My Italian teens said they would return here, for sure. Freshly made pizza with light tangy tomato sauce and a tasty cheese topping won us over. We thought it was better than the pizza we ate in North Beach, the Italian section of San Francisco, and it was far less crowded.
TravelingMom Tip: Grab a pizza to go and eat it on the ferry ride over to San Francisco. Plan ahead – the pizzas are made fresh and can take up to 30 minutes. They’re worth it. We love trying pizza everywhere we go in the United States to really get a feeling for the area, and this didn’t disappoint.
Hidden California Wonders Near Tiburon CA
This hidden gem is the west coast, California version of Ellis Island. It’s a national park and the place where 175,000 Asian immigrants entered America for the first time via the Pacific between 1910 and 1940. Unlike Ellis Island, which processed immigrants within hours, the goal at Angel Island was to keep most Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Most were detained for weeks, some for months or even years.
According to the California Parks Department, “Interrogations could take a long time to complete, especially if witnesses for the immigrants lived in the eastern United States. Some detainees expressed their feelings in poetry that they carved into the wooden walls of the detention barracks. Others simply waited, hoping for a favorable response to their appeals, but fearing deportation. Many of the poems that were carved into the walls of the barracks are still legible today.”
As we toured the center, we followed a middle school group led by the son of an immigrant who arrived via Angel Island as a “paper son.” He explained that Chinese parents who were in the United States were allowed to have their children sent over. Back then, it was difficult to verify whose children were whose so parents would forge papers to show that their son was someone else’s – “a paper son,” and send them to the US to work. He pointed out the poems etched into the wooden walls of the barracks, which are a bittersweet memory for the many immigrants who were detained at Angel Island.
Angel Island History
In 1863, Angel Island was known as Fort McDowell. During the Civil War in 1863, the military mission was to protect the coast from Confederate sympathizers and naval attacks. Between World War 1 and WWII, about 30,000 men were trained at Fort McDowell. Many of the buildings, including the red hospital, still stand today.
The island itself is a beautiful spot to spend a day or a weekend (think camping). We were greeted by 360-degree views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. The San Francisco Bay is stunning. We spent the day hiking and touring the barracks, but you also can rent bikes (electric available) or take a tram around the perimeter road.
TravelingMom Tip: Request a private tour of the west coast island of Angel Island. It’s not Paradise Dr., but it’s incredibly scenic. It’s also the spot to enjoy live music and a bite to eat right on the water. The cafe food is fresh and tasty!
Sequoia National Park
My teens loved this four-hour drive through California’s Central Valley. The New York Times calls it the “Land of a Billion Vegetables” for its roadside produce stands. We bought 20 avocados for $5 and a 10-pound bag of oranges for a buck, and ate them throughout the rest of our trip. This was a clear highlight.
Equally enchanting are the Instagrammable views in the Sierra Mountains in Sequoia National Park. My 20-something kids were all over that. So, too, would middle school kids, I bet.
Within a few miles, the climate changed from moderate and cool to crisp and snowing. We stayed at Hume Lake Family camp in the Sierras. Picturesque cabins and dorms are surrounded by giant Sequoias on the shores of a spectacular lake. I cannot wait to return with our whole family to this section of California.
What I Drove
Chevy loaned me a Traverse for my trip to Tiburon CA and I was happy to have it on the long open road. It fit the kids, our gear and the 20 avocados with ease. Likewise, I was happy to be able to park it in Tiburon and take the ferry over to San Francisco and Angel Island. I can’t imagine being able to find a parking spot in San Fran to fit this large SUV.
Space is always a leading factor when we travel; everyone in the family wants their own, especially on a road trip. There is plenty of space in the Traverse; however, this time, technology was the star. The Chevy Traverse is loaded with everything from Apple Car Play to wifi to lane assist. A double moonroof and cushy leather seats made the trip super easy. Even thought the Traverse is large (seats 7), it was comfortable to drive. And I did a LOT of driving in Cali! It’s perfect for a single family.
San Francisco, Angel Island and Tiburon . . we’ll be back. Next time, we’ll also hit that famous zip code, along with Oakland, Los Altos and Belvedere.