I was recently talking to Marla, who always had interesting ideas about travel, and she told me that it took her forever to realize that San Francisco was right on the water.
She didn’t mean this literally of course (though my initial surprise made her laugh). What she meant is that she had long taken the fact that the city was on the Bay, tucked near the ocean, for granted. The water was just a feature, another street you had to cross, the thing down the road. It’s permanence made it unremarkable.
But, she explained, “Recently I’ve begun to realize just how incredible it is that we’ve got this thing here: this beating, natural, frothing little untamable pool. I love it. And I now love going out on it.”
Marla was referring to the Bay Area boat tours she had been taking with some of her friends, all San Francisco older adults. They had been exploring the region, going to places they had never really visited, and most importantly, seeing things in a new way.
One new thing she saw was that San Francisco is a town built from the west, not from the east. It was tempting to think that San Francisco, California, and, indeed, all of America, ends at the Pacific Ocean. That’s a myth. The Bay and the Pacific Ocean weren’t an ending point, but a starting point for centuries of conquistadors and explorers, and, finally, Americans. The Bay is actually a beginning.
It still can be the beginning of adventure, excitement, and fun for seniors in the San Francisco region. Bay Area boat tours are an incredible way to see the very reason our magnificent city and region were built in the first place. They are ways to spend time with friends, to laugh and gasp in awe as the sea mists itself against your smiling face. They are a chance to be thrilled, to relax, to contemplate, or to yell out loud. They are chance to be fully alive.
Seven of Our Favorite Bay Area Boat Tours for Seniors
There are hundreds of different tours around the area, and there is something for everyone. There are slow cruises filled with educational material, there are nature-based cruises, and there are cruises for people who want to watch the sea slip by while sipping on some drinks. So whether you want fast or slow, loud or quiet, with friends or strangers, there is something for you.
Here are a few of our favorites.
Sure, it might be predictable. But it is also predictable to put the Golden Gate Bridge in films and movies, and it still takes your breath away every time. This is more or less a cruise of the whole Bay Area, lasting around an hour, and taking in some of the best sights the city and the country have to offer. These include:
- Alcatraz Island
- North Beach
- Angel Island
- Fort Mason
- Marin Headlands
- Under the Bridge
- Sea lions!
Tours generally offer commentary and history, which is not only educational but usually pretty funny (and full of good stories you won’t read in normal guidebooks). They usually run for around $32. Most will leave from around Fisherman’s Wharf.
2. Angel Island
If you’ve never been to the lovely and peaceful Angel Island, you owe it to yourself to go. For around $60 you can take a day-long trip (around 11-6, with 1.5 hours on the boat each way) out to one of the lovelier gems of the Bay and walk or bike or segue around paths, or just sit peacefully near the trail, overlooking the distant, now-quiet city and the rough splendor of the northern shoals.
Box lunches are generally offered, though you are always welcome to bring your own food, and many of the boats have a cash bar on board and also sell meals. Plan a day. It isn’t one you’ll soon forget.
3. Small Fishing Boats
One great thing about a vibrant city like San Francisco, with its atmosphere of easy freedom and faintly piratical past, is that you don’t need to find a huge ship to have a big adventure. There are dozens, if not more, small tour boats offering excursions to the more adventurous. These are usually cruises around the Bay, with the exact path and sights seen decided spontaneously by conditions, by the captains, and even by the passengers.
For sometimes as low as $15, you can meet captains with real personalities, in boats that range from the rugged to the extremely comfortable. No need for reservations. Most are BYOB. Along the Wharf, these are first come and first serve. Perfect for groups who want more privacy, or who want to meet other hardy types. Enjoy!
These are not ideal for people with mobility issues, as sailboats tend to pitch more in the waves, and just by the very nature of their form. You usually need to be hanging on with one hand, and often bracing yourself with your feet. But if you are physically able to do so, I can’t recommend this enough.
For around $50 you get an elegant and sea-sprayed tour of the Bay on large beautiful sailboats that can accommodate up to 40 people. These 60-foot boats are reminiscent of when ships laden with goods would come into the Bay after a long journey up the coast, around the Horn, or across the ocean. The only difference is you won’t feel relief when it is over, but a desire to get right back on.
If you like the up close and personal experience of the sailboat tour, but want something a little more stable while still being able to feel and taste the sea, you want a catamaran. These sailboats are designed not to rock or pitch around so that they can offer exciting outdoor seating on a canvas mat stretched where the net pouch goes. For around $50 per person, these can be private or can accommodate larger groups.
There are few sights more beautiful than San Francisco at sunset, with the disappearing sun orange-coating the glittering city and the shattering Bay. On an elegant cruise, with the salty breeze warmly ruffling your hair, a cocktail keeping the rest of you distinctly un-ruffled, and the company of some of your best friends and new acquaintances? It’s a touch of the sublime in the everyday, for less than $70.
While sunset cruises offer spectacular sights and atmosphere, there are those who would argue the lights of the nightfallen city are even prettier than the sunset. In fact, some believe that the darkened waters are more mysterious, more haunted, more primevally alive than they are at any other time.
And there are also those that argue a two-hour cruise with delicious dinner, great drinks, and fun dancing to classic and new tunes is the best thing of all. These tend to be fancier cruises, where you dress up and paint the Bay an elegant shade of red. Whatever the reason, we love this cruise, which depending on the time of year, takes in the light, the sunset, and the night, giving you a changing look at the always changing Bay.
Seeing New Things, Every Day
As Marla told me, through the bustle of life and the hustle of getting around a vibrant, chaotic, living city, she had never really seen the Bay before. But after touring the Bay by boat, it was somehow different and new. It was changed. It wasn’t just a part of the landscape, it was a living thing, and something to explore.
Some other seniors in her group had always seen the Bay for what it was, but they told her that it was different every time. It was never the same. It was always a new adventure because you were going to see something you had never seen before, even if it was just the cry of a Peregrine falcon diving and dipping into the Bay just when the sun was hitting the water at a particular way.
And for Marla, that was the point. Life is about seeing new things and seeing old things in a different way. As long as you move forward, as long as you dip your toes in the water, you’ll never see the same thing twice.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Connect with us today to learn more.