Maybe it’s in my blood — my parents both grew up by the sea — or the alignment of the stars when I was born — I am a Cancer — but for whatever reason, I have always been drawn to the ocean. I had never lived near the ocean, however, until I moved to San Francisco nine years ago. On the west side of the city, where I live, I look out at the Pacific on all but the foggiest of days. The sight of it from my bedroom window is an endless source of pleasure, its color ranging from deep cobalt to a pale, powdery gray depending on the weather, the season and the time of day. On windy days it is frenzied with whitecaps and on clear, calm days, it sparkles in the sun. Watching the sun drop down into the Pacific Ocean as streaks of pink, orange and purple spread slowly across the sky is the most satisfying kind of entertainment there is. No matter how long I live here, I don’t think I will ever take this view for granted.
In addition to such ocean views, San Francisco is blessed with Ocean Beach, a three and a half mile stretch of sand at the city’s westernmost border. My favorite part is the section roughly between Noriega and Irving streets, where large sand dunes form a barrier between the ocean and the Great Highway. Rubbery ice plants with their many-petaled yellow and pink flowers, so perfect they almost look fake, grow in thick swaths on the dunes’ roadside slopes while sea grasses rustle in the wind on top. Usually we park near the Java Beach Cafe on La Playa and Judah streets, where, if the line isn’t too long, I like to grab a latte and a bite to eat before crossing over to the beach.
I’ve been coming here with my daughters since they were little to run around in the dunes, dig in the surf for sand crabs and collect the sand dollars that wash up by the dozens on the shores of this wide and uncrowded beach. While this part of the city, the Outer Sunset, is known for being cold and foggy, Ocean Beach nevertheless sees its fair share of warm and sunny days as well. On such days, when the dunes become too hot to walk on in bare feet, my girls splash around knee-deep in the icy 50-something degree water, though currents are too dangerous to do any real swimming and I must watch them like a hawk. For the same reason, this popular surf spot is for experienced surfers only.
Another place that I especially like, and where I often go for weekend walks with my family, is Fort Funston, at the southern end of Ocean Beach. Formerly a military defense installation in use during World War II, its abandoned gun batteries and tunnels now serve only as climbing structures for young kids and the area is best known for hang gliding and dogs. It is always a thrill to watch the hang gliders launch themselves off the 200 foot high bluffs, swooshing through the air like giant dragonflies. Fort Funston is also heaven on Earth for dogs, which are allowed to run around off-leash and socialize with each other to their hearts’ content. Big dogs, little dogs, I imagine you’d have to go to a dog show to see so many different breeds of man’s best friend all in one place.
Last week we went to the northern end of Ocean Beach for a beach bonfire party with my daughter’s fifth grade class to celebrate the last day of school and the kids’ “promotion” to middle school. In the area across from the western edge of Golden Gate Park with its two turn-of-the-century windmills and the historic Beach Chalet restaurant, the city recently installed sixteen new concrete fire pits. These can be used by the public — subject to certain reasonable restrictions — on a first-come-first-served basis, free of charge and without a permit or reservation. A few of the fifth grade parents came early to stake a claim to one of these; a good idea, as other groups had already set up camp at many of the other fire pits when my daughters and I arrived around 3pm.
Compared to our usual Ocean Beach hang out, this is a somewhat gritty section of the beach, where graffiti covers the sea wall and bits of charred wood encircle the fire pits. Yet this area, what many locals mean when they speak of “Ocean Beach,” is not without its charm and beauty.
A bit further north from here, the beach gives way to rocky cliffs curving east to form one side of the narrow Golden Gate passage, the hills of the Marin Headlands on the opposite side. Here, at the northern tip of Ocean Beach, the Cliff House perches on a ledge above the ocean. Originally built in 1863 as an exclusive resort for wealthy San Franciscans, the fifth and current incarnation was constructed in 2003 in a neoclassical style similar to what was here in 1909. The Cliff House now has two restaurants, a casual bistro and more formal, white tablecloth dining room, both with fantastic ocean views.
By 3:30, a good portion of my daughter’s fifth grade class, along with their parents, siblings, and several dogs, had arrived and the party was in full swing. The next few hours flew by in a happy blur of roasted hot dogs and marshmellows, wet kids and whiffle ball. While it may not have been the sun-kissed, bikini-clad California beach scene the Beach Boys sang about, this East Coast girl feels pretty lucky to have an ocean — and this beach — practically in her backyard.