IN THE BAY AREA, where space, time and money are all at a premium, we often plan bite-size vacations: backyard getaways, day trips, weekend escapes. Fortunately for us, the opportunities for natural beauty and urban distractions are never exhausted.
Still, living here is expensive, as are the brief respites: For instance, a bed-and-breakfast overnighter during the premium months begins in the triple digits. Younger travelers or families end up squeezing their outings into one exhausting day.
The compromise between car camping or a Greyhound bus bench is the hostel. Today’s hostels aren’t just overnight flophouses for the jet-setting backpack crowd. Families and travelers, both domestic and international, reserve or drop in at delightful accommodations near major attractions.
Northern California hostels can be in the rousing theater district of San Francisco or the remote wilderness of Point Reyes National Seashore. Imagine staying at a redwood hunting lodge built by a superior court judge, a former military installation with its strategic bay views or the cozy seaside quarters of a lighthouse keeper. Sure, the sleeping rooms are usually Spartan, but families hardly have to tough it out some locales have outdoor hot tubs and fully equipped kitchens.
Hostelling does require schlepping around with your own basics, reserving rooms far in advance, helping with household chores and sleeping with strangers (dormitory style). Those trade-offs are minimal given the premium locations at remarkable prices and, most of all, the camaraderie that defines the hostelling spirit.
We visited a few of the Bay Area hostels governed by one of the oldest organizations, Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels, to check out the rooms and the views.
Best place to soak
in the quiet
Point Reyes Hostel. In the middle of the Point Reyes National Seashore near Limantour Beach, this rustic getaway understandably gets most of its visitors (about 60 percent) from California, and they’re mostly Bay Area folk. Sure, it might be hard to budge from the wood-paneled common room complete with overstuffed sofas and a wood-burning stove, but 70,000 acres of nature tempt one away from such domestic bliss. Several paths, such as the splendid Coast Trail, lie nearby and the silver-tinted sands and waters of Limantour Beach are just two miles away.
The hostel due to expand later this year settles its travelers either at the main ranch house or the redwood bunkhouse off to the side. The bunkhouse, which fits about 20 and has a multipurpose room with fireplace, is the charmer with its sloping ceilings. It can get chilly, so bring extra sleepwear: Dormitory rooms get electric heating while the main areas rely on the fireplace for warmth.
Amenities: 44 beds, one family room (fits children 5 and under only), 12-burner stove, wheelchair accessible.
Nearby attractions: Point Reyes trails and lighthouse, Tomales Bay.
Rates: $14, $7 ages 17 and under with parent. Weekends are almost always busy, but walk-ins are welcome. There’s a 72-hour cancellation policy.
Scenic route: Check the brake fluid and squiggle up and down Highway 1, which passes Muir Woods and Stinson Beach. Once in the town of Olema, turn left onto Bear Valley Road where the Point Reyes National Seashore Visitor’s Center is located. Turn at the second possible left at Limantour Drive there are hostel markers, but no road sign. Proceed on Limantour Drive for about 5 1/2 miles and turn left at the first crossroads.
Point Reyes Hostel, P.O. Box 247, Point Reyes Station, 94956, 415-663-8811, www.norcalhostels.org. Office hours: 7:30-10 a.m., 4:30-9:30 p.m.
Best reason to brave Golden Gate Bridge traffic
Marin Headlands. Strategic locations and the security of the nation aside, military outposts almost always hog the best views of an area. One route to the Marin Headlands hostel passes a stupendous panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge, making a red arc over diamond-blue waters and ending in tree-flecked, wheat-colored hills.
The main building previously accommodated special forces reserves, and before then it served as an infirmary. While not antiseptic, it does provide clean comfort in the newly carpeted rooms, each named after a national park. The detailed, high ceilings give the generic second-floor rooms an extra architectural oomph. Curtains instead of doors provide the veil of privacy in the communal, single-sex bathroom and shower stalls; the women’s shower room, incidentally, is pink from the floor tiles to the stall walls, but somehow it works. (The men’s shower room is not blue, but a masculine white with cartoon gorilla curtains.)
The industrial-sized kitchen won the praise of a recent guest, who happened to be a chef. The giant common room combines the dining area (six pine tables with bench seating) and the neat main seating area where tiny international flags hang over sofas in Southwestern garb. The mismatched brown sofas are relegated to the much more casual basement, which has game tables, laundry and more dormitory-style rooms.
The charming second building, also built in 1907, used to house officers and their families. Hostellers take up half the building, which has a parlor, old-fashioned dining room and small kitchen.
Amenities: 104 beds, fireplace, laundry, 12-burner stove, microwave, Web kiosk, bike rack, game room (foosball, pool table, Ping-Pong table), pianos, vending machines, volleyball court, wheelchair-accessible.
Nearby attractions: San Francisco, Sausalito, Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods, Stinson Beach.
Rates: $13 adults, $6.50 ages 17 and under, $39 private rooms (up to two adults and two children). Weekends are almost always busy, so call one to two months in advance for them and the summer season. There’s a 72-hour cancellation policy.
Scenic route: From 101 South, go through the Waldo Tunnel. Just before the Golden Gate Bridge, take the Sausalito exit. Turn left at the stop sign and take the first right onto Conzelman Road up the hill. You’ll pass by various lookout points for the bridge. Turn right on McCullough Road, turn left on Bunker Road. Shortcut: From the Sausalito exit, turn right, go under the freeway and turn left at the first road. Go through the tunnel to Bunker Road. Proceed two miles to the visitor’s center, then follow hostel signs.
From 101 North, cross the Golden Gate Bridge to the Alexander Avenue exit. Take the left fork and turn left underneath the freeway. Turn right onto Conzelman Road up the hill. Turn right on McCullough Road, turn left on Bunker Road. Shortcut: From the Alexander Avenue exit, follow the right fork. Turn left and go through tunnel to Bunker Road. Proceed two miles to the visitor’s center, then follow hostel signs.
Marin Headlands, Fort Barry, Building 941, Sausalito, 94965, 415-331-2777. Office hours: 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
San Francisco-Fisherman’s Wharf (Fort Mason). You can’t get much more San Francisco than this. It could be the mural inside above the front entrance, the helpful, multicultural and pierced staff, or the fact that the hostel boasts an espresso bar. The Bob Dylan song playing in the front lobby was entirely superfluous.
Despite the name, the hostel is not at Fisherman’s Wharf, although it’s within walking distance. In fact, the Civil War-era building is in a much better location, with excellent city views. Head to the back to view an incredible panorama that encompasses everything from the Palace of Fine Arts to Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
The hostel definitely attracts a younger, more international clientele. Chores are not required, but are requested. Housekeeping maintains the 165-bed facility. While not spic-and-span, the communal bathrooms are clean enough, as are the dormitory rooms.
Amenities: 165 beds, six family rooms (maximum three to four people), 24-hour access, Web kiosk, fireplace, laundry, continental breakfast, cafe-espresso bar, pool table, piano, lockers, free linen rentals, free movie nights, free guided walking tours, morning concierge, vending machines, wheelchair-accessible.
Nearby attractions: The city, of course!
Rates: $19 ages 13 and up, $12 for ages 12 and under. Call one to two months in advance to reserve weekend dates. There’s a 24-hour cancellation policy.
Scenic route: From the Bay Bridge, take Harrison Street exit, turn right onto Harrison Street, which ends at Embarcadero. Turn left onto Embarcadero, turn left onto Bay Street.
From 101 South, stay on Van Ness Avenue, turn left onto Bay Street.
San Francisco-Fisherman’s Wharf, Building 240, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 94123, 415-771-7277, www.norcalhostels.org. Office hours: 24 hours.
Best theater deal
San Francisco Union Square. Theater in the city requires wrestling with traffic, crawling down one-way streets and plunking down $20 for parking.
Or, you can BART in, enjoy the show and stroll over to Mason Street to the five-story downtown hostel. Admittedly, the appeal is in the location, not the facilities: Windows can look into the building next door, the narrow hallways are dimly lit and the steel bunk beds have an institutional look. In other words, except for the bunk beds, it’s a typical San Francisco hotel (the old Hotel Virginia sign is still up).
Each floor has a small common area devoted to a particular activity: television room, smoking lounge, reading room. The largest common room, which is on the second floor, has Internet kiosks and a multitude of tourist information. The lobby has mailboxes, above which are delightfully imaginative staff photos and clocks denoting different time zones.
Housekeeping keeps the rooms clean enough; chores are requested, but not required. Instead of one big communal shower, bathrooms are often shared by just two rooms. It might just be worth it to run back during intermission instead of standing in the long lines.
Amenities: 265 beds, 92 private rooms, laundry, lockers, alarm clocks, irons, hair dryers, vending machines, free linen rentals, free movie nights, free walking tours, wheelchair-accessible.
Nearby attractions: The theater scene of San Francisco is right at your feet.
Rates: $19 members, $22 nonmembers, $9 ages 12 and under. Call one to two months in advance to reserve summer and weekend dates. There’s a 24-hour cancellation policy.
Scenic route: From the Bay Bridge, take the Fifth Street exit, which becomes Cyril Magnin Street. Turn left onto Ellis Street, turn right onto Taylor, right onto Post Street, right on Mason Street.
San Francisco-Downtown, 312 Mason St., San Francisco, 94102, 415-788-5604. Office hours: all day
Best hot tub views
Point Montara Lighthouse. Decadence comes in the form of an outdoor hot tub, where you can take in the ocean waves lapping at the green cliffs of Montara.
Recessed from the road, the charms of the hostel aren’t immediately visible, especially considering that it’s next door to the Montara Sanitary District. Once past the driveway, though, the layout looks like a tiny New England diorama. The 125-year-old Point Montara Lighthouse, only about two stories high, looks like a giant toy.
The 20th anniversary of its existence as a hostel comes July 15, but reserving a space to join the celebration at the popular hostel will be unlikely. Every cleanly scrubbed room reveals a decorative touch, from an interesting chair and mirror to blue-trimmed windows. The adorable “Watch” room, located in the original fog signal building, comes right out of the bed-and-breakfast decorating tradition.
Amenities: 45 beds, five couples’ rooms, outdoor hot tub ($6 per person, minimum two users), microwave, wheelchair-accessible.
Nearby attractions: McNee Ranch State Park, James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Half Moon Bay, Purisima Creek Redwoods. Gray whale migration during winter season.
Rates: $13 adult members, $16 adult nonmembers, half-price for children, additional $12 for private room. Call three months in advance to reserve dates during the June-October season. Reservations for January-May dates are taken beginning in October, while June-December dates are accepted beginning in May. There’s a 72-hour cancellation policy.
Scenic route: Take Highway 1 south to Montara.
Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel, 16th Street at Highway 1, Montara, 94037, 650-728-7177. Office hours: 7:30-9:30 a.m., 5-9:30 p.m. (walk-in begins at 4:30 p.m.), curfew 11 p.m.
Best place to see
in the dark
Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Construction of a new inn outside the lighthouse grounds confirms what hostellers have known for years: This spot is one of the best areas around to take advantage of wind, water and sand. The name Pigeon Point isn’t after the fowl; instead, it commemorates the “Carrier Pigeon” clipper ship, which ran aground on what was then La Punta de la Ballena, or Whale Point. The crew lived; the ship didn’t.
The 10-story high Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the second tallest on the West Coast. The lighthouse has been open since 1872, and the beacon has gone from operating on lard oil to an automated light warning system. Next to it are four three-bedroom houses available for travelers who want to stay at the California state park. While sparsely decorated, the squeaky-clean rooms have a homier feel than the average hostel. The cleanliness extends to the “country” kitchen, which has a propane gas stove, and the relaxing, intimate common room areas.
Amenities: 52 beds, four couples’ rooms, wood stove, piano, wheelchair-accessible.
Rates: $13 adult members, $16 adult nonmembers, $6.50 ages under 18. $12 additional private room charge. Call two months in advance to reserve dates during January-October and weekends. Reservations for January-May are taken beginning in September, while reservations for June-December are accepted at the end of May. There’s a 72-hour cancellation policy.
Nearby attractions: Ao Nuevo State Reserve, Pescadero Marsh.
Scenic route: Take Highway 1 south to Pescadero. Look for the 115-foot lighthouse for the driveway.
Point Pigeon Lighthouse Hostel, 210 Pigeon Point Road, Pescadero, 94060, 650-879-0633. Office hours 7:30-10 a.m., 5:30-10 p.m. (walk-in begins at 4:30 p.m.), curfew 11 p.m.
of the justice system
Sanborn Park. Superior Court Judge James Welch built this splendid little redwood hunting lodge in 1908, and it looks like he designed for comfort. The turn-of-the-century structure bespeaks genteel, family ambience. Large windows look out into the tall, hovering forest, the steps are logs sliced in half and the stone fireplace invites weary travelers to the intimate circle of warmth.
The lodge is a permanent member of the National Register of Historic Places; it’s hard to fathom this beauty was almost razed until Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels organization took it over in 1977. As for its lush Sanborn County Park setting, the hostel is surrounded by sequoias, oaks and creeks. This is a getaway among getaways, even though it lies only 45 minutes from the circuit-embedded heart of Silicon Valley.
Amenities: 39 beds, family rooms, fireplace, volleyball court, laundry, electric stove, stereo, storage, redwood grove picnic area, wheelchair-accessible.
Rates: $8.50 adult members, $11.50 adult nonmembers, half-price for children. Credit cards are not accepted. Call one to two months in advance for summer weekends. There’s a 72-hour cancellation policy.
Nearby attractions: Sanborn Park, Castle Rock State Park, El Sereno Open Space Preserve, Saratoga Village, Los Gatos, San Jose.
Scenic route: From Interstate 280, Highway 17 or Highway 101, take 85 toward Mountain View to the Saratoga Avenue exit. Turn left at Saratoga Avenue and drive through Saratoga Village. Continue along the avenue, which is Highway 9, for two miles and turn left on Sanborn Road. Follow the hostel signs.
Sanborn Park Hostel, 15808 Sanborn Road, Saratoga, CA 95070, 408-741-0166, www.sanbornparkhostel.org. Office hours 7-9 a.m., 5-11 p.m. (walk-in begins at 4:30 p.m.), curfew 11 p.m.
Best place to take
a bikini break
Santa Cruz. Carmelita Cottages the name alone implies the hostel’s demure grace. Enclosed within a waist-high black-wire fence, the cluster of tiny Victorian cottages with bay windows resembles a minipark. It’s barely two blocks from the roller-coaster thrill-seekers and bikinied throngs, and only double that distance to downtown, making the Santa Cruz hostel prime real estate in the summertime. Visitors are split 50-50 between international and domestic travelers, and many of the latter hail from California.
The two-story structure has the typical Victorian layout, with a parlor, wooden staircase with a hidden cabinet under the stairwell and a hallway window that opens to a tiny balcony. Everything here is home-sized, from the modern kitchen to the living room and small dining area. The rooms themselves are typical of hostel simplicity, with an Oriental carpet laid here and there atop polished wooden floors for a splash of elegant color.
Amenities: 40 beds, three private rooms, fireplace, lockers, microwave, outdoor picnic tables, wheelchair-accessible.
Rates: $15 adult members, $18 adult nonmembers, free for ages 3 and under, $9 ages 4-11, $13 ages 12-17, additional fee for private room. Call one to two months in advance for summer weekends. There’s a 48-hour cancellation policy.
Nearby attractions: Santa Cruz, Capitola.
Scenic route: Take Highway 17 to Ocean Boulevard exit. Stay on Ocean Street, which ends at San Lorenzo Street. Turn right onto San Lorenzo Street, turn left onto Riverside, turn left onto Third Street and then left onto Main Street.
Santa Cruz Hostel, 321 Main St., Santa Cruz, 95060, 831-423-8304, www.hi-santacruz.org. Office hours 8-10 a.m., 5-10 p.m., curfew 11 p.m.