Phan Quoc Vinh

Whether you are a resident of San Francisco or visiting for the first time, you shouldn’t miss a boat cruise on San Francisco Bay

Home of the sea lions

Shortly after our cruise departed from Pier 39, the docks that are home to hundreds of sea lions came into view. Tourists immediately flocked to admire them and take photographs. Interestingly, most visitors, myself included, called them “seals” despite the species being the California sea lion. Our tour guide taught us how to differentiate between the two: Sea lions have ear flaps while seals don’t.

In the late 1990s, these uninvited guests started to “invade”, as the wharf needed cleaning, having long been exposed to algae and parasites. All ships were temporarily relocated, leaving the area vacant. It started with a few sea lions, and eventually, a huge colony moved in, having discovered a new and safe place to stay. Boat owners found themselves in a pickle as their valuable vessels faced a hard time entering and leaving the port, and it would be impossible to sue the sea lions in case of collisions. As a result, they gave in. The boats were relocated to save space for these giant sea lions, each of which can weigh up to half a ton.

Over time the sea lion population flourished, turning this pier into a tourist attraction. Upon leaving shore, boats sail very slowly when passing the wooden docks where the sea lions lie in the sun, squinting at visitors, unperturbed by the thousands of tourists admiring them, pointing, and snapping photographs.

Journey on San Francisco’s waters

Continuing our Blue & Gold Fleet boat cruise, we were introduced to the tour agenda that would take us through San Francisco Bay, past various landmarks while we waited for the sun to set to admire the city’s shimmering lights. The boat cruised past Sausalito, Tiburon, and Angel Island and looped around Alcatraz Island. Set on a rocky island in the middle of the bay, Alcatraz used to be a federal prison. Shrouded in legends, it has become a popular tourist attraction in San Francisco.

The Spanish explorer Manuel de Ayala first called this barren, rocky island the “Isla de los Alcatraces (Pelicans’ Island)”. It was later renamed Alcatraz and used as a civil war fortress and federal prison. From the boat, we could see the 25m-tall Alcatraz Lighthouse, the first lighthouse built on the West Coast.

My two children hollered with excitement when a white bird perched on the boat’s railing, begging for food without a pinch of fear. This bird seemed accustomed to foreign guests approaching its island and paying it to pose for photos with a few pieces of bread. We discovered that Alcatraz is a place where seagulls come to nest in the summer.

An announcement over the loudspeaker grabbed our attention. It was the boat’s captain, Captain Dave: “Ladies and gentlemen, on the other side of the bay is Ghirardelli, a popular market and food court with shops, restaurants, and 5-star hotels in the Marina area of San Francisco, hosting 40 restaurants and specialty shops. My wife often visits the renowned Ghirardelli chocolate shop. After taking her there, I went down to AT&T Stadium – home of my favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, to watch the home team play. After the four-hour game ended, I returned to find her still nibbling chocolates in the store!”

The old captain’s funny stories made the passengers laugh, as he introduced the city’s attractions.

San Francisco offers different highlights, depending on the season. In the summer, tourists can enjoy dreamy sunsets. Winter offers streets lit up with pretty Christmas decorations.

Boat companies that offer tours of San Francisco Bay include Red & White Fleet, Blue & Gold Fleet, Golden Gate Bay Cruise, San Francisco Bay Adventures, Wine Tasting on the Bay,  and others.

The company I chose, Blue & Gold Fleet, organizes special events year round, such as on Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

When the city shines

As the curtain of night fell, San Francisco glowed with shimmering lights. From the water, we feasted our eyes upon the glamorous lights of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every span was lit up, turning the bridge into a sculpture of LED lights. The lights of passing cars created a dazzling display, like billions of fiber optic cables stretching to infinity.

There are dozens of places where photographers can capture the beauty of San Francisco’s iconic bridge in a single frame, such as Vista Point, Kirby Cove, Crissy Field, Fort Point, Baker Beach, and many more. Enjoying a glass of California’s finest Napa Valley wine on a luxury cruise boat while admiring the brilliantly lit Golden Gate Bridge was an unforgettable experience in the land of the star-spangled banner.