San Francisco is undoubtedly one of the most exciting mega cities of America and its impact hits visitors with a bang right from street level to 40 floors up.
They explore the city, visit its famous landmarks, marvel at the bridge, but few realise that across the other side, on Highway 101, there are so many new and different places waiting to be explored.
The concrete jungle, wonderful though it may be, is behind you and the Golden Gate Headlands are in front just waiting to be explored.
The journey across the Bridge alone is worthwhile because of the stunning views of San Francisco, Alcatraz and the Farallon and Angel Islands then, almost immediately, you come to one of San Francisco's most unusual neighbourhoods, a unique waterfront suburb of houseboats where families live year round on the water.
A few kilometres beyond, there is one of the oldest forests in the world made up of old-growth coastal redwood trees with an average age of between 500 and 1 000 years and then the picturesque waterfront town of Sausalito, which is on the edge of The Marin Headlands, one of the largest urban parks in the world.
The houseboat community is an elite mainstream living area with more than 400 permanent "floating homes" as they are called, through Gates 5 and 6 near the Main Dock area.
The Marin Headlands might be just over the Golden Gate Bridge, but they feel a million miles away from the bustling city.
It began when old and abandoned ships in the Marin Ship Yards were de-commissioned at the end of World War 11 and were taken over by people who wanted an inexpensive place to live.
These first inhabitants were little more than water squatters, for there was no sanitation, no mains water supply and no electricity, but it was quirky, quiet and serene, a great place for walking and only a few kilometres from downtown San Francisco.
It was also unique and peaceful, there were no shops, hoardings or cars and it was completely minus concrete and steel and so it began to attract writers, artists and naturalists, including the famous Otis Redding who wrote Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay while he was living here.
It also became the home of 23 permanent bird species and 10 others who used it as their point of migration.
As the houseboats began to be upgraded, residents gradually obtained power from grid cable, running water and sanitation and so they were required to pay taxes.
House boaters, as they are called, now have a long-term lease with the port and pay property taxes and berthing fees, are connected to waste, electricity, sewage lines, telephones and cable TV. The main drawback, they say, is carrying shopping and garbage along the piers, but it's well worth it.
Today, some of the houseboats are still the tattered and improvised survivors of decades past. They are a wonderful mixture of imagination and eccentricity and deserve just as much attention as the ones which are architect designed and look like conventional homes, though they are all built on a large floating box, a barge or a pontoon floating on the water.
The same ingenuity has worked wonders on the dockside neighbourhood. There are "streets" or boardwalks over the harbour at right angles to the dock side so that house boaters can walk to see friends who may live further over the water though, with continuous gentrification, many now have their own kayak if it's too far to walk. Many residents have also lined the docks with plants in pots to substitute as a garden. These houseboats are now legitimate real estate on water.
There are even some houseboats, or floating homes as they are called in America, that can only be described as "floating castles" and cost in the region of seven or eight figures, sometimes plus, and these can be found on Kappas Marina, A Dock, Issaquah Dock and Liberty Dock.
One houseboat has battlements, another has three staterooms, 56 port holes and a waterfall cascading into the water but the most over the top is probably the "Taj Mahal", at the end of Johnson Street and a few blocks north of "Downtown", which looks uncannily like its namesake.
"Forbes Island" had three staterooms when it was originally built, 56 portholes, a waterfall cascading into a hot tub and a light house. This is now a restaurant docked near Pier 39.
Fortunately for the houseboaters it's an easy walk to the shops of nearby Sausalito, which is also in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.
Read more at http://www.iol.co.za/travel/world/north-america/over-the-bridge-and-far-away-1.1020889