The location was reason enough to book a night at Cavallo Point – the Lodge at the Golden Gate to celebrate Bill’s recent birthday with our friends, Penny and Gil.
Serenely situated on Horseshoe Cove in the shadow of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and boasting a panoramic view across San Francisco Bay of the fabled fog city, Cavallo Point Lodge has an idyllic, one-of-a kind setting.
What began in 1866 as a military base – long before the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937 – now is garnering such stellar accolades as #5 Top Resort in the U.S. and #59 in the world in Travel+ Leisure’s 2013 Readers’ Poll, and #8 Top U.S. Hotel Spa in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2013 Readers’ Poll.
Eager to learn more, I interviewed Euan Taylor, Cavallo Point’s general manager, and participated in a walkabout tour of the property, led by Steve Hohener, guest services manager.
Hohener explained that the U.S. Army acquired the land in the mid 19th century because of its strategic position at the mouth of the bay, and established Fort Baker. The living conditions early on were pretty rough, with the enlisted men sleeping on straw mattresses in two-person tents set up on the 10-acre parade ground, exposed to the elements. Presumably, those soldiers were less enthusiastic about their stay than we were.
The Army constructed permanent housing in a concerted effort to improve living conditions. Between 1901 and 1915, the Army built 24 Colonial Revival-style buildings around the parade ground. They included barracks, officers’ quarters (Bill and I stayed in a former lieutenants’ quarters duplex), the commanding officer’s residence, post headquarters, hospital, fully equipped gymnasium, and exchange. There was even a bowling alley that survives today, although unused, the oldest in the state.
During World War II, Fort Baker produced mines to defend the coastline from enemy attack. Soldiers laid the mines underwater and, through a series of cables, could detonate them remotely from shore; however, the need never arose.
In the 1970s, Fort Baker was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and was designated for transfer to the National Parks Service (Golden Gate National Parks) when the military no longer needed it. In 2002, Fort Baker officially transferred from post to park.
Taylor said that the historic buildings stood abandoned and deteriorating for years until the 1990s, when the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, after consulting with the public, decided to renovate and refurbish Fort Baker into a retreat and conference center. They formed a unique public/private/nonprofit alliance with the Fort Baker Retreat Group to restore, enhance, and preserve Fort Baker as a national park.
Seventeen of those same landmark Fort Baker buildings, along with 74 newly constructed rooms and suites perched on a hillside, now comprise the 142-room Cavallo Point Lodge. The journey from initial concept to grand opening in 2008 spanned 10 years. Integral to the restoration was a respect for the past and a mission of environmental sensitivity and sustainability. Most of the materials were retained or repurposed.
Consider the tin pressed ceilings, which Taylor said were covered in lead paint. Workers labeled the individual panels, took them down, froze them on-site in refrigerated trucks so the paint would peel off, and then placed them back into their original positions. The insulation in the contemporary rooms comes from shredded, recycled denim jeans. The linens and robes use organic cotton. Solar panels, limited air conditioning, and on-demand heating systems for water help ensure prudent energy use.
Cavallo Point’s eco-focused philosophy and practices have earned the hotel the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold Certification, the first on the National Register of Historic Places to receive the coveted designation. It also received Travel+Leisure’s 2013 Global-Vision Award for Sustainability.
By deftly marrying its storied history with contemporary amenities, Cavallo Point provides a stellar guest experience.
Our deluxe room (in a former lieutenant’s duplex) included a king bed, vintage architectural details, two gas fireplaces, and a spacious bathroom. The furnishings were lovely and appropriately understated in keeping with the character of the building. We opened the windows of the sitting room to let in the bay breeze.
While Bill read his kindle on the porch, I headed to the Healing Arts Center & Spa. There’s an array of body and skin treatments, including an integrative medicine program that features such services as acupuncture and nutrition counseling to enhance well being. I opted for an organic (Swedish) massage that used a soothing virgin olive oil blended with sunflower and avocado oils…which probably would have made a tasty salad dressing.
I would have loved to take a class or participate in a demonstration in the cooking school, but none was scheduled. Emphasizing local, seasonal ingredients, the cooking school is one of the few offered at a hotel.
The four of us met for dinner at the casually elegant Murray Circle restaurant, and chose braised short ribs, crispy skin trout, and roasted liberty duck from the French-inspired menu. Only I saved room for the chocolate tasting for dessert.
The morning dawned bright and clear, so we hiked the steep, winding hill to the Golden Gate Bridge, a path that took us through some of its underbelly. We strolled on the pedestrian walkway. The vista was breathtaking. The sensation was both exhilarating and unnerving, given the 220-foot vertical drop to the water.
I like Cavallo Point’s trajectory from housing military personnel to hosting travelers. Taylor said they’ve even had a guest who once lived at Fort Baker, which must have been a singular déjà vu experience.
Taylor acknowledged it can be difficult to convey the concept of Cavallo Point to the uninitiated, as some conjure an image of sleeping in an old dormitory-style barracks.
“Once we get clients here and they realize we’re a retreat to relax, reconnect, and renew in a beautiful park next to the Golden Gate Bridge and 20 minutes from San Francisco, the pendulum swings and they understand what we’re about,” he said.