Ferries, trains and automobiles: a somewhat SMART way for Sonoma County to do a weekend in San Francisco

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

I love train travel. I’m no expert on the viability of SMART, but I can tell you I won’t soon forget that ride. After passing Rohnert Park, we looked out on a thin ribbon of clouds just below the thickets of oak that crown the eastern mountains. Between Petaluma and Novato, we passed among wetlands where birds great and small hovered and glided over and dipped into shallow green waters. Along the route we saw vineyards and ranchettes, farms and grazing lands — most of them unseen from the freeway to our west, and all of them beheld from a fresh vista.

Call me crazy, but for the past year I’d wanted to take the SMART train and Golden Gate ferry to San Francisco.

Readers may remember that last year I wrote about traveling there with my wife, Carol, cruising by motor scooter along the back roads of Sonoma and Marin counties and across the Golden Gate Bridge. We had loved that adventure, and we were ready to try yet another way to get to “Baghdad-by-the-Bay”, as famed newspaper columnist Herb Caen used to call his town.

The wildfires that struck Oct. 9 didn’t change our plans, especially when our home remained safe and the threats of evacuation had passed. If anything, by the third weekend of October I was all the more ready for a break after two weeks of breathing smoke and covering stories in the ashes of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

For anyone contemplating a “weekender” jaunt away from Sonoma County — for a Giants game, a concert, a bright-lights-big-city event — what we found venturing forth suggests both potential and some limitations of today’s North Bay public transit system.

We set out on a Friday morning for my maiden passage on SMART. The first challenge we faced was getting to the station. For that, I pulled out my smart phone and opened the Lyft ridesharing app. I’m not tech savvy, but I easily managed to request a ride. Within seven minutes we were seated in the back of a Kia sedan and on our way to the downtown Santa Rosa station. Cost: $11.96.

After stopping for a tasty hot chocolate at nearby Aroma Roasters, we walked past the historic stone train depot and climbed the platform. There we discovered that SMART was offering free rides that day due to the fires (normally the cost is $9.50 to San Rafael using a Clipper Card, which is accepted by all forms of public transportation in this story). A few minutes later the 8:31 a.m. train rolled up, and a highlight of our journey began.

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