Let’s open with a word association gambit. I mention the word “hostel.” And you think … what? “Youth?” Which is a perfect response – for the year 1934. That’s when the European hostel movement migrated to the United States to launch as American Youth Hostels in Massachusetts.
But since that time, the movement has morphed and rebranded as Hosteling International USA. It’s expanded greatly as well, attaining a total of 54 hostels scattered around the nation; these facilities now lodge more than a million visitors per year. California itself boasts 18 hostels, more than twice the number found in any other state (Massachusetts, cradle of the movement, comes in second, with seven).
While seeking to broaden its appeal to travelers of all ages and backgrounds, HI-USA has also worked to upgrade and modernize its lodges, improve visitor activity programs and increase outreach into local communities. Free Wi-Fi as well as free breakfast are already available in most hostels.
The big-picture result: an alternative lodging network that enables more affordable travel, while adding exciting doses of communal conviviality and social engagement. Such qualities are perhaps rare in other venues, yet readily available in hostels.
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That’s what I found as I checked in to Hi-USA’s Marin Headlands hostel in early September. It’s a three-story wooden structure, tucked into a shaded glen high above Rodeo Lagoon, in the sprawling, 80,000-acre coastal park known as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Hostel staffers Ian Smith, 33, and Molly Sargin, 27, greeted me warmly, made sure I was squared away with a bunk in the eight-bed men’s dorm, then showed me around. Besides that dorm and a well-equipped kitchen and community room on the lower floor, there’s a women’s dorm and a 22-bed coed dorm (for scouting groups, clubs and the like) on the second floor, as well as a few private rooms. More private rooms – providing beds for up to five – are in another building a few yards away. Hostels now try to include many more private rooms to attract couples and families.
The main hostel building is the century-old infirmary for the U.S. Army’s former Fort Barry. Although old structures like this can be notoriously difficult to adapt and maintain, I found Marin Headlands to be astonishingly spic, span and well-ordered. A sole exception was a funky aroma lingering in the men’s dorm, the sort of l’odeur du mâle that can only be cured by ordering all dudes to pack up and hit the road – a harsh order that shall never be issued. This phenomenon underscored the allure of the private rooms.
Anyhow, the spacious community hall more than made up for it. The big room held board games, books, art, a guitar and a piano. Smith and Sargin, who both started as hosts here around four years ago, said one fond memory came from hearing a famed jazz pianist tickle those ivories at length. Another was of a German guest who took over the hostel kitchen to turn out fresh, spicy sausages for all comers.
“We do more than help out folks who are trying to travel on a tight budget,” Smith said. “For everyone, we try to provide an experience that is beautiful and communal, as well as affordable.”
“People who want to check out our hostels should keep an open mind, and arrive with few to no expectations,” Sargin added. “It’s really not a hotel experience. The cool part doesn’t come from being served, particularly. It derives from all the personal and communal interaction you get to have with other visitors and our staff.”
They said the busy season here runs through summer, when reservations are essential. The hostel reaches peak capacity of 108 guests during special events such as the North Face Endurance Challenge Half-Marathon, or the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium. Sargin reckons that about 40 percent of guests are international travelers, while the majority are domestic.
“We have some visitors who come from Sacramento every year in July and August, when the fog is in, just so they can cool off a bit,” Sargin said.
Greater tranquility and a more open roster for room selection can be obtained in fall and winter, when weather is predicted to turn clear and appealing, as well as early in spring. Of course, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s abundant trailheads, the surfer’s cove at Rodeo Beach and the eminently photographable vistas near Point Bonita and the Golden Gate are available year-round.
Part of HI-USA’s push toward modernization has led to establishing hostels in major urban centers, as well as the traditional rural environs. That’s resulted in no less than three hostels in San Francisco, a large one in Santa Monica, a cluster of cabins near the pier in Santa Cruz – and a rather palatial facility in downtown Sacramento.
Established in the Italianate mansion of Gold Rush magnate Llewellyn Williams, this ornate, four-story, 13,000-square-foot structure boasts a wrap-around veranda and patio, a croquet lawn, spacious sitting rooms and half a dozen private suites. The hostel is centrally located, a few blocks from the state Capitol grounds in one direction, and Sacramento’s historic district and railroad museum in another.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Point Reyes hostel, set in the middle of the 70,000-acre National Seashore, with its 140 miles of trails and elephant seal rookeries, tule elk herds, blacktail deer, seabirds and bobcats.
“The national organization lets individual managers craft a sort of tone for each hostel,” says Point Reyes manager Hannah Morris, who has run the joint for more than nine years. “I’d say at our place, a rustic chic is dominant.”
Located just over a mile away from Limantour Beach, the hostel occupies a pair of historic ranch buildings with dorms and a newer wing with private rooms. Activities include moonlit walks and yoga sessions on the beach. Occupancy is high in summer, low in winter – the latter constitutes an excellent season to enjoy a rural getaway.
“We’re so remote, nothing else quite compares to being out here,” Morris says. “Our guests just naturally can focus on meeting each other, and our locals as well. And that’s really our mission, to bring people together, break down barriers and cultivate understanding. I believe in working toward that goal every day. And know what? Our view out here isn’t half bad, either.”
Netanya Trimboli, national communications director for HI-USA, said the nonprofit chain is poised to expand in two main ways. Fundraising programs in targeted cities will help it establish a channel for receiving land and structures donated by both individuals and host communities. Also, through an affiliate program, an independently owned hostel can figure out how to meet HI-USA criteria and join the network, which would include submitting to annual qualification inspections.
“New affiliates must meet our standards on the quality of visitor experience,” Trimboli said. “We want to see the sort of amenities you offer, but most important of all is if your operation helps us to meet our aim of growing a more tolerant world. Hosteling’s goal as we see it is to encourage diversity and greater understanding by the way we help different people to mingle with each other and get rid of any cultural barriers.”
In the eight HI-USA hostels in Northern California, lodging fees vary depending on location (mid-city or rural setting) as well as the size of the room and its amenities. They range from a low price for a dorm bed of $25.50 per night (at the Pigeon Point lighthouse hostel) to $175 for a double-occupancy room with private bath (at the San Francisco Downtown hostel). At a few hostels, private rooms are able to accommodate up to six people. Stays are generally limited to no more than 14 consecutive days.
Over the course of my afternoon and evening at the Marin Headlands hostel, I hiked the recreation area’s trails, took photos of flora and fauna, and watched sunset light play on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Back in the hostel’s communal room, visitors quietly dined, read, played board games and chatted. I approached one conversation, introduced myself and met Robert Gudanet, 57, a Russian émigré who now lives in Bay Area.
Gudanet told me that his first hostel experience was lodging at the Redwoods Hostel (presently closed for reconstruction) up near the Klamath River some 15 years ago. Since then, he’s stayed at hostels in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Peru. But he likes to jaunt over here to Marin Headlands for mini-vacations, and simply to socialize with the constant influx of new people.
“I don’t just enjoy hostels because they’re affordable, although, of course that’s part of it,” Gudanet said. “But the main thing is, one tends to meet a different type of traveler at hostels. They’re a bit more outgoing, much more outdoorsy, and their minds are far more open.”
Info on the eight HI-USA hostels in Northern California, their locations and activities can be found at www.norcalhostels.org. Reservations can also be made easily online, and links are provided to hostels in other regions. The site for the parent organization is www.hiusa.org.
About 300 more hostels operate in the United States, besides the ones run by HI-USA. Many of those can be located through websites, including www.hostelbookers.com, www.hostelworld.com and www.hostels.com.