×

Want to stay on the Bay Area’s famed floating island with palm trees and lighthouse? Now you can.

Want to stay on the Bay Area’s famed floating island with palm trees and lighthouse? Now you can.

Long ago in a wine cellar deep below the waterline in San Francisco Bay, Tony Bennett broke out into his beloved signature song as he visited Forbes Island, a then-popular floating restaurant near Pier 39.

It was Bennett’s birthday, and he and another friend came to the human-made island to tour it, recalled its builder and then-owner, Forbes Thor Kiddoo.

“I was showing the wine cellar, and then he just started singing, ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’ and so I let him finish because he’s got a wonderful voice and it’s a famous song,” Kiddoo said of the impromptu intimate performance.

“We’ve had so many parties and so many great times,” he recalled of the floating island’s former glory days.

Not that all was smooth sailing for Kiddoo, who built Forbes Island by hand, launching it in 1979 in Sausalito. After living and working there for decades, the Brooklyn native ran into trouble with a state commission that made him move his self-propelled concrete and steel island. He headed off to Antioch for several years and later built a lighthouse with 56 steps for the island.

After deciding to turn it into a restaurant, he got his permits to moor it between San Francisco piers 39 and 41, running a successful restaurant there until the island’s moorings failed in 2017 and were too costly to repair, he said.

All good things must come to an end, and for Kiddoo, a self-made millionaire houseboat builder and restaurateur, that meant hanging up the keys to the floating island.

When his lease was up, Kiddoo moved his treasured floating island far from San Francisco to a quiet mooring on the Delta at Brentwood’s Holland Tract Riverside Marina. Marina owner Kevin Hinmann had convinced him to move there after seeing a social media post.

“Owning a restaurant wears off pretty quick, then it’s work, work, work,” said Kiddoo, who for years shuttled customers by boat to his floating 50-by-100-foot island restaurant. “I was getting old. I was 79. You’re supposed to retire when you’re 80, you know.”

But it was clear Hinmann was not going to purchase the island — he later went bankrupt. Sailor/investor Sean Faul stepped in and, along with Eric Goodman, set up a company, Seastar Marine, to buy it for an undisclosed price.

Faul was impressed after visiting the island and seeing its collection of nautical memorabilia, reminiscent of a 19th-century sailing ship, with living quarters like those of Jules Verne’s legendary Captain Nemo.

“I went aboard and found it was incredible, like everything was actually real and functional aboard and that it had been built by some professionals with long experience in everything from wooden boat building to retrofitting barges and things like that for use as regular vessels,” he said.

Forbes Thor Kiddoo, left, with Frank Leon at a recent gathering at Forbes Island. (Photo Tom Bishop) 

Faul said he also then realized that the floating island barge had been many things over its life, from a home for Forbes — he lived there for 23 years — to a party venue, a restaurant and now an event center with lodging.

“Because I have a whole lifetime of history with being on the water, sailing power boats and then protecting the submarine architecture, I felt an immediate kind of an affinity for every part of it,” Faul said, noting that he soon brought others in to invest in the island and volunteer with its restoration.

“We’ve worked hard to bring it back to what it was originally intended to be, which was sharing the experience of being on the water in kind of a mystical or magical place with the public,” he said.

One of those Faul brought on early was Tom Bishop, of San Francisco, who is now the group’s chief financial officer.

Bishop was surprised to see what lay underneath the rocks and sand, palm trees and lighthouse.

“When you go down into the depths, you see, well, there’s this bar and this huge ornate fireplace and lounge, and all sorts of diving gear and memorabilia and paintings and everything,” he said. “It was a hidden gem. A lot of people go down there and fall in love with the place.”

But after a couple of years of work, the island owners realized they were moving along slower than they had hoped. Their marine insurance had lapsed, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, making doing business impossible.

The investors decided to branch out and form a board, with nearby property owner Heidi Petty joining in, helping out with day-to-day operations.

Forbes Island houseboat board member Heidi Petty at its dock on Bradford Island near Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Built in the 1970’s by Forbes Kiddo, Forbes Island was docked in Sausalito before becoming a floating restaurant near San Francisco’s Pier 39. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Patrons enjoy the festivities in the bar on Forbes Island. (Photo by Erin Bishop)

A look up the winding 56-stair staircase to the lighthouse on Forbes Island. (Photo by Tom Bishop)

A view of the Forbes Island houseboat at its dock on Bradford Island near Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Built in the 1970’s by Forbes Kiddo, Forbes Island was docked in Sausalito before becoming a floating restaurant near San Francisco’s Pier 39. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Nautical memorabilia decorates a room on Forbes Island. (Photo by Erin Bishop)

A drone view of the Forbes Island houseboat at its dock on Bradford Island near Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Built in the 1970’s by Forbes Kiddo, Forbes Island was docked in Sausalito before becoming a floating restaurant near San Francisco’s Pier 39. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Forbes Island houseboat board member Heidi Petty at its dock on Bradford Island near Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Built in the 1970’s by Forbes Kiddo, Forbes Island was docked in Sausalito before becoming a floating restaurant near San Francisco’s Pier 39. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

A view of the Forbes Island houseboat at its dock on Bradford Island near Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Built in the 1970’s by Forbes Kiddo, Forbes Island was docked in Sausalito before becoming a floating restaurant near San Francisco’s Pier 39. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

A drone view of the Forbes Island houseboat at its dock on Bradford Island near Oakley, Calif., on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Built in the 1970’s by Forbes Kiddo, Forbes Island was docked in Sausalito before becoming a floating restaurant near San Francisco’s Pier 39. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

of

Expand

With trouble brewing with the new marina owner who had different ideas for his place, the Forbes investors knew they had to move. Petty, who owns a cattle ranch on nearby Bradford Island, came to the rescue, offering to moor the floating island there. But getting there was no easy task; the group first had to help local experts buy a crane boat to push the island barge to its new home.

“It was a haphazard pirates’ adventure,” Petty said.

“I basically had my farmer who just came back from fighting in Ukraine and brought with him an American Ukrainian that he had been fighting with. We had two giant, strong military men (to help with the move).”

The strength was needed to load thousands of pounds of rope and a 2,000-pound cement piling to use as a temporary mooring for Forbes’ new home. And then came the storms as they were trying to anchor the island.

“We had set up these temporary docks to get to land, and the storms were ripping them apart,” Petty said.

With no way to land, the crew was trapped on Forbes Island for several days, she said.

“I have nightmares of sleeping on floors attached to one spud (piling) and this giant Island swinging out into the river and then swinging back again,” she said.

Petty and crew had to ask for help, and they turned to their friends who were part of Ephemerilse, an annual event that brings out boat lovers to raft together and party in the Delta.

“So we kind of called in the troops and finally got it all done,” she said.

“It’s very stable now,” she said. “It looks amazing. It’s just absolutely beautiful.”

The group also has been working to go off-grid for power and water. A campground has been added that will also be off-grid for groups that want to rent Forbes Island, which only has two bedrooms.

Related Articles

Restaurants, Food and Drink |


Korean grill Baekjeong ready to open its first Bay Area restaurant

Restaurants, Food and Drink |


Mendocino Farms (with summer specials) opens in Walnut Creek

Restaurants, Food and Drink |


Montebello Market closes after 15 months in Los Gatos

Restaurants, Food and Drink |


Semi-permanent parklets under construction in downtown Campbell

Restaurants, Food and Drink |


30+ Bay Area beer and wine events to enjoy this fall

The group is advertising the remote “off-beat and off-the-grid” overnight experience and private venue for 25 to 100 people on HipCamp for $995 a night, plus cleaning fees and an additional $15 per overnight guest.

The owners tout that their island getaway is only an hour away from San Francisco, with no sound ordinance, complete privacy and friendly neighbors — the wildlife.

The group hosted a fundraiser last year and is planning another one Sept.29-Oct. 1 — “Secrets of the Sea Circus” — to help keep the legendary island afloat.

Over time, Faul said he has become friends with Kiddoo, who now lives in Napa Valley and has been invited to all the events on the island.

“He likes that we’re promoting it as an event center,” Faul said. “He (Kiddoo) would bring everyone from movie stars to common folk and people he met on the streets to spend a couple hours, spend the night or hang out with him.”

Kiddoo marveled at the thought that he had been a bit of a celebrity much of his life since building the unique floating island, stories of which appeared in publications around the world — including the front page of the Wall Street Journal — and on TV shows such as “Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous.”

One thing is for certain, though: You won’t ever find Kiddoo calling his unique 700-ton creation anything but an “island.”

“Barges don’t have palm trees around the shoreline. Or sand on the beach. There is not a boat in the world that has sand on its deck. It’s an island.”