Top Heading north over the Golden Gate Bridge. Centre One of our first choices for accommodation, Nick’s Cove. Above Bay view cottages at Nick’s Cove, low tide.
Most luxury travellers headed for San Francisco barely consider leaving the urban hustle bustle of the City by the Bay and that is truly a wonderful thing. Let’s hope they stay disinterested in making the one-hour trek to the otherworldly coastal country just north of Pt Reyes, which will mean people like and you and me can continue to have the place to ourselves. By all means, tell them to stay away from this unspoiled expanse of idyllic inlets where ospreys glide over oyster beds, and bald eagles preside from ancient rocks as sea lions slither along pristine waters leaving barely a trace. It’s mostly the oysters which draw people here, those slimy bi-valves, the oysters I mean, and not the people: Miyagi, Pacific, Eastern and the inestimable Kumamoto. But more on them later.
The brief drive north will surprise you, a vertiginous cruise straight over the Golden Gate Bridge, no $6 toll northbound, up Highway 1 for about 20 minutes. You navigate a rather twisty, crumbling four-lane freeway in bad repair under perpetual reconstruction (thanks, Guvernator!), through the Rainbow Tunnel, past Sausalito, up to the exit for the Richmond Bridge. Now it gets tricky. You have to watch closely for the Sir Francis Drake exit, on the right, and then loop west toward the ocean, not eastward towards the North Bay. You meander perhaps a half-hour through small hamlets until canyons of redwood groves appear, an excellent omen. This means you have another 20 minutes until you reach the sleepy little one-horse town of Pt Reyes, at the southern end of Tomales Bay.
Pt Reyes has some vintage buildings, a supermarket, bakery, funky restaurants, a charming small bookstore, but, most importantly, the Cowgirl Creamery, your first rest stop, where you are advised to sample and buy some of the outstanding local cheeses, nibble a delicious-but-expensive takeaway sandwich, and quaff some local wine, microbrew or esoteric soda. Everyone knows where the Creamery is, just seconds off the main drag. Fill your mini-Igloo cooler with transportable provisions and see if you can locate a taste of Humboldt Fog, an exceptional local blue cheese, and a bag of Blue Bottle coffee beans, another regional delicacy to take home. Now you are ready to head north.
Drive north along the east side of Tomales Bay, beginning your odyssey to the pristine parallel universe called Mendocino County, a route that imposes an unimaginable and obligatory deceleration. A well-maintained two-lane road takes you meandering along the shore, where pastoral fields and eucalyptus groves punctuate rolling hillocks and protected wetlands on the backdrop of dramatic skies. Time slows down, except for the impatient locals, who whoosh by you on the left in their shiny Beemers and SUVs, as you dawdle along below the speed limit trying to discern the hidden refuges of Silicon Valley millionaires and prosperous contraband growers. You won’t see them, though you can’t miss the eco-tourists who hike, kayak and bike, but do not throng; never fear: those overly-energetic types only spend the day, then fade into the landscape or sleep in camping areas tucked away from your privileged view.
Where you lay your weary head is the other question, though your choices are limited. You could book a rental using www.airbnb.com, a local online utility which reps small bed and breakfasts, private homes or cushy cottages for any budget from the sublime to the ridiculous.
But three local institutions have their own particular allure. Lucire’s first choice would be a stay in one of the eccentric bay-front cottages on stilts at Nick’s Cove in the little community called Marshall. Nick’s, a quirky local institution, has diverse lodgings for parties of all sizes, more along the lines of honeymoon cottages with quality amenities. There are wood stoves, lap blankets, quilt bathrobes and designer soaps in modern baths. In the morning the mist drifts across the rippling water, a tranquil view from every window, and utterly private. There’s a surprising restaurant where you are advised to follow the chef’s choice for catch of the day. A rustic bar attracts locals and world travellers, but the converted boathouse at the end of a long pier—which can be booked for private dining—may be just the exclusive isolation you seek for a discreet conversation or romantic tryst.
Top One of Nick’s more eccentric cottages, with interiors like a vintage luxury yacht, at low tide. Centre Interior of the nautical cottage at Nick’s Cove.
Above View of the western shore from a boathouse at Nick’s Cove.
Along the depopulated western shore, two other high-grade properties can be found, both tucked away on wooded hillsides, above the main road. Manka’s, a community fixture for 50 years, has a very few rustic rooms, all authentic and comfortable, with a heritage of famous guests who value the tranquility and service. It’s like walking into an environment designed by Ralph Lauren, except this is the real thing. Manka’s well-regarded restaurant was destroyed by fire a decade ago, and while there are plans to rebuild it, the property has since created an off-site kitchen which serves world-class menus directly to the rooms, so that en suite dining is always remarkable and different. These thoughtful and traditional lodgings have beautiful forest views, comfortable reading chairs and lamps and outdoor hot tubs. The bathrooms are luxurious though small. A unique and recommended lodging experience at premium prices.
Above One of Manka’s cabins, and the typical décor. Below left A view from one of the rooms at Osprey Peak. (Courtesy Osprey Peak.)
For the traveller seeking the austere and meditative, Osprey Peak, a Japanese-style inn among the treetops, may be the answer. The mid-price property is reached by a private road meandering up a small canyon, and there are only two very comfortable but zen-like rooms to be had, both with private baths. The accommodation, while spare, is modern and clean and imparts an instant sense of tranquillity. You have your own key to the lodge, breakfast is included, and a bay view through conifers is the great bonus, the optimal location to seek an answer to a classic koan, or simply sit quietly in contemplative therapeutic nothingness.
But who makes the pilgrimage to Tomales Bay, if not to sample the phylum mollusca pelecypoda? We can think of no better meal than a dozen raw Kumamotos fresh from the water and shucked before your eyes, a quick dip in the mignonette sauce, paired with a hunk of local bread, a hit of Cowgirl Creamery blue cheese and a glass of crisp Sancerre, taken while seated outdoors on a rough wood bench a few steps from the shore at Hog Island Oyster Company. While you have a multitude of choices to savour this local delicacy, Hog Island proved to be the place we liked best, and not just for the friendly service and four varieties oysters sold or the excellent spicy barbecued half-dozen we sampled. You can eat fresh there, or buy mesh sacks to take home, and there’s even a gift shop with accessories and hats and T-shirts and cool tank tops that are great gift items for jealous folks back home. The only caveat, as with most of the finer things in life, is a high price, $160 for 48 oysters, six glasses of wine, bread and cheese. But worth every penny. We will certainly return, keep it to yourselves, our little secret. •
Drive north along the east side of Tomales Bay, beginning your odyssey to the pristine parallel universe called Mendocino County, a route that imposes an unimaginable and obligatory deceleration. A well-maintained two-lane road takes you meandering along the shore, where pastoral fields and eucalyptus groves punctuate rolling hillocks and protected wetlands on the backdrop of dramatic skies
Above The residue of barbecued oysters.
Cowgirl Creamery, www.cowgirlcreamery.com
Nick’s Cove, www.nickscove.com
Manka’s Inverness Lodge, www.mankas.com
Osprey Peak, www.ospreypeak.com
Hog Island Oyster Co., www.hogislandoysters.com
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.