The Inquisitive Traveler
By Patty Burness
If open space, endless vistas, tule elk, and oysters are on your list, then head west – to West Marin that is. It’s only 45 minutes from the Northside to Olema and once there, you’ve got lots of choices. Go west into the Pt. Reyes National Seashore for elk, lush landscape and home-cooked food. Or head north along Route 1 to enjoy the small towns along Tomales Bay with their local oysters and wine and unique overnight accommodations. Not too long ago, my husband and I left early on Sunday morning, and without another car in sight, breezed along – ready to indulge to our hearts’ content.
After a stop at the Bear Valley Visitor Center for maps and information, we began our trip into the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. We cruised by jagged coastline, dairy farms, pristine beaches, historic ranches, and through pea-soup fog to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse. On a clear day, yes, you can see forever, but not today. Minutes later, we were under warm sunshine and blue skies driving to Drakes Beach through the federally identified pastoral zone. A hungry herd of tule elk grazed at the crest of one ridge. At the road’s end, we found a panoramic view and Drake’s Beach Cafe.
Turns out husband and wife team Jane Kennedy and Ben Angulo own and manage this fun seaside eatery and hope one day to own an inn and operating farm. In the meantime, their fish tacos, salmon quesadillas and fish chowder all created with the freshest ingredients, rated high on our list. Relaxed and sated, we waved to the tule elk, headed out of the verdant park and stopped just outside Pt. Reyes Station at the Pt. Reyes Winery. We knew about oysters and elk, but who knew about wine?
The family-owned winery began in 1990. Since the first harvest, they’ve gone on to win medals in Marin, San Francisco and Sonoma counties as well as at the California State Fair. Start with the Pinot Noir grape and the NV Blanc de Noir. From there, taste the Alexander Valley Zinfandel and the Quail Hill Cabernet. This is a jewel of a winery.
Time to get serious about oysters. For that, we headed straight to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company just off Highway 1 at Millerton Point. It is the oldest continuously run shellfish farm in California, offering fresh oysters, mussels and clams. They even have a picnic area complete with barbeques so you can fire up the briny specialties. However you choose to eat them, and topped with whatever you like, they’re divine – creamy, salty, succulent.
Appetites whetted, there’s always room for more oysters. Next stop: The Marshall Store propped up over Tomales Bay. When you see folks lined up by the water’s edge digging into platters of oysters and bottles of champagne and cold beer, you know you’re at the right place. The Friend family has farmed oysters in Tomales Bay for years, but only took over the Marshall Store a couple of years ago. The vibe is laid back, the view is phenomenal and the food is perfect. We enjoyed two dozen barbequed oysters with garlic butter, lemon zest, red onion, parsley, and a house-made chipotle sauce. On any given weekend, they shuck nearly 3,000 oysters. And don’t miss the rock cod ceviche. This is one place you’ll return to.
Ready to kick back even more, we pulled into Nick’s Cove & Cottages just north of Marshall. This oasis, inspired and owned by Pat Kuleto, was the last stop on our West Marin jaunt. Situated right on the edge of Tomales Bay, cottages are built on pilings over the water. We checked into the last cottage in the row, the Big Rock, which is nautically themed and decorated (fishing poles, tackle and other equipment). The oversized furniture will swallow you whole, the fireplace is meant for cozy snuggling, and the extensive view – well, just soak it up. Or simply sit on the porch and daydream.
After a leisurely stroll past the other cottages, we were at the Nick’s Cove restaurant. This old roadhouse combines history with modern touches – a bar for hanging out, a seafood shack at the end of the pier, lots of space for al fresco dining, and a comfortable dining room with an old stone fireplace – all built over the water. The interior, a mix of white tablecloths with elk horns and collectibles hung on rich wood walls, is framed by unforgettable views. The kitchen mantra is fresh, local, sustainable. We settled in next to the window to watch the sun set behind Tomales Bay.
We began our feast with more oysters – raw and barbequed. Whether paired with a NV Champagne or sparkling wine, these local delicacies are soft, salty and slide down easily. Sticking to our local seafood theme, we relished both Tomales Bay clam chowder and Bodega Dungeness crab cakes. Next up: Nick’s bouillabaisse linguini. It overflowed with shrimp, clams and mussels and we savored every bite. Nick’s banana split was over the top, and walking back to our cottage gave us a chance to shed some of the calories we put on with the rich ice cream, gooey sauces, cookie pieces, and of course, the bananas.
The combination of water lapping on the shore, the starlit sky and the most comfortable mattress we have ever slept on made for one terrific experience. And the next morning, with the delivery of French pressed coffee, freshly squeezed juice, and a basket of warm scones and muffins, we had a front-row seat to watch Tomales Bay wake up right outside our door.
As we headed back to the Northside, we slowed to allow a family of deer to cross the road. If you’re in the right mindset, a 24-hour getaway will do it every time – you’ll feel like you’ve been away for at least three days. Isn’t that the point?
Patty Burness is the travel writer for Northside San Francisco.