Hello, sunshine! Foggy August is winding down, with sunnier September right around the corner, just in time for the kids to be back in school and the doldrums of summer’s cut-out-early-Fridays to slip away. So grab these last couple of weekends before Labor Day, sling your sandals and beach towels in the back of the car, and get out of the city in search of sunnier climes.
From Oakland or San Francisco, my vacation compass always points north. Yes, the delights of Pacifica, Pescadero, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo on down to Los Angeles are many, and I’d happily return for a second slice of olallieberry pie at Duarte’s, or another view of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s undulating kelp forest and huge, prehistoric-looking sunfish. But what always lures me to the back roads is the sea-tinged scent of eucalyptus and coastal scrub, and the small farms, quirky towns, and rolling sheep-dotted hills of West Marin. So, 101 North, what have you to offer for the casual daytripper?
For starters, get out of town early, before the bridges and highway are clogged with the rest of the vacationing hordes. A promise of really excellent doughnuts and a superior cappuccino is usually enough to rouse even the most sluggish of un-morning people. A decade or so ago, I was working on a round-up of doughnut shops in the Bay Area for a local magazine. Not a single chocolate-glazed was worth getting up for until my friend Liz, born and bred in Marin, turned me on to her favorite high school hangout, Donut Alley in Larkspur. (The exit was Paradise Drive, easy to remember, for what is paradise but a morning that starts with a perfect doughnut?) I went there and fell in love.
The same guy had been running the place for years. They opened at 6:30am and closed when they ran out of doughnuts, usually before noon. There were no maple-bacon or vegan plum-cardamom doughnuts, just good old old-fashioned old fashioneds, your buttermilk bars and apple fritters and cute, tender, just-sweet-enough cake doughnuts, chocolate-iced, cinnamon-sugared, or pink-sprinkled. Parents came in with their kids for a bag to go; old guys sat around a few Formica tables scattered with copies of the Marin I-J and drank paper cups of coffee from the help-yourself Bun-o-matic machine. And while a recent visit revealed the place to be a little spiffed up (the coffee is organic now, the tables dark wood, and a new blueberry doughnut, made with dried berries, is selling fast), the spirit and doughnuts are exactly the same. Polite kids still point and ask, “Can my little brother have that chocolate one, please?” while their baby sisters squeal for sprinkles and chocolate milk.
And while the drip coffee on offer is perfectly fine, you Sightglass-spoiled city folk probably need a more potent eye-opener. Head across the street to the marble counters of Emporio Rulli and order your Rome-worthy latte or cappuccino. Sip it at one of the sidewalk tables, or take it to go and stroll over to Dolliver Park, at the corner of Magnolia Ave and Madrone St. Sit under a redwood tree and breathe the green forest smells while you lick the sugar off your fingers.
Double back to 101, but not for long. It’s time to get onto the meandering Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. It winds, stop and start, through the posh Marin towns, San Anselmo, Greenbrae, Ross, and Fairfax. Soon, though, the countryside opens up and the road slides under towering redwood trees and bark-shredded eucalyptus, swinging past the forested campgrounds of Samuel P. Taylor State Park, through the one-block town of Olema, epicenter of the 1906 earthquake, and into the (by comparison) bustling little town of Point Reyes Station. During the week in wintertime, Point Reyes Station is a very mellow place. On a sunny summer weekend, however, it’s up and lively, thronged with bicyclists and birders.
The Saturday morning Point Reyes Farmers' Market, in front of Toby’s Feed Barn and next to the town’s sweet community garden plots, has just a few farmers—Paradise Valley Produce, Fresh Run Farm, Wild Blue Farm—but they’re well stocked and doing a bang-up business in lettuce and kale, cukes and squash, bundles of herbs, freshly dug onions and potatoes, bright carrots and brighter bouquets. A glance through a wooden crate of new-crop Gravenstein apples from Paradise Valley reveals a couple of ringers: none other than the elusive, rarely seen Pink Pearls, a tart early apple whose cream-colored skin masks its fantastic, hot-pink flesh.
Stop by the Brickmaiden stall to pick up one of Celine Underwood's tangy sourdough loaves, baked in a wood-fired oven in a little unmarked cottage just across the street. It’s the same cottage where Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Pruiett of Tartine got their start in 1994, baking bread and pastries for small stores and farmers markets in the area under the name Bay Village Bread. Next to the bread stall is Wild West Ferments, offering handmade sauerkraut along with canning jars full of wonderfully fruity, lacto-fermented “sodas” in flavors like nectarine-vanilla and plum.
Osteria Stellina's GBD Grilled Cheese serves up three kinds of grilled cheese: a basic one with Valley Ford Estero Gold cheese on Stellina's own crusty bread; sharp cheddar with a griddled egg; and “The Bill from Bo,” Bill Niman’s slow-roasted brisket with Estero Gold. The Marshall Store, from across Tomales Bay, is serving up oysters to go, on the half shell or barbecued.
Not in the mood for oysters or cheese? Well, there’s always what might just be the best burger in West Marin, served right on the way out of town at Marin Sun Farms’ butcher shop and café. (Their beef jerky is perfect trail food, too.) Otherwise, fill out your picnic menu at Tomales Bay Foods, home of Cowgirl Creamery, and take your pick of perfect picnic spots. Families with children can head to the placid shoreline of Hearts Desire beach along Tomales Bay near Inverness. Too full of sunbathers and kayakers? Take the short, shady hike through the mossy, Hobbit-y trees to nearby Shell Beach, generally a little less populated. Or go exploring among the numerous ocean beaches, lagoons, and estuaries of the Point Reyes National Seashore itself.
On the way home, sand in your shoes, cell phones ignored, you can keep the beachy feeling going by snagging an outdoor table overlooking the marina at Sausalito’s Bar Bocce, ordering a pitcher of beer or a glass of white sangria while you wait for your crisp-crusted calamari pizza to arrive, dribbled with lemon oil, flecked with chiles. The best seat in the house isn’t actually in the restaurant; it’s the bench down on the beach, shaded by a big umbrella, where you can dig your toes into the sand and toast your very, very good fortune at having all this bounty in your backyard.