Thursday, May 07, 2009

Windswept and Wild: Adventures in Marin County

Three intense and sweltering days (not to mention the accompanying crazy nights) in New York left me feeling frazzled to say the least, and ready for some chill out time in my next stop - the more temperate climate and rural terrain of Northern California. The no-frills flight across with American Airlines wasn't the most comfortable ever, but I did have the luxury of a companionable (and camp as chips) neighbour whose arch conversation and flamboyant anecdotes made the journey infinitely more bearable.

Ant met me at SFO airport in a fancy sports car - which he *apparently* bagged for peanuts in a special deal with the hire company - and we hit the road to Marin County. A brief stop for dinner in San Francisco gave us our first taste of the city's eclectic culinary offerings - with some surprisingly satisfying East German cuisine at the Mission District's Walzwerk restaurant.

Crossing the Golden Gate bridge after dark, we bombed up Route 101 into Marin, then off down a series of B roads to our destination, Point Reyes Station and Knob Hill Cottage. At the end of a pitch black country lane, we tiptoed down the path to our little cabin, to be welcomed by a giant moth and a note to say the door was open. Whether or not the two were connected, it was a brilliantly bizarre and somehow strangely comforting start to our stay. After all the hustle and bustle and constant traffic noises of The Big Apple, this remote sleepy place felt eerily quiet, and blissfully conducive to sleep.

The days that followed now merge in my memory as a dreamy montage of wild sandy beaches, soaring skyscapes and a staggering abundance of breath-taking flora and fauna - including wild irises, Black-Tailed Deer, Turkey Vultures, Pelicans, Egrets, Elephant Seals, huge ancient Redwood trees and a whole host of other un-identified natural-world showstoppers. We had hoped to catch sight of some migrating Gray Whales - which can sometimes be spotted from the Point Reyes lighthouse - but none appeared on the morning of our visit there, and being the windiest spot on the Pacific Coast, it was really just too blustery to hang about.

Apart from the magnificent wildlife and mind-blowing scenery, the other most notable thing about Marin and Sonoma was the cuisine. For a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere, the (almost entirely local and organic) foodie possibilities of Point Reyes Station were impressive. We ate breakfast everyday in the local all-American cafe, the Pine Cone Diner, whose hearty pancakes and wholesome granola topped anything similar I've had here in Brighton.

Several interesting delis along the highstreet displayed a mouth-watering selection of colourful produce, and the marvellous Palace Market was perfect for picking up picnic supplies. The food at the Station House Cafe (the main restaurant in town) was less consistently inspiring, especially for vegetarians - although their salads were excellent. Beyond Point Reyes itself, the gastronomic delights of Marin and Sonoma continued to abound; even the seemingly hicksville roadside pitstops, such as the Dry Creek General Store, turned out to be veritable foodie havens.

Though we went to Marin armed with a guidebook and list of possible activities, in the end we just tended to roll from place to place, picking up recommendations from locals along the way, and stopping wherever fate took us. The windy coastal roads made for some interesting driving experiences, and a few missed signposts, but then, as Chet Baker once so elegantly suggested, getting lost is half the fun.

One sunny afternoon for example, we'd failed to notice the turning for Stinson Beach - where we'd hoped to find hot springs - and were contemplating where to go instead. Tangled Up in Blue was playing on the car stereo and I suddenly saw a sign for Dillon Beach. Despite the different spelling, it felt serendipitous enough for us to make a detour, and at the end of another long meandering road, we found ourselves on a windswept waterfront, utterly deserted apart from a gaggle of frisky seabirds. Huge tangled trunks of kelp and other curious seaweeds bestrewed the sparkling sandy beach, and the whole idyllic scene made us forget about the hot springs entirely.

Though perhaps a little more dramatic than the South Downs, I was amazed at how familiar much of the landscape in Marin and neighbouring Sonoma felt; the cliff-scape at Drake's Bay was strikingly similar to the Seven Sisters in Sussex, and many other parts of the coast could have been straight out of Pembrokeshire or the Gower peninsula in Wales. It was a welcome reminder to appreciate the scenic wonders that are on our own doorstep - though of course there can't be many places in the UK where you can see all of the aforementioned wildlife, hang out with eccentric arriviste hippes, have a sunny sandy beach all to yourself, stand in awe under a 300ft tree AND eat your own bodyweight in fine organic cuisine...can there?

We only had a few days in and around Marin before heading back into San Francisco - and I feel like our trip only scratched the surface of everything the area has to offer - but it was if nothing else a fabulous taster for future adventures. If you are planning a trip out that way yourself, you might like to check out this Google map of my recommended places - or if you have been before, please feel free to suggest highlights that we may have missed for next time. Because there will be a next time, of that I am certain.

Coming soon: Part three of my US adventures - San Francisco.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this account. And what great pictures! Are those sea-lions basking in the sun? I hope so! Can't wait to hear how you got on in San Francisco.


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