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The Hidden Coast Northern Californians Don't Want You to Know About

April 04, 1993|Christopher Reynolds | Times Travel Writer

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. — It's not easy being a Southern Californian. You know, the air, the crime, the traffic, having to claim the Dodgers as kin. But there are compensations, and one of the greatest is that we get to exploit the living daylights out of the rest of the state. Their water, their crops, their lumber.

And let's not forget their weekend secrets. For decades, San Franciscans and their suburban neighbors have been quietly passing Saturdays and Sundays in the wind-swept, mist-soaked towns of underpopulated western Marin County. Strolling beside the waves at Stinson Beach. Looking down on placid Tomales Bay from the warm firesides of Inverness. Leaning into the wind to watch the Pacific pulverize the rocks beneath the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

But when their Sundays wane, the Bay Areans have to pack up their Subarus and crawl back across the Golden Gate Bridge to another work week. And it is then that the shrewd Southern Californian should strike.

While the people in The City toil, we Southern Californians take a week off, fly into San Francisco International Airport, steer the rental car north for an hour or so, and fall into a cycle of great repose. We sleep in otherwise empty bed and breakfasts, sift for sand dollars on lonely beaches, hike alone on mossy wilderness paths. We dine in uncrowded restaurants, making our way home on two-lane roads, braking only for deer. And we share this Ireland-with-hot-tubs landscape with only about 11,000 residents, spread among 13 towns.

Granted, Marin's marine end isn't quite that empty every week. Rangers at Point Reyes National Seashore area counted 2.6 million visitors in 1992, most of them in January (when whales are migrating southward), March (when the whales are returning north) and thesunny months of July and August. But in spring and fall, local folks will concede under questioning, the pace slows pleasurably. In winter, it slows even further. On two of the four nights my wife and I passed there in late February, we were the only guests in our lodgings. "Of our California business, I'd say easily 70% comes from the Bay Area, and others come from all over the state," says Harmony Grisman, executive director of the West Marin Chamber of Commerce. Instead of setting their sights on Marin County, Grisman theorizes, many Southern Californians "think of San Francisco, and they think of the wine country, and maybe they think of the big tree area and Mendocino."

Which leaves those of us in West Marin plenty of room for what we do best: northern exploitation.

Once you follow California 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge, city trappings begin to fall away. On California 1 (Shoreline Highway), the narrow, meandering path down the low slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, they vanish entirely. The reward for that hour of demanding driving is Stinson Beach.

The population is estimated at anywhere from 800 to 1,500. The beach, white and wind-raked, stretches three miles. And the commercial center of town, a few yards from the beach, takes up no more than two blocks along the highway.

The choices are simple. If you can afford $125 a night, you probably stay at the stylish Casa del Mar, a block uphill from the highway, and get a purple pansy on your melon at breakfast. If you can afford $50, you book into the Spartan, funky Stinson Beach Motel, right on the highway. You can browse the bookstores (one new, one used) or a couple of art galleries, or the New Age-flavored gift shop.

For dinner, you probably duck into the Stinson Beach Grill, an old wooden house with a wood-burning stove in the dining room and jazz from the 1940s on its sound system. It is the best-regarded eatery in town, and our meal there was served up with a sideshow of animal behavior and West Marin priorities.

Taking my order for crab cakes, our waitress interrupted herself to trot to the front window and greet Sparky, a sheep dog affiliated with a local couple also dining in the restaurant. Later, by the rear door, the cook paused to watch Jake (the restaurant cat) vie with a wild fox for that evening's salmon snack at the dumpster. A few weeks before, the waitress told us, an opossum snuck into the restaurant and led the entire crew on a chase around a full dining room. A veritable wild kingdom--and excellent crab cakes, too.

After dinner, you take a drink at the Sand Dollar across the street. Here gather the locals, and a stranger can eavesdrop as one man staggers in telling tales of tequila in Mexico, and a woman divulges that she dated Herbie Hancock in high school. When the bartender there discovered that we were from Los Angeles, instead of sneering she volunteered directions to a wilderness trail that begins just above the Casa del Mar.

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