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Weekend Escape: Marin County : A walk in the woods, a meal, a massage--it's a wonderful life

February 11, 1996|MICHAEL WALKER | Walker, an editor for Los Angeles Times Magazine, also edits Traveling in Style

MILL VALLEY, Calif. — My indelible memory of Mill Valley, the storied bedroom-community-cum-lifestyle-statement 12 miles north of San Francisco, is of a blazing blue Monday near the end of the disco era, when a comedian friend took me on his rounds arm-twisting club owners to book his act. The Bay Area that day glistened with flawless postcard imagery warranted to render a 22-year-old Midwestern rube such as myself speechless. As we motored past Mill Valley's timbered city hall, I beheld, at high noon on the front lawn, a ringer for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi massaging the back of a stunning, shirtless young woman with a nut-brown tan. The effect of such a tableau on a barely post-collegiate hayseed cannot be overstated. Man, I remember thinking but (I hope) not actually saying, this is GREAT . . . .

So when I returned to Mill Valley, last month for a weekend with my girlfriend, I made a point of strolling past city hall and gazing, "Summer of '42"-ish, at the site of my innocent's epiphany on the California good life. I would like to report that I was swept away in a Proustian reverie; instead, what I mostly thought about was getting in out of the mid-winter Pacific cold.

*

Mill Valley, population 13,000, has an ambivalent relationship with tourism. It is, on the one hand, home to the mighty Mill Valley Film Festival, held each autumn, and a magnet for weekenders from San Francisco and package tourists stopping on their way to gape at the ancient sequoias in nearby Muir Woods. But Mill Valley is also a well-heeled suburb of celebrity townies (residents past and present include the late Jerry Garcia, bandmate Bob Weir, Van Halen's Sammy Hagar, and psychologist John Gray, author of "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus").

Tweedy, self-conscious good taste rules, with a daffy aromatherapy-and-Esalen overlay. "Everybody in Mill Valley has a massage therapist," shrugged the desk clerk at the Mill Valley Inn, a newly constructed 16-room hotel opened in 1994 on the edge of downtown. Legend has it the inn breezed through the usually interminable Marin County approval processes because the town folk wanted a nice place where they could stash their weekend guests. They got it. Instead of cloying bed-and-breakfast quaint, the rooms and two cottages are outfitted with artfully distressed armoires, writing desks and side tables constructed from salvaged materials by California artisans; queen-size wrought iron beds rigged with Portuguese cotton linens; and, in some rooms, wood stoves (supplied, somewhat meanly, with a Duraflame-style pressed log), and slate-tiled balconies with English ivy and bougainvilla climbing the trellis. Room rates range from $125 to $165 and include a decent continental breakfast served in-room or in a drafty second-floor solarium (opt for the former) and free parking in the hotel garage.

The blend of contemporary and antique is pulled together with confidence but the layout of the hotel sometimes defies logic--the expensive third-floor rooms, for example, open onto a roofless corridor that seems winningly rustic until you fumble for the room key at midnight in a Marin cloudburst. The hotel also fronts busy Throckmorton Avenue--request a room on the quieter back side, with its view, best from rooms 14 and 12, of a redwood grove and Cascade Canyon Creek (as well as a used-furniture store and several houses).

The inn's owners mysteriously proclaim it a "European Style Pensione," a redundancy on the order of "Eskimo Style Igloo." Inaccurate, too, since the Mill Valley Inn is really a throwback to the idiosyncratic hotels that were a fixture in American small towns until the interstates and national motel chains drove them from the scene. Most of what you want to do in Mill Valley is within walking distance--from shopping at the likes of Wilkes Sport, the racier cousin of San Francisco's Wilkes Bashford haberdashery, to dining at Piazza D'Angelo, the snazzy trattoria run by the inn's co-owners, brothers Paolo and Domenico Petrone. The inn also makes possible staying in Mill Valley in San Francisco-level accommodations, instead of fighting the traffic and fog across the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of a day trip. You can leave LAX or Burbank as late as 7 on a Friday night, rent a car at the San Francisco or Oakland airport, and make it to Mill Valley in time for a late dinner.

After checking in Friday night and berthing our ridiculous Chevy Corsica rental in the inn's garage, we hied ourselves over to supper at Avenue Grill, which the desk clerk/concierge had recommended. Displaced New Yorkers will feel right at home in this warm and bustling bistro with its chrome-edged bar stools, banquettes and frantic kitchen open to the dining room. We gulped red wine by the glass to put the color back in our cheeks, shared a platter of Washington oysters, then tore into the evening's specials. My grilled swordfish was perfect: sweet, moist and hot off the grill.

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