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Weekend Escape: Sonoma County

Dogs 'n' Dunes

At Sea Ranch, the antidote to stress is harmony, and it includes your pets

January 18, 1998|ANN CONNORS | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Connors is Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine

THE SEA RANCH, Calif. — We were zipping north on Interstate 5, marveling at the spun-gold fields of the San Joaquin Valley, the two dogs snoring in the back of the car. As the fast-food stands at the Santa Nella offramp flashed by, the conversation veered to the reason why, late on a Friday afternoon, we were on our way to The Sea Ranch, a private development north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, where, friends assured us, the land was beautiful and the beaches dog-friendly.

It had to be, we decided, that moment in Italy this spring when we got misty-eyed along the shores of Lake Garda at a sign bearing the admonishment "Divieto di balneazione ai cani" (roughly translated, "Do not let your dogs bathe here"). Our next trip would not be dog-less.

So when friends described vacationing at The Sea Ranch with their two pets, we booked the same house, Boyvey, for two nights through Rams Head Realty & Rentals. Rams Head, which has offices on Sea Ranch property, and Sea Ranch Escape, which operates out of the Sea Ranch Lodge, are the two primary rental agencies serving The Sea Ranch. Rams Head has about 120 rentals, with 22 units that take pets. Sea Ranch Escape handles roughly 80 rentals, six of which take dogs.

Our house cost $280 for two nights, about average for The Sea Ranch. There also was a $100 deposit, refunded after two weeks, a Sea Ranch surcharge of $9.80, a county tax of $26.08 and a $35 cleaning charge.

On the coast 100 miles north of San Francisco, the area is an antidote for all that ails modern life. The development, begun in 1965 and still run by a private homeowners' association, is the very model of architectural harmony, owing much of its look to renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, designer of the new FDR memorial in Washington, D.C. Houses, about half of which are second homes, must meet strict design standards that seem aimed at making the low-slung, gracefully graying wood buildings blend seamlessly into the landscape. Roads wind almost imperceptibly through meadows and woods.

While most Sea Ranch escapees can fly into either San Francisco or Oakland, taking the dogs meant arriving by car. And by the time we reached Berkeley via Interstate 580, the rush-hour traffic had slowed to a crawl. So we got off at University Avenue for an early dinner at Venezia, a charming restaurant decorated inside to give the illusion that you're sitting outside; i.e. interior walls painted to look like exterior walls, with stairs, doors, windows and clotheslines. Before proceeding to Petaluma, we made a pit stop at the Ohlone Dog Park at Grant Street and Hearst Avenue, one of the Bay Area's many well-maintained dog parks. Once at Petaluma, we cut over to California 1 for the 1 1/2-hour drive up the coast to Sea Ranch.

The next day was warm and clear, the sort of weather that makes you wonder, as you marvel at the extraordinary scenery, why everyone doesn't live in Northern California. By daylight we admired Boyvey House's two bedrooms and baths, ample kitchen, dining and living room, the tile floors perfect for dogs. From a book in the dining room we learned that the house had been built in the '70s with a solar heating system that made maximum use of the natural light and kept the house quite toasty.

We packed up the dogs in the car--one rule being they're never left alone in the house--and drove to The Sea Ranch Lodge for breakfast. The lodge has 20 rooms for rent ($98 to $144 through March), a restaurant and cocktail lounge, and, along with the nine-hole golf course, constitutes the sole commercial enterprise at Sea Ranch. From the lodge it was an easy walk to Black Point Beach, where, as in the rest of Sonoma County, dogs are welcome if leashed. It felt almost sinful to romp along the surf after years of chafing at the L.A. County beaches' total ban on dogs.

*

We then headed to the town of Gualala, seven miles up the coast in Mendocino County, where art and craft galleries abound, and there are two supermarkets that serve The Sea Ranch community. At the Surf Super Market we bought breakfast and lunch supplies for Sunday. Boyvey House, like other Sea Ranch rentals, has a full complement of cookware and appliances, making stay-at-home eating appealing.

We then joined the line snaking in the door of the Smokehouse restaurant behind the Gualala Hotel. The popcorn shrimp we ordered was unremarkable, and we began to suspect it was the barbecued beef, reputedly smoked on the premises, that drew the crowds.

Reluctant to forgo another chance to take the dogs to the ocean, we passed up the pool and three tennis courts available to Sea Ranch residents, and renters, and drove 10 miles up the coast to Alder Creek Beach Road outside Manchester, where awaiting us was another dog-friendly beach.

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