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The Old West spirit for the modern soul in Occidental, Calif.

Weekend Escape: The laid-back Old West hamlet offers lively saloons, splendid views, a lovely nature preserve — and no cellphone service. So relax.

September 01, 2013|By Avital Andrews

When friends invited my husband, Tim, and me to their wedding in Occidental, Calif., I had to look up the place, even though I'm the author of a guidebook that covers much of Sonoma County. Occidental, I learned, is a postage stamp-sized hamlet (population 1,115) about 70 miles north of San Francisco and 10 miles east of the coast. As we drove in, I was surprised by its Old West flavor. In a region obsessed with all things French and Italian, Occidental is pretty darned American. It has saloons, checked-tablecloth restaurants and a white-steepled church built in 1876. Nearly everything in town is within walking distance, including bars that rock till 2 a.m. Not including gas, we spent about $400 for two nights of lodging, food and drink.

The bed

We stayed at the Occidental Hotel (3610 Bohemian Highway; [707] 874-3623,; doubles from $119), which is really more of a motel. It's basic, clean and functional, except for an occasional lack of hot water and front-desk staff. Your other option is the lovely Inn at Occidental (3657 Church St.; [800] 522-6324,, whose fountains and romantic country style ooze charm, but the inn's least expensive room is $239 (though that includes breakfast).

The meal

The Union Hotel Pizzeria (3731 Main St.; [707] 874-3444,; individual pizzas $8-$9), a cavernous restaurant with many pleasant nooks, serves good breads and pizza. Dine on the outdoor patio, then retreat to the old-fashioned saloon for drinks and jukebox tunes. For a quicker meal, order at El Mariachi Cafe's walk-up counter (3595 Bohemian Highway; [707] 874-2752; entrees about $4-$15.50), where the quesadillas are massive and delicious, and the service is friendly. Howard Station Cafe (3611 Bohemian Highway; [707] 874-2838,; entrees $4-$14, cash only), in an old Victorian, is great for breakfast, although it's small and crowded. If you can't get a seat, order baked goods and smoothies from the cashier.

The find

Ocean Song (19100 Coleman Valley Road; [707] 874-2442,, a 15-minute drive from downtown, is a rolling nature preserve worth visiting for its walking trails, organic farm and gardens. If the fog doesn't roll in, views span from Mt. Tamalpais to Point Reyes. We saw it dressed up for the wedding, but when it isn't closed for private events, it functions as an environmental education center on protected land.

The lessons learned

Be here on a Friday to catch the farmers market, which brings out the locals, from crusty old-timers to free-spirited hippies. Also prepare to be disconnected, electronically speaking, for better or worse. Cellphones get no reception in or around Occidental, so let people know you'll be out of range (though hotels do have decent Internet access) and brace yourself for a slew of pings announcing backed-up voice and text messages as you drive away.

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