Take me home to Marin County

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Take me home to Marin County

This is the coolest and least known part of the San Francisco Bay Area. So cool, in fact, that the inhabitants of house boat village Bolinas are known to steal the road signs to keep their paradise from being discovered… How to get there? Cross the Golden Gate Bridge, follow the N1 north and don’t stop until you see the Pacific Ocean again.

Take me home to Marin County

But the real reason we’ve rented this six-bedroom house is for the small boathouse standing at the end of the jetty. So small that it only fits a double bed, a bedside table and two rattan chairs. There are thick down duvets to keep you warm and big wooden blinds that can be pulled open from bed. And there you have it: your own private view of the bay.

Take me home to Marin County

100 metres further from the lodge you’ll find The Marshall Store; not actually a store but an oyster bar with high wooden tables, barstools and a clientele comfortably dressed in shorts and flip-flops. And judging by the continuous flow of cars, this seems to be San Francisco’s favourite weekend get-away. Naturally we know that the only way to savour oysters is as they come and that it’s a (near) mortal sin to do otherwise. But here they also come roasted with garlic and topped off with a couple of drops of Tabasco.

Take me home to Marin County

We ride down the long ocean road from Boomville back to San Francisco and make a stop at the Outer Sunset district on the city’s outskirts to enjoy a little more surf atmosphere. It might be perpetually misty here, but this hasn’t stopped its inhabitants from painting their houses in sunny pastel colors. In recent years, the district has changed from an all-American neighborhood to a four-block artist enclave. Its new inhabitants have one thing in common though: come rain or come shine, they can be found out on their surfboards.

This is the coolest and least known part of the San Francisco Bay Area. So cool, in fact, that the inhabitants of house boat village Bolinas are known to steal the road signs to keep their paradise from being discovered… How to get there? Cross the Golden Gate Bridge, follow the N1 north and don’t stop until you see the Pacific Ocean again.

Welcome to West Marin: a place of towering red woods that stand proudly on the shoreline, isolated surfing beaches and charcoal-barbecued oysters. We respectfully pretend to be unable to find Bolinas and continue driving to Marshall where we’ve made arrangements to rent Coal & Feed, a big wooden lodge. The property of the eccentric Madeleine Fitzpatrick whose paintings are prominently displayed on its high walls, it’s a delightful place with a roaring woodstove and large windows overlooking the bay.

But the real reason we’ve rented this six-bedroom house is for the small boathouse standing at the end of the jetty. So small that it only fits a double bed, a bedside table and two rattan chairs. There are thick down duvets to keep you warm and big wooden blinds that can be pulled open from bed. And there you have it: your own private view of the bay. 100 metres further from the lodge you’ll find The Marshall Store; not actually a store but an oyster bar with high wooden tables, barstools and a clientele comfortably dressed in shorts and flip-flops. And judging by the continuous flow of cars, this seems to be San Francisco’s favourite weekend get-away. Naturally we know that the only way to savour oysters is as they come and that it’s a (near) mortal sin to do otherwise. But here they also come roasted with garlic and topped off with a couple of drops of Tabasco.

For the ultimate fisherman’s experience, we continue another 15-minute drive north along the coast from Marshall to Nick’s Cove where we’ve planned an overnight stay on a houseboat. Sadly, the restaurant itself has devolved into something of a Disney-attraction, but the seven houseboats, magically situated on the forested shore and available to the hotel’s guests, are wonderful. Inside, fishing rods are neatly hung on the wall and there’s an encyclopaedia for amateur fisherman conveniently lying open on the salon table. On the mantelpiece there’s a portrait of Nick himself holding up a gigantic fish, and in the minibar we find a small bottle of the cult-bourbon Bulleit (a niche bourbon label that has become a hit in the San Francisco area in recent years). At the end of the jetty there’s a little boathouse, a fisherman’s hut. Go inside and you’ll find an old piano, and guests are welcome to throw a log on the fire when the cold evening mists descend. There’s also a telephone on the wall: your direct line to the kitchen. They’ll ring when your food is ready.

We could have stayed here forever, idling with our legs over the dock, but we had more to cover. Next up: the Marin Foodie Tour, starting with restaurant Sir and Star at the Olema Inn. Owned by style icon Margaret Grade (unfailingly dressed in long black garments, face hidden away behind sunglasses and a hat) and her husband Daniel DeLong (a chef that once refused to have room service deliver scrambled eggs to a guest in his ‘$600-per-night-hut’ with the logic that “Eggs don’t like to travel too far from the flame).
Together they also run the nearby Manka’s Lodge, a magical hunting lodge set deep in the forest, not too far from Point Reyes. Manka’s used to have it’s own restaurant (Prince Charles and Camilla ate there incognito) but it burned down, so now it’s only Sir and Star. With its black walls, dark, antique floors and a stuffed heron on the huge mantelpiece, the interior could be described as Ralph Lauren meets woodworker; everything very stylish, sometimes a bit weird. In his restaurant, Daniel serves sea urchins with a spoon, an enchanting vegetable bouillabaisse (without fish!) and dishes with lyrical names like ‘Leg of a Neighbor’s Duck’. Everything is locally sourced, even the wines but with one exception: ‘life’s essential Champagne’.

Next stop is the Cowgirl Creamery, a regional classic: heavenly crème fraîche, the creamiest of milks and a cheese selection to rival any Parisian fromagerie. By now, Cowgirl Creamery has multiple strongholds in San Francisco and Washington; but it all started in the 90s when the two original cowgirls, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, discovered a gap in the US cheese market here in an old stable in Point Reyes. If you have the chance, make sure to try the signature cheese Mt. Tam, a young, white cheese that somewhat resembles Brie. This was the first ripened cheese they started to sell and according to the facility manager, it’s best enjoyed by shortly frying it in a pan and a glass of sparkling wine.

And then of course there’s SHED; every foodie travelling in these parts will have hear rumors about the culinary imperium headed by Cindy Daniels and Doug Lipton in Healdsburg. Long before farm-to-table became fashionable, they had left San Francisco to live off 15 hectares of biodynamic farmland. Now they have SHED, an enormous, modern barn with a steel roof. Anyone having visited the German Manufactum stores will recognize this same focus on the quality of the products offered. Everything in SHED is, first and foremost, stunningly beautiful and; secondly, good tasting or highly functional. Certainly worth a detour and a considerable part of the day. In the food department, fruit is displayed alongside wildflower bouquets. There’s also a department for pots, pans, cookbooks and garden tools (all very functional but way too nice to even consider getting dirty). We enjoyed lunch in the sun with the best clam and chickpea soup we ever tasted and drank cold glasses of kefir, kombucha and shrub perched on a stool at the fermentation bar (the hottest new thing in the world of non-alcoholic drinks).

Bypass booming Nappa Valley and continue to Andersen Valley and the saloon-town Boomville. John Wayne, where are you?! Here you’ll find Philo Apple Farm, a dozen wooden bungalows nestled in a biodynamic orchard. In the converted greenhouse, cooking classes are given by none other than Sally Schmitt and her daughter Karen Bates. Sally and her husband Donn were the erstwhile founders of the legendary restaurant French Laundry in Yountville (Nappa), which they sold to celebrity chef Thomas Keller in 1980. And all to grow near-extinct apple breeds in an area that feels like the end of the world. Successfully, too: Philo is now seen as the latest it-destination for San Franciscans that crave a bit of rest and self-reflection.

We ride down the long ocean road from Boomville back to San Francisco and make a stop at the Outer Sunset district on the city’s outskirts to enjoy a little more surf atmosphere. It might be perpetually misty here, but this hasn’t stopped its inhabitants from painting their houses in sunny pastel colors. In recent years, the district has changed from an all-American neighborhood to a four-block artist enclave. Its new inhabitants have one thing in common though: come rain or come shine, they can be found out on their surfboards.

The stylish pioneers of this creative surfer community are Serena Mitnik-Miller and Mason St. Peter. Their shop General Store is resplendent with everything that they themselves have a liking for: books new and old, vintage denim and gadgets like the Kaweco Ballpoint, incense that spreads an authentic wood fire aroma and the Freemans Sporting Club Barber Candle. In the garden behind the store, special cacti and other desert plants thrive in a greenhouse. Sit here to read a book and drink drip coffee all day long; nobody seems to mind. General Store has already exerted a strong pull on shoppers of San Francisco’s fancy Fillmore Street even before a decent café or restaurant was to be found in the area. Since this year, General Store also has an outpost in Venice Beach.
After the success of General Store, Woodshop further enlivened the area: a woodshop run by four surf dudes. Luke Bartels designs recycled wood furniture, Josh Duthie spruces up old chairs, Jeff Canham is a graphic artist and Danny Hess builds dazzling surfboards and guitars sold in the nearby Mollusk Surf Shop.

Trouble Cafe is the place to be if you’re looking for mega donuts and coffee. And, according to its notice, it’s open ‘every damn day’. The wait for a table at restaurant Outerlands can, on weekends, easily be up to two hours. What started as a soup bar for water-numbed surfers is now a culinary hotspot made of driftwood and as far reaching as to the columns of the New York Times. On the menu is burrata (made of mozzarella and cream) with tomato and gremolata. Owner David Muller and his wife Lana Porcello are not daunted by their success. Instead of being booked full for weeks in advance, they prefer guests to come by whenever they feel like, sand between their toes and surfboards under arm.

Photos: Brenda van Leeuwen
Words: Stephanie Pander

Interested in publication of this article? Photos and text are for sale. For more info send an email to stephanie@shotofjoy.com

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