Go West (County)
The ultimate getaway can be found in our own backyard
by Sean Timberlake
Perhaps the best thing about living in the Bay Area is that we are graced with abundant natural beauty right at our fingertips. Even in the hearts of our cities, there exist parks that can transport you to a world apart. If you're in need of a more literal getaway, you needn't travel far.
While Russian River and the Wine Country get most of the local tourism buzz, the less-traveled roads of Western Sonoma and Marin counties offer a serene alternative. Quaint small towns dot the region, each with its own particular character.
Where to Stay
One of the best ways to enjoy the region is to rent a house. This affords you the maximum amount of privacy as well as the ability to cook in, if you like. HomeAway ( www.homeaway.com) and AirBnB ( www.airbnb.com) have the most comprehensive offerings. Though for coastal rentals specialty service Bodega Bay and Beyond (www.sonomacoast.com) has a more curated set of properties.
In the event you want someone to change your sheets for you, there are plenty of charming options. Nick's Cove (23240 Highway 1, Marshall; www.nickscove.com) is hard to beat for romance and luxe. Five of the 12 elegantly and eclectically decorated cottages (one has a toilet that's more a throne) are perched on piers right over Tomales Bay, for an immersive experience. Room service will deliver anything from their recommendable bar and restaurant, so you may find you never leave the confines of your room.
Heading up Route 1, you might breeze through the tiny hamlet of Valley Ford without noticing. At its heart sits the Valley Ford Hotel (14415 Shoreline Hwy, Valley Ford; www.vfordhotel.com), a Victorian manse with rockers on the porch and homey, country-inflected rooms, convenient to explore the area.
Farther inland, up the Bohemian Highway, the Inn at Occidental (3657 Church St, Occidental; www.innatoccidental.com) looms over the old railroad town. Each of the 14 rooms is eccentrically decorated with quirky bric-a-brac and bold color motifs, like a bed and breakfast on a fever dream. It's no less cozy for the quirk, though.
Where (and What) to Eat
Being coast-adjacent has its benefits, provided you like seafood. Throughout the area, there's no shortage of places hawking oysters, clam chowder and fish and chips—and for good reason.
Tomales Bay boasts some of the best oysters in the world, and it's well worth heading directly to the source. In the thin thread of buildings that hugs the eastern shore of the bay in Marshall, two growers sell direct to customers. For a shucking good time, grab a bag of bivalves at Hog Island Oyster Co. (20215 Shoreline Hwy, Marshall; www.hogislandoysters.com) and plonk down at one of their bayside picnic tables.
It pays to plan ahead; the tables with grills can only be had by reservation. They also come with shucking tools, lemons and hot sauce, all for just $5 per person. Oysters are not included, but they'll give you a free shucking lesson if you ask nicely.
Nearby Tomales Bay Oyster Company (15479 Shoreline Hwy, Marshall; www.tomalesbayoystercompany.com) has a similar arrangement, as well as a bit of beach that you can loll on and admire the bay. Both places fill up fast, and parking is scant, so get there early.
If you're concerned about shucking your thumb off, pop in to the Marshall Store (19225 Shoreline Hwy, Marshall; www.themarshallstore.com) for Tomales Bay Oyster Company's finest either raw or cooked in a variety of ways, plus crab, fish tacos and meats from their smoker.
On the ground level of the aforementioned Valley Ford Hotel, Rocker Oysterfeller's (www.rockeroysterfellers.com) serves up comfort fare in a rustic, saloon-like environment. Of course there's oysters and fish tacos, but the menu is inflected with a touch of Cajun flavor, with items like a cornmeal fried oyster po-boy and grilled eggplant jambalaya. Competent cocktails and cheerful service make this a popular spot, especially for $1 oysters on Thursdays and $3 happy hour fish tacos on Fridays. Stick around Sunday evenings for live music, too.
Wending up the coast road, leaning to and fro like the lovebirds in Tippi Hedren's sporty Aston Martin, you reach the most infamous destination on the coast. Surprisingly little has changed about Bodega Bay in the 50-plus years since the filming of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, and the town remains an active fishing village fairly lightly touched by tourism. It retains a peaceful, small-town feel. You can peruse memorabilia from The Birds at the Bodega Country Store (17190 Bodega Highway) www.bodegastore.com ), and check out the famous sights, including The Tides restaurant, and the Potter School (17110 Bodega Lane).
Clam chowder is a big deal in Bodega Bay; every restaurant hawks their signature recipe. Each March the town celebrates the dish with Chowder Day, a town-wide tasting event. The people's choice award has consistently gone to Spud Point Crab Company (1860 Westshore Road, Bodega Bay; www.spudpointcrab.com), on the low road that hugs the expansive bay, and rightly so. It's a complex number with a good bit of spice. However, its fame precedes it, and lines can be daunting.
Fish & Spuds
Immediately adjacent, Fisherman's Cove (1850 Westshore Road, Bodega Bay; m.mainstreethub.com/bodegabayoysters) boasts a comparable chowder, as well as very good crab sandwiches and more, with significantly less wait. It's also a tackle shop for all your fishing and marine needs. Up in the heart of town, Fishetarian (599 Hwy 1 S, Bodega Bay; www.fishetarian.org), next to the historic Lucas Wharf, also serves up a quality chowder that competes with the rest, plus arguably the best fish and chips around. Fun fact: At this year's Chowder Day, both Fisherman's Cove and Fishetarian's chowders ranked higher than Spud Point in the blind tasting.
Fine dining is not de rigueur in the area, but if you want to make a special night of it, Terrapin Creek (1580 Eastshore Rd, Bodega Bay; www.terrapincreekcafe.com) is the spot. Though in an unassuming strip mall-like structure, the restaurant has a cheery, colorful inside. The chefs serve elevated, elegantly presented food with farm-fresh ingredients and a nod to California fusion cuisine. For example, curry-lime vinaigrette lifts fresh Monterey sardines with watermelon radish and avocado.
Wine, Bread, and Thou
There's no better way to take in the view over Bodega Bay than with a glass of wine. Stop into Gourmet au Bay (913 Coast Hwy 1 Bodega Bay; www.gourmetaubay.com) for one of their "wine surfing" flights from their carefully curated collection. Pair that up with a cheese plate featuring local creameries and Rustic Bakery crackers, and call it dinner if you like, then pick up a bottle of your favorite for the room afterwards.
On the way home, swing through the diminutive town of Freestone for Wild Flour Bakery (140 Bohemian Hwy, Freestone; www.wildflourbread.com). Though in business since 1998, these hearty, rustic breads are a flashback to the great bakeries of the 1970s. Whether it's a fougasse with goat cheese and herbs or a dense loaf of walnut levain, it's delicious.
Treat Yo Self
Also in Freestone is one of the most remarkable –and unusual– spa experiences. Step through the doors of Osmosis (209 Bohemian Hwy, Freestone; www.osmosis.com) and be transported to a zen garden in Japan. Enjoy a cup of tea and relax while admiring the serene landscaping.
Then it's time for the bath. Instead of soaking in hot water, though, you lower yourself into into beds of cedar shavings and rice bran that are actively fermenting, creating heat. The cedar enzyme bath is meant to draw toxins out of the body; at the least it is astonishingly relaxing. This is best done with a partner. Once you're out of the bath, you need to brush the shavings out of every bodily crevice, so choose your company well, and book the couples massage for good measure.
Read more of Sean Timberlake's features on food at www.punkdomestics.com