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Coastal Drift

It is a glorious morning, and Vivaldi is blasting from my car radio as I cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Not only is this oxblood-red span an architectural wonder, but it leads to some of my favorite places: the pastoral wine country of Sonoma County, the thousand-year-old redwoods of Muir Woods, the hiking trails of Mount Tamalpais, and the rugged, cliff-backed Pacific coast.

I've driven over the Golden Gate countless times, and I always seem to find something new on the other side. Today I'm bound for the Point Reyes Peninsula and its National Seashore, a 65,000-acre preserve of beaches, forests, and parklands that has been protected since the early 1960's. For years I've heard about Point Reyes and its rustic-chic hotel, Manka's Inverness Lodge, but somehow I've never managed to get there-even though it's barely 40 miles from San Francisco.

I turn onto California's legendary Highway 1, with its hair-raising coastal curves and eucalyptus- and pine-scented air, and have the road virtually to myself. After only a few miles I spot a discreet sign for the Green Gulch Farm. Intrigued, I leave the highway and drive down a long, bumpy road to a seaside enclave of wooden buildings and tidy green fields. It turns out to be an outpost of San Francisco's Zen Center. I stroll around the grounds, visit the Japanese teahouse, and stop by the small office to pick up some brochures describing the programs that this peaceful place offers. There are introductory sessions in sitting meditation (zazen) and walking meditation (kinhin) and workshops in "the way of tea", vegetarian cooking, and herb gardening.

Back on the highway, I manage to go only a few more miles when, enticed by a scenic overlook, I again pull off the road. A narrow boardwalk leads from the parking lot across a barren cliff top to a deck that looks down on Muir Beach. It's a scene straight out of Hitchcock's Vertigo: the beach is cloaked in mist and the cold ocean hidden by fog. According to a plaque, however, this cliff was once the site of a base end station, one of many coastal outposts used by the military in World War II when watching for enemy ships.

Returning to the car, I look at my watch and realize that, despite the proximity of Point Reyes, I must curtail my sightseeing impulses if I'm ever going to get there. So I impose a moratorium on scenic overlooks and even bypass Stinson Beach's three-mile stretch of white sand. But I can't resist Bolinas, the infamous backwater beach community of 1,500 residents, many of them die-hard refugees of the 1960's counterculture. Part of the town's mystique comes from the fact that no road sign marks the turnoff from Highway 1 (it's just beyond Stinson Beach). Supposedly as soon as a sign goes up, Bolinas vigilantes remove it.

A quick left has me edging the whitecapped, cobalt waters of the Bolinas Lagoon. Before long I'm devouring a veggie burger on the sunny back porch of the Bolinas Bay Bakery & Café, billed as "Marin's only organic flour bakery."Across a driveway, the People's Store sells natural foods and flies a banner proclaiming: comrades for 20 years. Recycled-clothing stores are big here, as are tie-dyed fashions, yoga, and trapeze lessons for pre-schoolers. Despite their reputed hostility toward outsiders, the locals seem laid-back, if not overly friendly, as I poke around this little time-warped town checking out its handful of crafts and souvenir shops. At the end of Wharf Road, the lagoon is alive with gulls and herons; a vast, windy beach lies round a bend. If I lived here, I'd probably be tearing down road signs, too.

"In order to refresh the lodge and ourselves, the lodge is closed each day from noon until four. Check-in time from four on."

Welcome to Point Reyes: it's three o'clock, and Manka's Inverness Lodge is locked up tight. I go around to the side entrance, only to be greeted by another warning: "Our chefs are very talented and temperamental. DO Not even imagine disturbing them for any reason except scheduled deliveries. The front door will be flung open at four."

Rather than risk God only knows what fate, I get in my car and set out on a reconnaissance run along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. At first, Point Reyes's main road twists through a forest of tall, skinny pines, but then everything changes and I find myself in a landscape of wide-open plains, which have been home to cattle ranches and dairy farms since the 1850's.

The sunny weather is holding as I approach Drakes Beach, a seven-mile crescent that is supposedly where the British explorer Sir Francis Drake dropped anchor for 36 days during his circumnavigation of the globe in 1579. Drake claimed the area for Queen Elizabeth I and named it Nova Albion, Latin for New England, because the white cliffs reminded him of Dover's.

But nothing I've ever seen comes close to the grandeur of this broad beach, with dunes like great sand mountains. It's like Egypt's Abu Simbel without the statues. The sea dazzles in the late-afternoon sun, and the clouds paint shadows on the beige sand as brigades of gulls skirmish with the surf. Few people swim here, since the water is bitterly cold and has dangerous riptides. The best thing to do at Drakes Beach is walk, which I do for the better part of an hour, passing occasional picnickers, sand-castle builders, and surfers in wet suits.

It's almost five o'clock, and I assume that Manka's door has been "flung open", but I decide to take advantage of the remaining sunlight to visit another Point Reyes landmark: the lighthouse. Built in 1875 on a 300-foot sea cliff at the extreme western edge of the peninsula, the Point Reyes Lighthouse is said to be at the windiest spot on the West Coast. As I make my way along the narrow half-mile path to the lighthouse, the gusts are no problem, but the temperature drops a good 20 degrees when the sun dips behind a wall of fog.

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