I mount the observation platform, which overlooks the lighthouse. Peering out at the ocean, I hear only the wind and distant foghorns. On the horizon I make out a solitary tanker, but if I had been here between December and April, I would have seen something much more dramatic: California gray whales, which can weigh 45 tons. On a spit of land that juts some 10 miles into the Pacific, the Point Reyes Lighthouse is considered California's prime spot for watching these mammals migrate from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their breeding grounds in Mexico. In peak whale-watching season, you can spot as many as 30 at once.
When I finally arrive at Manka's, my "room" is ready, but it turns out to be an enormous apartment in something called the Boathouse, about a quarter- mile from the main lodge, on Tomales Bay. Used for overflow guests, it is almost too big, with its art-gallery living room, full kitchen, and library. The bedroom is small and cozy, however, and the deck outside the enormous French windows is a great place to admire the sunrise and sunset. Admittedly I booked at the last minute, but the best places to stay are the two cabins directly behind the main lodge and the four rooms with a deck or an outdoor shower on the lodge's second floor. Almost all the rooms, even the four budget units in a rear annex, have been decorated in haute Adirondacks style: log beds, Arts and Crafts chairs and dressers, stone fireplaces, buffalo-hide rugs, and linens and plaid blankets by Ralph Lauren and Pendleton. The pièce de résistance is a rose- and vine-covered cottage called the Chicken Ranch. Built in the 1850's, this two-bedroom dream house on Tomales Bay has been restored and furnished with all the right antiques, including some original Stickley pieces.
Manka's is the creation of a neuropsychologist from Berkeley named Margaret Grade (pronounced "grah-day"). Looking for a weekend retreat in Point Reyes seven years ago, she wound up buying a dilapidated roadhouse that served warmed-over Czechoslovakian food. The 1917 former hunting lodge brought to mind her family's summer house in Wisconsin. In addition, her brother Ben, a chef, was looking for a restaurant to run.
"The lodge was a wreck", Grade says, "but it had great spirit."Although still a work in progress, Manka's has become Point Reyes's most luxurious retreat and the setting of the area's best restaurant. It takes up two austere California Craftsman-style spaces-a refreshing change from northern California's rampant neo-Victoriana-and is known for game dishes grilled in the main lodge's parlor fireplace. "We started cooking in the fireplace", Grade remarks with a laugh, "because the stove had only four burners, and at the time we had no money to upgrade it."
At dinner I begin with a marvelous assemblage of yellow and red beets, white beans, toasted almonds, and olives. For a main course I try the fireplace-grilled ahi tuna, served with a sensational tempura of carrots, squashes, asparagus, and bell peppers. The wine list offers strictly West Coast vintages, including a number of excellent half bottles such as Talbott's '94 Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow and Calera Mills' '92 Pinot Noir Mount Harlan. Desserts here are beyond divine: Who could pass up the mousse-light pumpkin crème brûlée topped with toasted pumpkin seeds?Certainly not I.
"Kayaking is not about adrenaline: this is a gentle sport." It is 9 a.m. and I am standing by Tomales Bay with a small group of first-time kayakers. We're all decked out in wet suits and life vests, listening to a young woman named Mary give a crash course in how to handle the little boats we've just rented for the next two hours. It sounds easy, but once on the bay I find myself going in circles for the first few minutes until I get my rhythm.
As I glide over the clear waters of Tomales Bay, I encounter jellyfish shimmering like fat jewels in some mammoth bowl of aspic. Above me, seabirds hang in suspended formation. All is quiet as I pass beaches, spindly piers, and rickety boathouses. I'm on the water for close to an hour before I encounter a single motorboat.
The bay offers a lesson in Point Reyes geography. Some 15 miles long, this narrow body of water separates the Point Reyes Peninsula from the California mainland. Its western shores are backed by pine forests and dotted with coves and caves, whereas the eastern banks are fronted by smooth, dry hills. Not only do these two sides of the bay look totally different; they don't have the same soil and rocks. The reason?The entire Point Reyes Peninsula was once located some 250 miles to the south. For the last few million years it has been gradually forced up the coast as the volatile Pacific plate rotates under the North American plate. It is the constant shifting of these plates that causes California's earthquakes. Tomales Bay, as well as much of Point Reyes, it turns out, lies directly above the San Andreas Fault.
YOU ARE STANDING WHERE THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE BEGAN reads one of the plaques punctuating the Earthquake Trail at Point Reyes's Bear Valley Visitors Center. Other stops have equally sensationalist headlines, such as PT. REYES MOVED 20 FEET IN 1906! and THE FAULT DOESN'T OPEN WIDE ENOUGH TO SWALLOW CITIES, BUT IT MIGHT HAVE OPENED WIDE ENOUGH TO SWALLOW A COW! Photos accompany many of the markers: one shows a locomotive overturned by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. More dramatic than any photo is an old split-rail fence that stands on the trail. Pulled apart by the same quake, it now has a 16-foot gap separating the two sections.
On a mellow northern California afternoon, it's hard to contemplate the potentially destructive forces lurking beneath this magnificent land. The sun is warm and comforting, and the air is sweet with the aroma of bay laurel. Over in Point Reyes Station, the area's three-block-long metropolis, the all-organic farmers' market is just winding down outside Toby's Feed Barn, a local institution that deals in hay, farm feed, souvenirs, T-shirts, and various New Age cosmetics, lotions, and potions. A few doors down, gentle people are lunching in the sunny garden of the Station House Café. In front of Earl's Barber Shop, an old-fashioned red-and-white pole twirls inside a glass canister. The little town is so motion-picture-perfect that I almost expect Andy Hardy to emerge from Earl's and meet up with some of his buddies for ice cream.
But Point Reyes Station is no movie set. It is a very real and very special community. "My friends told me I'd moved into one of my paintings", says landscapist Martha Borge, who relocated to Point Reyes with her family 27 years ago. They had been living in Oakland, California, and life in the city had lost its luster. Today Martha and her husband, Ralph, reside in the same white 1903 Queen Anne she fell in love with when they first went house hunting. Downstairs they have opened a gallery that showcases both Martha's and Ralph's stark paintings of West Marin County.