It’s just a 35-mile drive from the golden gate Bridge to Point Reyes Station. The distance is pocket change by California’s sprawling standards, but the trip takes forever—or to be fair, a little more than an hour—because the best way to get there is on Highway 1, a narrow ribbon of asphalt that twists along sheer coastal cliffs before plunging past Stinson Beach and finally jagging through Point Reyes Station, a dusty little town that’s outwardly unchanged from a century ago.
Point Reyes Station is the unofficial seat of West Marin, which, in turn, is the unofficial name for the hardscrabble coastal part of Marin County. It’s one of the most unspoiled corners of the state, a region that has more in common with the sun-faded, handmade California of the 1970’s than the wealthy nearby suburbs of Mill Valley and Sausalito.
Which isn’t to say West Marin isn’t welcoming or, to judge by the plush comforters at Manka’s Inverness Lodge, a collection of meticulously decorated cabins scattered along a wooded hillside, even luxurious. Whether or not you consider it appealing depends on what you expect from northern California. You won’t find $1,000 bottles of wine or a state-of-the-art spa. But if you want to pick up line-caught albacore tuna salad at the deli, go for a four-hour hike in a wild-elk reserve, or take in the sunset while throwing back a few dozen oysters harvested that morning from the estuary where Sir Francis Drake ran aground in 1579, that’s easy. And there’s the driving: the distances within West Marin are short, the roads are windy but smooth, and you’re always skimming along a nature preserve, the coast, or a picture book–perfect farm. Here, my wife, Christine, and I found, even running out to grab lunch can be an automotive pleasure.
I first started exploring west Marin more than 15 years ago, when I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and I traversed every corner of the Bay Area in my battered Honda Accord. When I returned this time, it was for the food and wine: Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses; Sean Thackrey’s legendary Rhône-style reds; the grass-fed beef of Marin Sun Farms; oysters fresh from Tomales Bay. It’s a remarkable showing, even for a gustatory state like California, and more impressive still when you consider that the largest town around here has about 500 residents, and that much of the land in the area is a part of Point Reyes National Seashore, a 71,000-acre reserve.