We took off in the convertible early in the morning along the curvy drive of Highway 1 just north of San Francisco and over Mt. Tamalpais to the secluded wild Pacific Ocean beaches and folksy villages of West Marin. The day was drenched with the clear, crisp light that prevails when the fog is tamed far off the coast.
Such is the soft beauty of autumn in the San Francisco Bay area - when high pressure skies and warm onshore winds push out the damp fog and temperatures hover in the mid-60s to mid-70s.
Before the Internet, I lived in France and chronicled the sights and moods of the French countryside, its fields dotted by a patchwork of villages, each with her own story. The "farm to table" ethos hadn't officially absorbed American culinary culture but au naturel it was core to the everyday experience of France,in preserved ancient villages or fashionable cities like Paris. Having a snapshot of the same experience within reach in Northern California is "pinch me" time - dairies and artisan cheese producers 25 miles toward the ocean; wine country 25 miles north and east; and ranches, orchards and vast fields of vegetables in concentric circles in all directions.
Central to understanding what's here is some history - this land was almost lost to the rampant suburban development that took off in the 1960s. Attempted land grabs inspired the environmental movement and rallied local communities to resist the sell-off of farms and wilderness. One result of these environmental battles was the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), which now has conservation easements for more than 44,000 acres and nearly 70 ranches, dairies and other farms.
Dozens of artisanal cheeses are produced in Marin County and north in Sonoma County (even better known for its wines); it's such a lively business that there's a new market for cheese tourism. The good news is that popular interest hasn't changed these artisans, but happily it has opened their world to us. Artisanal cheeses come from cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo milk and from their own microclimates and unique pasteurlands and feeds - so each is different. A good way to become acquainted with this way of life can be found in the driving maps, apps, classes and special programs along the Marin and Sonoma cheese trails. There are also tours.
We were in a mood to hug the coast and meander lazily up Highway 1, stopping along beaches and prowling in out-of-sight villages, so it was lunch time before we knew it. West Marin is a sprawling landscape of rolling peaks and ridges, and, like other ranges in the Pacific Coast mountains, remnants of volcanic eruptions and upward thrusting sea floor plates eons ago. The remaining forests hug the sea while just inland, between the ocean and the residential corridor of Marin County, miles and miles of grazing pastures roll along, traversed by curving roads and not much population.
It's good to have a plan in mind, which we did, as distances point to point can take 20-30 minutes. Rather than touring, we headed directly to Cowgirl Creamery's Cowgirl Cantina in Point Reyes Station (80 Fourth Street, Point Reyes Sation, 415.663.9335). Just writing about the menu makes me want to make a grilled cheese sandwich dripping with melted cheese combinations -- options like Cantina Mac and Cheese made with Cowgirl Creamy's Red Hawk and Wagon Wheel, or Ham and Cowgirl Mt. Tam, or, hold your breath, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar Toastie with Carmelized Onions and Maple-Honey Mustard on a Della Fattoria Pullman.
In addition to putzing around Point Reyes Station, here are some more sights for 1-2 days in the area:
Mount Tamalpais State Park, Highway 1, Mill Valley, 415.388.2070 (from the Pantoll Ranger Station, hiking trails across region and to Stinson Beach, with magnificent ocean and valley views)
Muir Woods National Monument (Coastal Redwoods), Highway 1/Muir Woods Road, 415.388.2595
Stinson Beach Surf & Kayak, 3605 Highway 1, Stinson Beach, 415.868.2739
Parkside Cafe, 43 Arenal Ave., Stinson Beach, 415.868.1272 (local organic fare, popular local favorite on the beach)
Audubon Canyon Ranch, Highway 1 about 3.5 miles north of Stinson Beach, 415.868.9244, (1000-acre wildlife sanctuary with more than 60 species of water and shore birds - egrets, Blue Heron - as well as Douglas Firs, Coastal Redwoods, chaparral, streams, lagoons and marshes),
Point Reyes National Seashore Park (and Point Reyes Lighthouse), 415.669-1534 (jutting 10 miles out into the Pacific Ocean about 22 miles north of San Francisco, it's a popular place for migratory whale-watching mid-January to mid-March); it's also frequently described as a West Coast Martha's Vineyard - yet more roughly hewn.
Tomales Bay State Park (Spanish explorer Sir Francis Drake first stepped onto this land in 1579), Inverness, 415.669.1140 (kayaking in Tomales Bay, and on the east side have lunch or dinner at Nick's Cove)