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Marin County

It's like other side of the planet from San Francisco

By CARY ORDWAY

As if the sights and sounds of San Francisco weren't enough to keep visitors completely enthralled, Mother Nature invites you to drive just a few minutes north of the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into a suburban area that seems like the other side of the planet from downtown.

Of course that's why people live in Marin County, where as much as half the land is open space and there are so many trails and vistas you might think you were in a national park. It's expensive to live here, all right, but then how many places offer you a multi-cultural city of sophistication on one side of the bridge, and quiet trails and solitude on the other? If you crave recreation in the Great Outdoors but drive a Mercedes, you just might be a Marin County resident.

The good news for the rest of us is that we can drop in and sample this lifestyle for ourselves. We took a little time to visit the southern part of the county, setting up our base of operations at the San Anselmo Inn, a charming European-style lodging in Northern California's antiquing capital, San Anselmo. From there, it was easy to explore a few of the Marin County communities and their visitor attractions;

The San Anselmo Inn is on San Anselmo Avenue, an especially enchanting downtown street that gently winds its way through the town's historic buildings. The streets in this area are narrow and buildings close together, so the European feeling extends well beyond the inn itself. On a bright fall weekday, a wide variety of shops and stores — including 130 antique dealers -- welcomed locals and visitors alike. It wasn't a busy atmosphere, but more a casual, relaxed feel that seemed ideal for the many young mothers and babies we noticed enjoying a stroll on this colorful street.

Everything in this small town is within walking distance of the inn. We would explore the town's shops, or hike nearby trails and then return to our comfortable room at the inn. The innkeepers, Julie and Peter McNair, have taken care to give each room a historical feel befitting their building, which was one of the first built in the area as the new railroad line facilitated the development of San Anselmo and nearby towns. Our room was spacious for a bed-and-breakfast inn and featured a four-poster bed, marble-top vanity, antique desk, nightstands and cabinets and, in the private bathroom, a Jacuzzi style tub. Breakfast was a special treat at the inn — a delightful Spanish quiche, lots of fresh muffins and pastries, waffles, fruit, juices, cereals and all served in a pleasant and spacious dining area.

After breakfast, it was off to experience some local recreation, and one nearby hike recommended to us was the Phoenix Lake Trail, a 2.8-mile trail that takes visitors around the lake through a mixture of oak, bay and redwood trees. Like most trails near San Anselmo, this one was quick and easy to get to — although be prepared to wait for a parking spot. Local joggers and walkers love the combination of lush redwood forests, lake views and wide trails, so the 20-plus parking stalls were full-up when we visited about 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. No matter, though — we only had to wait about 10 minutes.

Another local point of interest is the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which relocated its school here from San Francisco in 1892. You can't miss the seminary with its castle-like grand stone buildings standing above Ross Valley.

Even more history is revealed in the many historic buildings downtown, which are easily visited by taking a self-guided walking tour prepared by the San Anselmo Historical Society. At the inn, you can pick up a copy of a very detailed magazine produced by the San Anselmo Historical Commission, which provides an excellent description, history and photo of each of the town's major historical points of interest. Be sure to check out the Robson-Harrington House and Park, the Carnegie Library and the American Legion Log Cabin.

About a 15-minute drive south from San Anselmo took us to one of the other scenic bedroom communities of Marin County — Tiburon.

If you're looking for scenic vistas of the San Francisco skyline across the bay, this is the place. Tiburon is a four-mile-long peninsula that is positioned just across the bay from the city and, because of that, offers some of the most sought-after real estate in the area. The views of San Francisco Bay, the city and the Golden Gate Bridge are breathtaking.

Be prepared for slow traffic that last four miles going into Tiburon — the two-lane highway gets busy in both directions, especially in summer when there is apt to be some type of road construction activity. As you drive along the peninsula, be sure to look to the south, where what must be the World's Most Expensive Soccer Field is located on a long swath of view property (all in the spirit, of course, of Marin County's love affair with open space).

The town of Tiburon looks almost like any modern suburban town until you get to the edge of downtown where a couple of blocks of historic buildings and nearby marina give the feeling of a New England fishing village. It's apparent this is the place locals go to soak up the views, walk or run the shoreline trail or, for the less ambitious, just hunker down at one of the dockside outdoor restaurants for drinks and maybe a seafood lunch.

Numerous fishing and tour boats are tied up at the pier, and a popular day trip is to take the regular ferry service six miles over to Angel Island State Park for an afternoon of hiking and exploration.

Tiburon's historic Main Street is known as "Ark Row" because of the 1890s houseboat lifestyle enjoyed by the town's earliest residents. Today, the arks are gone and the bay shopping district includes a number of upscale boutiques as well as the occasional tourist shop. The nearby walking path, with its views of the city, is considered one of the most romantic spots in the Bay area.

Another nearby city that's just minutes away from San Anselmo is Larkspur, whose downtown area is officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town's historical buildings, including Queen Anne Victorians, make this an excellent place to glimpse what one of San Francisco's suburbs looked like at the turn of the century. The historic downtown area is west of Highway 101.

It's also in this area that you can hop a ferry to San Francisco. A foot bridge over the highway will take you to Golden Gate Ferry terminal where you can get on a ferry departing for the San Francisco Ferry Building. The ferry ride is a great place to get photos of such attractions as Mt. Tamalpais, Angel Island (see below) and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Nearby San Rafael is a bit larger city — in fact the largest in Marin County. The downtown shopping area offers the stores, ethnic restaurants, large banks and other services that aren't found in the smaller towns of Marin. It's the only place in these parts where you see high-rise buildings — yet there still is a lot of rich, Victorian architecture that gives San Rafael a feel all of its own.

One particular point of interest is the authentic re-creation of Mission San Rafael Arcangel. This was founded in 1817 and today you can visit a replica of the original mission and tour a museum. Also check out the Marin County Historical Society Museum and the Falkirk Cultural Center.

And don’t forget Mill Valley with its idyllic location just beneath Mount Tamalpais. This town is a favorite place to live in the San Francisco Bay area and that’s partly because there is so much recreation at hand right in Mill Valley. Numerous trails are located in the area, many with spectacular views and landscapes. Mountain biking was basically invented at Mount Tamalpais, and you’ll want to check out Muir Woods where you can walk among the giants – giant trees, that is. The area’s festivals – including a very famous film festival – also lure visitors to the area.

As mentioned above, Angel Island is a popular side trip when you’re in Marin County. Angel Island is a prominent part of the Bay panorama and has been a popular destination for hiking, biking and exploration for the decades since it became a state park in the 1950's. Only accessible by boat, the island is a quick ferry ride from Fisherman's Wharf and an especially good day trip for San Francisco visitors. When they arrive on the island, they'll find a quiet, peaceful, almost idyllic landscape with pretty coves, modest hills and picture-postcard vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.

Any time you’re visiting Marin County, you’ll want to consider taking an afternoon to visit Point Reyes Seashore, an awe-inspiring landscape that brings together the land and the sea in a concoction sure to stimulate the senses. Broad, sweeping, rolling hills of green work their way to the craggy cliffs that signal the beginning of the Pacific Ocean. Best of all, this area is relatively untouched by man. Take a hike on one of the 125 miles of trails and, with few exceptions, you're sure not to be bothered by hordes of tourists.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Marin County cities are located just a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

WHAT: These southern Marin County communities are a little bit off the beaten path for tourists, but each of the cities and towns offers a distinct character and charm, and are fun to explore.

WHEN: Year-round. The weather can turn cold in these areas — the San Francisco climate is often compared with Seattle — so bring warm clothing. Even in the warmest summer months, the occasional cold weather can settle in. But often you'll find bright sunshine.

WHY: This area north of San Francisco is rich with history and offers an unusual combination of upscale shopping and dining, along with numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation.

HOW: For more information on Marin County, phone 866-925-2060 toll free or go to www.visitmarin.org. For more information on the San Anselmo Inn, phone 800-598-9771 or go to www.sananselmoinn.com.

Photos:  San Anselmo Inn and charming downtown of San Anselmo; the views from Tiburon; San Anselmo's Phoenix Lake Trail; Tiburon's historic downtown; trails in the Muir Woods.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway and Marin County Tourism

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Shasta Lake, Idyllwild, California hot springs and Sequoia National Park.

Getaway Media Corp publishes websites focused on getaway travel, including www.californiaweekend.com and www.northwesttraveladvisor.com. If you enjoyed reading about the Marin County, be sure to visit our sites and read the hundreds of feature articles on the many getaway travel destinations in our coverage areas. Like Marin County, these other attractions are worth including in a your upcoming vacation or getaway. If you think about it, we're fortunate to live in a place where we can enjoy destinations such as the Marin County without traveling thousands of miles. This is why Getaway Media Corp sites are so popular with the traveling public -- they showcase attractions that are close by and easy to visit on your next vacation or getaway.



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