Travel just an hour north from San Francisco and it's like you've gone overseas - there at the end of the picturesque, winding road through such quaint towns as San Anselmo, you come to a preserved part of the California coastline that looks like it came right out of a commercial for Irish Spring.
But this is not Ireland. This is the 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.
A weekend away and a world apart might be a good way to summarize a getaway to the Point Reyes Seashore, a startling contrast with the metropolitan area that is so close to the south. In fact, once you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, or perhaps the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge coming from the East Bay area, there is a definite line of demarcation between city and country. Oh, there are cities up here all right - but it's obvious this part of the Bay area was built up by people who wanted to leave the bustle of the city behind them when they retreated from a demanding day at the office.
One of the scenic ways to reach the Point Reyes Seashore is to cross on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and turn off on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a slow, meandering two-lane road that weaves in between the forested hills and mountains of Marin County and other locales north of San Francisco. Once we exited onto Sir Francis Drake, we passed a bay full of ferryboats waiting to return to the city to bring commuters home for the evening. Then the road took us deeper into forests that we never realized were there.
If antiques are your passion, this Northern California vacation itinerary must include a stop in San Anselmo. More than 130 antique dealers are tucked into just a few blocks of this inviting small town where tree-lined streets and historic architecture suggest a quiet, simple life enhanced by the natural beauty of the forested hills and many nearby vistas.
A little further up the road is the Samuel P. Taylor State Park with its 2,700 acres of redwood forests and grassland. It's a quiet place to stop or a picnic. Enjoy the sounds of the babbling brook, the wind gently rustling the trees and the scenic splendor that made this the first park in California that was set aside specifically for city people to go visit.
Just about an hour's drive from the San Francisco Bay, we reached our base of operations while in the Point Reyes area - the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge. While not actually on the seashore - there are no lodgings on this part of the coast - this comfortable country inn is located very close to the action. The Seashore area's Bear Valley Visitor Center is just a two-minute drive from the lodge, and the town of Point Reyes is only a little bit farther.
Even without the seashore nearby, the Point Reyes Seashore Lodge is an enchanting retreat of its own with its unique architecture - kind of a cross between a Cape Cod mansion and a modern hunting lodge - and its peaceful grounds. The lodge is located in the tiny town of Olema, where Sir Francis Drake meets Coastal Highway 1. There are a couple of restaurants in town and not much else, but our suite at the lodge offered a warm fire, plenty of reading materials and a gorgeous view from our balcony overlooking the lawns, walkways and streams that are all part of the inn's two-acre backyard.
After settling in, we took one look at the sunny weather and decided it was time to quickly make our way out to the far reaches of the Point Reyes Seashore - about a 45-minute drive from the inn - where we wanted to visit the famed Point Reyes Lighthouse. Weather in this part of California is a little tricky. Fog can come at any time of the year, although the tendency in winter is for it to be foggy in the interior, yet clear out on the coastline. In summer, that often is reversed.
During our winter visit, we enjoyed clear views all the way out to the Seashore as we drove along the "Irish" countryside, making our way ever closer to the spectacular cliffs leading to the sea. Along the two-lane country road, we encountered several historic dairy farms that the National Park Service is allowing operators to maintain. Fascinating to us were the numbers of deer we were encountering throughout the area - not just one or two deer here and there, but groups of five or six deer at a time, most allowing us to walk quite close before they decided to run.
Along the way to the lighthouse, we saw several signs for roads leading to the park's many beaches. We took a little side trip down to Drake's Beach where it is surprising to see, on this pristine beach, a National Park Service restaurant. This and other Point Reyes beaches are wilderness beaches that seem to put you in tune with Nature. An airplane could have you in San Francisco in 10 minutes - but this felt like the other side of the world.
At the end of the road was the lighthouse, an easy - if slightly uphill - 15-minute walk from where vehicles are parked. The lighthouse is way out on a cliff and, just beyond, there are miles and miles of open sea. From the Lighthouse Visitor Center it is a 308-step walk down to the lighthouse - which is also 308 steps back up. Many visitors are content to enjoy the views from the observation area. On the day we were there, those views included several migrating whales that are easily visible with binoculars.
Near the lighthouse are several trails that take you out to breathtaking ledges where there the powerful sea washes onto the rocky coastline hundreds of feet below.
After a fair amount of exploring, we next drove our way back to the Bear Valley Visitor Center to get some maps and information for further exploration of the preserve. It soon became obvious that our quick overnight trip to Point Reyes would only scratch the surface of the natural attractions in this area. In the north part of the preserve, for example, you can find herds of elk. Or you can take a short walk from the Visitor Center up to Kule Loklo, a replica of a Coast Miwok Indian Village.
We took a little hike from the Visitor Center along the Earthquake Trail, where the path follows the San Andreas fault line. It's amazing to see how much the land here moved when you look at a fence that had been in a straight line before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and see that it now has two sections of fence 20 feet apart.
Another short excursion we took was a visit to Point Reyes Station, the small town that is famous for its Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper. It's definitely a small-town rural feel in these parts - we observed one professionally dressed middle-aged woman seemingly get off work, visit the supermarket long enough to get a 16-ounce beer and pop it open as she was walking home after a day at the office.
As we said, Point Reyes is a weekend away - and a world apart from life as we city slickers know it.