Posted 4 May 2016
It was 1979 when Irene and I drove north from Palo Alto for a weekend away in remote Pt. Reyes. I was 24, we were in love, and within a year or two we would be married.
A couple months ago, we stumbled across the same collection of cottages that we stayed in back then. Previously the Inverness Valley Inn, it is now the Cottages at Pt. Reyes Seashore. The current owners, who bought the Inn in 2013, have done a lot of renovation.
Irene and I returned there last week for a second visit, 37 years later!
It is wondrous to think of the span of time between these two visits, so many years apart, and how Irene and I have loved each other and raised a family and done all sorts of things together. Despite all of the challenges we have faced — or perhaps because of them — we are closer now than we have ever been.
Thinking back to our earlier visit here, I get a glimpse of how it felt in the early days of our relationship, with the excitement and the trepidation. It was probably our first trip away together, and one of only a few overnight trips I had done with a girlfriend.
Our return trip last week was extra special because it is the first overnight trip, other than to a hospital, that Irene and I have taken in almost six months — since November 2015, when I was diagnosed with cancer. While I was undergoing chemo, traveling was out of the question; my health was too fragile. I was less fragile under radiation, but I had to be here every day.
Now I’m feeling well enough to travel short distances, which is delightful. We really enjoyed our trip to Pt. Reyes and have planned a trip to Portland and the Columbia River for our 35th wedding anniversary later this month.
If you aren’t clear on exactly where the Pt. Reyes National Seashore is, the map below should clarify things. It is due west of Novato and encloses the long, narrow Tomales Bay to the north, faces Drake’s Bay to the south-west, and wraps the Bolinas Lagoon to the south-east.
Anchored by Rhododendrons
Curiously, our memory of a plant anchors this first visit at a specific point in time. All over the Inn’s grounds, 10-foot-tall bushes were covered in spectacular, brightly colored flowers. These were rhododendrons, which we must have seen previously but did not know by name. We were overawed by them, and we’ve grown them ever since.
As Irene and I were trying to figure out what year our first visit was, we recalled the rhododendron incident and realized that it must have been before we moved to our house in Palo Alto, where we had rhododendrons from the start.
Rio on Vacation
There are four units that are dog-friendly, and it was great to have Rio with us. It was our first vacation with a dog. A house, hotel room, or even an office always feels better to me with a dog around. It is limiting, but for this trip it was worth it. (I still can’t imagine dealing with Rio at a city hotel, however, though some very nice ones are now dog-friendly.)
While our cottage was dog-friendly, not much of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore is. A few of the ocean-facing beaches allow dogs, but the surf was rough and wind too strong for us to want to venture far on them. Very few trails allow dogs.
We drove up to the top of Mt. Vision, where an enormous fire burned more than 12,000 acres in 1995. The mountain has recovered tremendously.
The half-mile trail from the parking lot was also marked as prohibiting pets, but the place was deserted and the trail was really a road, so we decided to flaunt the law and take Rio along. We had stunning views down to Tomales Bay, out to the ocean, and all the way out to Mt. St. Helena.
Inverness, which sits on the Pt. Reyes peninsula just across Tomales Bay from the town of Marshall, is a pretty sleepy place, especially when it is midweek and not summer. It is largely a residential area, with some very nice homes and lots of B&Bs, lodges, and other places to stay. Inverness was first developed in the 1890s by James Shafter, who named it after Inverness in his home country of Scotland.
Inverness has a few restaurants, but they are currently open mostly on weekends. There’s a market, but it’s been stripped down to an overgrown convenience store.
For the most part, Inverness is a great place to sleep, but you’ll probably go elsewhere for most of your activities.
As with most of our vacations, I must admit that eating out was a major focus. In time, I am likely to be very restricted in my eating, so for now, I’m going for everything I can get.
Pt. Reyes Station, which is on the west side of Tomales Bay across from Pt. Reyes, is the biggest town in the area, with a nice assortment of restaurants, a great bakery, and a cheese maker.
Osteria Stellina is an excellent Italian restaurant, better (to my taste) than any in Sonoma County and on a par with many with San Francisco and Palo Alto.
Down the street, the long-established Station House Cafe is more casual, less expensive, and has a larger, if more pedestrian, menu.
A few miles south of Pt. Reyes Station, past the south end of Tomales Bay, is the tiny town of Olema. Although it makes even Inverness seem mid-size, it is more lively, at least at this time of year. There are two good restaurants, one of which is something of culinary legend.
Since 1876, Olema has been anchored by the Olema Inn, at the corner of Sir Francis Drake Blvd. (“Sir”) and Highway 1 (the “Star” route). In 2006, the Inn closed and the building went up for sale.
At about the same time the Inn closed, the Pt. Reyes area’s best-known restaurant, Manka’s, was destroyed in a fire. It has not been rebuilt, and the owner and chef behind Manka’s purchased the Olema Inn in 2012 and opened Sir and Star in 2013.
Chef Daniel DeLong previously worked at Elroy’s, Bix, and Stars restaurants in San Francisco. Owner Margaret Grade brought her unique style from another world: she was a neuropsychologist at UCSF before leaving the city and medicine for West Marin and the world of local food and hospitality.
Grade and DeLong purchased a 1910 former hunting lodge in 1989 and turned it into Manka’s. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse mentored Grade, and the restaurant quickly became well known for its distinctive food and quirky hunting-lodge decor.
Manka’s moment of royal fame came when Prince Charles of England and his new wife, previously Camilla Parker Bowles, took over the entire main lodge at Manka’s during their West Marin tour of local farmers and ranchers.
Now the style of cooking that was created at Manka’s is being carried forward at Sir and Star. A pioneer of farm-to-table before anyone called it that, Grade has been cultivating Marin food sources for decades. She tries to source all food within 30 minutes of the restaurant, and explained that was why there was no fish on the menu the night we were there.
Since the days of Manka’s, Grade has been fond of clever menu titles. On our visit, I had “tasty parts of a local pig”, while Irene had the “leg of a neighbor’s duck”. Both were beautifully prepared, simple in one sense (mine was essentially a few slices of pork on mashed potatoes) but with each element so thoughtfully prepared and full of flavor that the dishes sang.
If you’re looking for a more casual alternative with a more traditional menu, across the street from Sir and Star is the Olema Farm House. We had a very nice lunch on their outdoor patio.
The Merging of the Plates
Shifting from plates of food to plate tectonics, we come to the most remarkable thing about Pt. Reyes: its geology.
The peninsula is on the west side of the San Andreas fault and is part of the Pacific Plate. The rest of Marin County is on the east side of the fault and is part of the North American Plate. As a result, the peninsula’s geology is completely different from the rest of Marin.
Pt. Reyes actually moves north at about 2 inches per year, and geologists believe it started far south of its current location. At Point Lobos in Monterey there are rock formations that match very closely those of the peninsula.
If you’re interested in geology and are taking a trip to Pt. Reyes, download the excellent, if somewhat technical, Geology at Point Reyes National Seashore from the USGS.
A Perfect Trip
This was a perfect trip for us. Being away from home, with so much natural beauty all around us, helped us stay in the present and enjoy life.
If you find yourself interested in a West Marin vacation, I highly recommend the trip.