In the summer of 1579, Captain Francis Drake hung out for 36 days on the beach that now bears his name. But if you haven't got a month to spare, make it a weekend of touchpoints exploring Northern California's Point Reyes National Seashore in its wild West Marin surroundings.
On his round-the-world voyage of nearly three years, this intrepid 16th century English explorer named the spot Nova Albion for his homeland. A plaque marks the spot near the elephant seals who, since a dramatic comeback in the 1980s, have taken a fancy to the cove. Protected by park service rangers during the winter pupping and breeding season, this bulky 600-plus collection of males, females and pups can be admired from a safe distance at certain days and times of year.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
In the summer of 2018, Point Reyes National Seashore undertook a large restoration project on the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse. Now projected for an October 2019 completion, there's pent-up demand to visit the 35-foot-tall 1870 maritime landmark and observation deck at the tip of the headlands. Bring binoculars, charge your phone and pack a snack.
Once you reach the lighthouse bluff, it's 308 steps downhill (with new ADA compliant paths), a great spot for the California gray whale migration watching. The drive along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the Bear Valley Visitor Center, where you'll want to pick up a map because there's no cell phone service) is 45 minutes at best on a long and windy road past isolated beef and dairy ranches.
Keep your eyes peeled on the grassland for a glimpse of free-ranging Tule elk, another majestic comeback species.
Shuttles, Whales and Elephant Seals
Between mid-December and late March, it's all happening and visitors pour in. The National Park Service estimates 2.4 million people make their way every year. They close Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to private vehicles and bicycles while providing shuttle buses along the narrow roadways and small parking lots at popular spot. Listen to the recorded message, "Shuttles, Whales and Elephant Seals" at 415.464.5100, (ext. 2) for more detailed information.
Honey Bees, Oysters and Cheese
Despite the wilderness setting of West Marin, nobody goes hungry or thirsty. In Point Reyes Station, renew your admiration for the fine work of honey bees with a visit to Heidrun Meadery where sparkling meads flavored by a variety of honey-infused Marin wildflowers are made in the traditional French champagne method.
Take a meadery tour before heading down the road a mile for an introduction to cheese-making class at the beloved Cow Girl Creamery in a restored hay barn.
Take a 15-minute ride north to Marshall where Tony's Seafood, smack on Tomales Bay with wall-to-wall windows, has been a dining landmark since 1948. Now refreshed by the co-founders of Hog Island Oyster Company, the famed mollusks take a starring role backed up live music on the patio and a full menu from Chef Matt.
Back in tiny Point Reyes Station, there's still more of a pastoral food story to be extracted from the regional scene. Since 2008, Osteria Stellina and chef-proprietor Christian Calazzohas been aligned with the close knit community of local farmers, ranchers and fishermen, serving fresh and seasonal meals across the entire menu. Try some pasta, don't miss the pizza.
At the next intersection in nearby Olema, beside the inn of that name, Due West is the revamped tavern-cum-roadside saloon that's been serving travelers since the year the Civil War ended.
When time runs short and you're still making ticks on a list of places to explore, you know you want to stay awhile. Pull up at the Olema House front parking lot just off Coastal Highway 1 (or tie up your horse at the post, if you've got one). A wisteria-laced front porch is an unassuming entrance, but the surprise is out back where a big grassy lawn leads straight down to the creek.
Twenty-four cottage-like guest rooms are surrounded by four acres of private grounds sprinkled with Adirondack chairs and a garden swing. Upon heading out to explore, the staff will point you the way to adjacent hiking trails and a marsh.
Retreat to a cozy fireplace lounge for a spell where in the mornings, the daily complimentary breakfast offerings include locally-made Brickmaiden Bread, Marin French Cheese and Equator Coffee. And if you'd care to connect with the real world, there's free wi-fi for guests at Olema House (formerly The Lodge at Point Reyes).
Love Coastal West Marin
"Marin isn't as far away as it feels," explain the folks from Visit Marin. And they're right. "As in one famous bridge away from San Francisco and right next door to the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma."