Elephant Mountain at sunset.
Forty miles north of San Francisco, Tomales Bay State Park captivates visitors.
Richard Blair - Point Reyes Visions

Going Coastal

Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif.
One of the first stops up the California coast is the Point Reyes National Seashore. (Richard Blair - Richard Blair - Point Reyes Visions)
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

The waters of the Russian River gently stream against a sandy finger of beach before spilling into the Pacific Ocean at Jenner, Calif. The other side of the beach is pounded by the foaming ocean surf. A few yards offshore, rough blue waves explode into white as they smash against huge boulders.

At the tip of the beach, where the river and the ocean join, sea lions and pelicans congregate. From a glass-walled restaurant on a cliff high above the river and the ocean, we use binoculars to watch them, taking particular joy in the success of the pelicans who take off from the beach and dive for fish.

The view is so spectacular that I'd recommend this restaurant -- the River's End -- even if it were serving sawdust and oyster shells. But in fact, the waiter comes bearing a fresh shrimp and haddock ceviche with just the right touch of lime juice and cilantro, followed by a heavenly crab and lobster cake in a thin, crunchy batter, surrounded by a truffle sauce.

It is one of those vacation moments that is so perfect, so striking, that you don't need to take a picture to remember it.

In fact, the portion of the northern California coast we toured is so spectacular, only the most jaded, nature-hating traveler would fail to have such perfect moments. Children are generally fairly immune to beautiful scenery. But during a four-day driving trip north of San Francisco, from Point Reyes to Mendocino on routes 1 and 101, I repeatedly hear the word "wow" coming from the back seat, from the mouth of my 12-year-old.

At idle moments since the trip last month, I repeatedly think, without benefit of photos to remind me, of the red and purple starfish lying in rocky tide pools. Of waving sea grasses that appear to change color, from gold to silver, as they bend in the wind. Of patches of fog that suddenly lift to reveal the silhouettes of horses grazing on low hills at sunset. Of waves that crash through archways drilled into solid rock over who knows how many eons. Of neat rows of grapevines that start along the roadside and stretch up hills of terraced fields all the way to the horizon.

Italian immigrants in the 1850s discovered that the hills of Mendocino County were similar to their wine-growing regions back home and began producing table wines for their families. Small but commercial-quality wineries took off in the late 1960s. Today, more than 40 family-owned wineries grow grapes on 16,000 acres in the county.

I've been reading over the past couple of years that the wineries of Sonoma are the "in" substitute for Napa. I'd suggest that the wineries of Mendocino are an even less-traveled substitute for Sonoma or Napa. As Mendocino local Jo Bradley put it, "Sonoma and Napa counties are more publicity-savvy. Yet we have everything Napa has except hot air balloons -- and we have the ocean."

I now also consider the coast just north of San Francisco an apt contender with the better-traveled southern shoreline. I've always been a loyal fan of Big Sur, that glorious stretch along Route 1 just south of Monterey, and have returned again and again, convinced without proof that nothing in America could surpass that dramatic collision of earth, water and sky.

But consider me a new convert to the wilder, less-trammeled version to the north.

Treasured Seashore

Wild elk roam along Tomales Bay near White Gulch, less than an hour's drive north of San Francisco.

Even closer to the city, on the southern end of Point Reyes National Seashore, lie miles of empty ocean beaches, lagoons and marshes, cliffs covered with wildflowers, and hundreds of miles of pristine trails for hiking and horseback riding.

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