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.
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.
The national seashore begins 25 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, and it must drive developers crazy to see it just lying there, virtually empty. Its natural state is a tribute to former President John F. Kennedy, who declared that the peninsula should be saved as a national treasure. He set aside nearly 80,000 acres for public use.
The largest town at the edge of the park, Point Reyes Station, consists of a couple of dozen buildings that line both sides of Route 1. There's a great bakery, a few restaurants, a shop selling the crafts of local weavers, a studio for a photographer who has devoted his life to shooting the Point Reyes landscape, a surf shop, a grocery store and a combination organic produce/artist gallery/gift shop/feed store.
I imagine the town to be quintessential California circa 1950, but then I notice the building cornerstones from the 1800s.
On the entire peninsula, no buildings are higher than two stories. Small inns and cottages scattered around the edges of the park offer the only lodging, which might explain why, at the height of the tourist season, there are no jostling crowds of tourists on the streets, no traffic jams. Wide expanses of beach are so empty you feel as if you've found a private space.
We've rented for two nights a two-bedroom cottage at the Bar-Or Ranch, about a mile outside of Point Reyes Station, with our friends John and Emily and their daughter, Ellie. The 35-acre property, with three cottages for rent, is a working farm and horse ranch that is just getting off the ground. I'm amazed by the faith needed to imagine that the spindly little avocado and olive trees will one day produce enough fruit to pay off the mortgage.
The Point Reyes peninsula is known for its fog, but the area around Point Reyes Station is often spared. We hit three perfect, sunny days, with daytime temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s.
"How do people in California get tans?" my daughter asks on our first day there, and I realize that my Washington-born child associates tanning not with the rays of the sun but with stifling, oppressive heat.
For our first adventure, we head to the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, built in 1870. We're looking forward to climbing the 300 steps from the base of the lighthouse at the edge of a cliff to the shore below. But at a crucial moment, John confidently proclaims that we should turn left at a crossroad, and we dead-end at Drake's Beach.
Point Reyes is so large, and roads through it so indirect, that you can't experience all it has to offer in three days. So we never get to the lighthouse. But we happen to reach Drake's Beach at low tide and find rocky pools filled with creatures.
Cheryl Bar-Or, co-owner of the ranch, has recommended that we get up early for the peninsula's best tide pools, at Ducksberry Reef. But thanks to our mistaken turn, we manage to satisfy our tide-pool needs at Drake's Beach without getting up at working hours. Anemones of various colors close at our gentle touch, and we watch for them to feel safe enough to reopen.
The starfish, I'll later learn, are not starfish at all. Such creatures don't exist. This is according to Angela Forgey, a marine biology student who is spending the summer at a field station near Mendocino and who invites me to join her on a exploration of tidal pools there. The orange and purple ones with rough hides are common stars, she tells me. The ones that are purple and smooth are leather stars. If they have five webbed arms, they're bat stars. Those things that look like flowers: nudibranchs. They use water to keep their shape, and if you pick them up -- which you shouldn't do because they're delicate -- they turn into a blob that looks like mucus.
But at this point, I still think there is such a thing as a starfish, and they are both mysterious and beautiful.
The nine ocean beaches surrounding the Point Reyes peninsula are too cold for swimming, but we find ourselves perfectly satisfied to stroll and explore.
At Drake's Beach, high white cliffs tower over the sandy beaches. When Sir Francis Drake arrived here in 1579, he noted in his diary that the beach reminded him of the white cliffs of Dover, and he claimed the land for England. The natives, the Coast Miwok, thinking Drake and his crew were the spirits of their dead ancestors, apparently did not object.
The waters of Tomales Bay, on the eastern side of the peninsula, are said to be warm enough for swimmers, but I'd say for hearty swimmers. At the same time, I don't think the wet suits provided by the kayak company we used were necessary.
In retrospect, I wish we had started our paddling at Inverness, where the bay is more sheltered, and numerous small islands provide refuge for birds and turtles. But we figured that if we started at Marshall, farther north on the bay, we could kayak all the way to the elk feeding grounds.
Indeed, this is something a good kayaker should be able to accomplish, particularly on a calm day. On a day when wind is whipping up whitecaps, and you aren't a better kayaker than your children, you'd be better off reserving time to drive to see the elk.
Then again, the launching point at Marshall does have its pluses -- namely, a rough little restaurant built on a pier over the bay, where fresh oysters from nearby are cooked over an open grill. Or you can have them in a stew. We did both.
The best thing about traveling with friends: They very well might convince you to do something you wouldn't do otherwise, and it may turn out you enjoy it.
That is how I ended up at the Point Reyes Farmstead, where the milk from just over 300 cows is pumped directly into a vat that churns out the whey, with what's left becoming a gourmet blue cheese.
There are no organized tours of this organic farm -- you just call up, and if someone's around, they say sure, come on over.
From Highway 1, we climb a private road that cuts through hilly pastures and are treated to one of the best views on the peninsula. Pat McIntyre, wife of master cheesemaker Monte McIntrye, guides us through a complex, multi-step process that starts in the milking barns.
The two girls are so impressed, they decide that blue cheese, which they formerly hated, is really good. But only, of course, if it's from Point Reyes. Luckily, it turns out Whole Foods carries the brand.
On our final day together, I drive our friends north to Santa Rosa to pick up a rental car so they can head off on a separate journey. We arrive in the city off Highway 101 and look up the rental car company's address. Uh, it's in San Raphael, in the opposite direction. Easy mistake for three intelligent adults to make. After many calls, we discover there is one car left to rent in all of Santa Rosa, and we nab it.
As my daughter and I head alone back to the coast along Route 128, we soon begin realize that we've shortchanged our friends: The best part of the trip is yet to come.
Mendocino, She Wrote
The inland drive takes us by rolling hills that glow golden in the sun, then past a series of wineries, with vineyards stretching as far as we can see. Route 128 seems to end at Navarro, but a clerk in the only store along the way assures us that the narrow road over a bridge to the west really is a continuation of the route.
It is midafternoon. But the tall redwoods along each side of the road block out the sun so completely that is appears to be dark most of the time, except when streaks of sunlight glimmer through openings in the thick woods.
Suddenly, Route 128 does end, and I hear my first "wow" from the back seat. We're back on the coastal highway, Route 1, where the western edge of the continental United States ends with a dramatic drop into the Pacific.
The coast between here and Mendocino seems wilder than its cousin to the south. For miles there is nothing but dramatic views on one side and rolling hills with pastures or pear and apple orchards on the other. Occasionally you turn a corner to see a lovely low-rise inn or restaurant snuggled at the top of a cliff overlooking beaches pounded by ocean surf. At several points along the way, rivers and streams provide a warm place to swim where they flow into the colder Pacific.
If the town of Mendocino had been built by Disney, many travelers would condemn it as fake, too pretty to be real. But in fact the gingerbread Victorians and Cape Cod-style homes are authentic, built in the 1800s by Maine loggers and fishermen who settled the area.
The town, constructed on a headland that juts deep into the ocean below, is surrounded on three sides by water. Flowers bloom in profusion in every spare bit of dirt. I barely recognize some of the species I have in my own back yard, because growing in this moist seaside air, they get so huge. The spires of New England-style churches rise above the two-story homes to help create the feeling of the perfect small American town.
When the producers of "Murder, She Wrote" went looking for the quintessential village to represent Cabots Cove, Maine, they ended up in Mendocino. The television show was taped here between 1984 and 1989.
Mendocino got its start as a movie prop early, when producers began filming silent pictures here in 1904. A coffee-table book in the inn where I settle profiles the many dozens of movies filmed here. Perhaps the most improbable: "Island of the Blue Dolphins" (1964), which takes place in a tropical dreamland.
Although rising housing prices have forced out many of the artists who reclaimed the town from obscurity in the late 1950s, an astounding arts scene remains. Mendocino, with a population of 824, has at least a dozen studios, with as many as 14 artists working and selling their art from each studio.
The rural county also has two theater companies, a full production opera company, three musical theater groups, two symphony orchestras, a classical ballet company and Native American cultural performing groups. We happen to hit town during one of a number of special events -- the 10-day annual music festival, with top-ranked performances plus seminars and classes in music and art.
It is America at its very best, and most beautiful. It's my new Big Sur. For more information, see the Details box on Page P7.