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Wandering the West

As it starts getting cool in the mountains, it heats up in central California. Summers can be cool from San Francisco north along the Pacific coast, but come September, summer heat finally arrives, just as most visitors return home.

We’ve been making an annual fall pilgrimage to the Bay Area, and especially Sonoma, for the past decade. Last week it hit 100 degrees in Sonoma, and the Sonoma Coast was in the 80s and perfect for a few lazy days by the ocean. When you’ve lived in the desert most of your life, the sight of water stretching to the horizon and the sight and sound of crashing surf on rocks is all the entertainment you need for a while that and restaurants serving local oysters, produce and fish and Sonoma and Napa Valley wines.

With as many people as live in the Bay Area, and as crazy as traffic gets, the Sonoma Coast just an hour north is as mellow as a High Uintas meadow, and nearly as wild in some places. Point Reyes and the Point Reyes National Seashore is a peninsula of wide-open spaces, undeveloped coastline, and grazing tule elk. The long road out to Point Reyes Lighthouse is empty but for a series of cattle ranches. At the lighthouse, the view from the headland goes forever, and you’ll learn some lighthouse history.

But I like to walk along the beach and dip my toes in the water, and Point Reyes is too high on a cliff for that. Bodega Bay is a good place for the beach walk, but the water can be numbingly cold. This little village became famous as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic "The Birds" and people still come to see the place where the birds took over the town and pecked their way through the 50s hairdos. Today, pursuits run more to walking the beaches, dining, kayaking and heading out on fishing charters. From Bodega north to Jenner are accessible beaches, but this is not a tame stretch of placid ocean. Weird rip currents lead to "sleeper waves" which pop up from unexpected directions. There are few lifeguards on this wild coast, and there are reasons why one beach has a landmark called Death Rock.

But the Sonoma Coast also has a milder side that’s slowly being discovered. Tomales Bay ends near the little village of Point Reyes Station (where the road to Point Reyes begins) and runs north 12 miles to its opening to the ocean just south of Bodega Bay. Here the ocean water is manageable, and the water warm enough and safe enough for swimming, kayaking and sailing. The bay’s western road, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, feeds you onto Point Reyes for the drive out to the lighthouse, or to Tomales Bay State Park, where Heart’s Desire Beach is a safe, sandy beach on the warm, shallow, very swimable waters of the bay.

Inland from the coast in Sonoma County, Petaluma is an old lumber-shipping town that has been revived over the past two decades into a thriving downtown of shops, restaurants, and a theater and arts district. Drive the neighborhoods near downtown (try D Street) and you’ll see great examples of Victorian homes lovingly restored to their century-ago grandeur.

Of course the heart of Sonoma County is Sonoma, with its large town plaza ringed by wine-and-cheese shops, restaurants, and restored buildings housing the kinds of shops that line all resort-town Main Streets, including the real-estate galleries so familiar on our Main Street. The restored Sebastiani Theater has movies and stage productions, and the Sebastiani Winery is just a few blocks off the square for tours and tastings. The Sonoma Barracks, built in 1836 to house Mexican soldiers, and the Sonoma Mission both still stand on one side of the square, and are part of a state park.

Sonoma County has many faces the wild coast, the upscale small towns, and the miles and miles of vineyards. At its core, it’s still farm country, where dairy cows and grape vines share space with heirloom tomato patches and rows of sweet corn. This is the place where you’ll found those relaxed California cows in those California cheese commercials.

And it’s summer there now.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

San Francisco to Point Reyes Lighthouse: 55 miles

San Francisco to Sonoma Plaza: 42 miles

Web sites: http://www.tomalesbay.net http://www.bestinsonoma.com

Insider tip: On the east shore of Tomales Bay, in tiny Marshall, stop by Nick’s Cove. The owner, a famed San Francisco restaurateur, spent $10 million recapturing the feel of the old original Nick’s Cove, a landmark on Highway 1. There are rental cottages on pilings over the water, and the food, some of it plucked from the bay’s waters, is outstanding.


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