Looking for an easy one-nighter? I’ve got just the place: West Marin. We’re lucky to live at the margin of land and sea, but we get so locked in our day-to-day lives that we forget what’s around us. That’s why I love Tomales Bay, that narrow 14-mile-long bay between the northern tip of the Point Reyes peninsula and the Marin coast.
I went kayaking here for the first time last weekend, smack dab over the San Andreas fault. The silvery-grey light, the fluttering of birds, and the quiet lapping of water on the hull made me forget my otherwise-busy life and experience that be-here-now Zen viewpoint so difficult to capture in the city. I ended the day with a seafood dinner and an overnight at Nick’s Cove & Cottages in a retro-folksy cabin on stilts above the water. Taking this trip was like hitting the reset button of my mind.
WHAT TO DO
I thought I’d seen Tomales Bay a thousand times, but when I hit the water in a kayak, it was if I were seeing it for the first time. A harbor seal tailed us as we paddled across the bay, popping up every few minutes to check us out. Cormorants dove for fish right next to us just as a big flock of surf scooters landed on the water a few yards away.
This may seem an odd time of year for kayaking, but winter is the season for migratory birds—and Tomales is right beneath the Pacific Flyway. A whopping 290 species of birds can be spotted here. At the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count last year, volunteers counted an amazing 122,000 birds—in a single day! If you’re not yet a birder, you’ll likely become one after a paddle on Tomales Bay.
Blue Waters Kayking rents kayaks for do-it-yourselfers, but I recommend a guided tour. The guides are skillful navigators and have wonderful stories of wildlife encounters. Ask about full-moon paddles, when the bay lights up with bioluminescents—billions of light-producing microscopic organisms that swirl like constellations in the ink-black water.
On weekends, launch from Blue Waters’ location in Marshall—ideal if you’re staying at Nick’s Cove Cottages (reviewed below). Otherwise put in at their main dock in Inverness. You’ll take a risk with the weather kayaking in winter, but if it’s storming out, you’ll get a full refund.
WHAT TO EAT
Oysters flourish in Tomales Bay’s pristine waters. The most famous places, like Hog Island Oyster Co., get packed on weekends. A better bet: the Marshall Store. It’s basically a deli, but it makes some of the best damn barbecued oysters you may ever taste. The chowder is redolent with thyme and dense with tender clams, never overcooked. After a chilly day on the water, it’s the perfect warm-up. And the store is only 100 yards down the road from Blue Waters. Snag a table on the waterview deck and watch the masts of sailboats bobbing in the sky.
The vintage-1930s roadhouse Nick’s Cove & Cottages ($$$$) reopened a few months ago, following a remodel by famed restaurateur Pat Kuleto. The restaurant is overseen by Mark Franz, the star chef behind Farallon. I was worried what these city slickers would do to this beloved rustic retreat, but with a couple of minor exceptions, they did it right.
Trophy heads and mounted sport fish line the knotty-pine paneled walls of the dining room. Red-leather upholstered captain’s chairs surround the tables, and a wall of windows looks out on the bay. The look is part hunting lodge, part chowder house.
Franz’s menu capitalizes on the region’s specialties: line-caught fish, organic produce, and ultra-fresh oysters harvested down the road. I love the menu’s flexibility: you could just as easily order fish tacos and a beer, or a four-course dinner with a good bottle of wine. Preparations are fresh and inventive. Mako shark came on a bed of black beluga lentils, surrounded by thumb-sized mounds of crab in lemon butter. Halibut was served with toasted farro (an ancient relative of wheat), with cherry tomatoes, crispy-thin slices of sautéed zucchini, and just enough walnut pesto to add dimension, but not overpower the delicate fish.
The wine list includes many local vintages. I’m not yet convinced of Marin County’s merit as a viticulture region—a local riesling by the glass had a crisp, mineral-y finish and good structure, but an emaciated body—but it’s inspiring to see that Franz and Kuleto really are supporting the community.
WHERE TO STAY
For the maximum experience, book an overnight in one of Nick’s Cottages. The best front on the water, and at high tide waves break right beneath the floorboards. The folksy decor is a tad heavy-handed, but never precious. Mismatched leather-and-wood furniture and wood-burning stoves give the rooms the feel of a beloved summer place that’s been in the family for generations, but styled out with top-end extras like ultra-soft linens, stocked pantries, dimmer switches, and wood-burning stoves. The only thing missing is a pair of binoculars to scope out seals bobbing in the water.
The folksy look stops at the bathroom, where gleaming stainless-steel fixtures, porcelain pedestal sinks, and Frisbee-sized waterfall showerheads look like a catalogue spread for Restoration Hardware. After a long soak in the swoop-backed tub, you’ll no doubt appreciate the thermostatically controlled heated marble floors and plush, oversized bath sheets as good as any you’ll find at an American five-star hotel. (Our countrymen have a bad habit of stealing hotel towels, which is why it’s so rare to find good ones.)
Prices are steep. A night at Nick’s will set you back at least $400. Blame it on the multi-million-dollar permitting process and building codes that required Nick’s to pump its sewage several miles inland. Still, I’d recommend saving your pennies; with the exception of Manka’s in Inverness, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more romantic retreat so close to home.
Note: Do not book the inland cottage that fronts on the parking lot. Law required Nick’s to install horrible stadium-like lighting, and they haven’t yet figured out how to prevent the searing light from bleeding beyond the lot. But they’re working on it.