Across the Golden Gate

Here is a se­lec­tion of fun day trips to ex­plore North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By SI­MON PETER GROEBNER The Birds,

NORTH­ERN Cal­i­for­nia in win­ter? Why not? So if you’re plan­ning ahead for a US trip, read on.

Sure, on a re­cent new year jaunt to the Bay Area, it rained five out of seven days, as an ex­tra­or­di­nary weather phe­nom­e­non known as an “at­mo­spheric river” soaked the north­ern half of the state out of its five-year drought. But San Francisco is mild year-round, and as a trav­eller flee­ing Min­nesota in mid­win­ter, I felt like I was in the tropics – and there was just enough sun­shine to work with.

My visit was timed to my friend’s win­ter break from grad school, and I was com­pelled this time to ex­plore to the north. So while nights were spent eat­ing Korean food and at­tend­ing com­edy shows and a David Bowie trib­ute in the city, we also made a se­ries of rainor-shine day trips across the Golden Gate Bridge – up the coasts of Marin and Sonoma coun­ties, from Sausal­ito to Bodega Bay.

Bonus: The Cal­i­for­nia grey whale un­der­takes its epic over 16,000km migration from Alaska to Mex­ico and back from Jan­uary through April – and I’d heard it was pos­si­ble to see th­ese beasts from shore. Without try­ing too hard or pay­ing for a tour, maybe I’d get lucky and spot a whale along the way.

For our first rainy Wed­nes­day out­ing, we headed over the bridge into Marin County, through the re­cently ded­i­cated Robin Wil­liams Tun­nel, ex­it­ing in the bou­tique sub­urb of Sausal­ito. Only we some­how stum­bled upon the froufrou town’s gritty wa­ter­front. A wrong turn led us into a vintage ship­yard, where a “Vis­i­tors wel­come” sign beck­oned us in­side. There, we toured the work of mod­ern boat­build­ing stu­dents, a ware­house of an­tique ma­rine arte­facts and the star at­trac­tion – the 1885 schooner Freda, billed as the old­est/first yacht in the Bay Area.

The nau­ti­cal theme con­tin­ued at the nearby Bay Model, a mas­sive, 0.8ha in­door re-cre­ation of the en­tire San Francisco Bay sys­tem that has to be seen to be be­lieved. Cre­ated in 1957 by the Army Corps of En­gi­neers, the Bay Model is not just an enor­mous sci­ence project – it’s an ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how the tides flow through the bay, with wa­ter con­stantly shift­ing around. Al­though it’s a grat­i­fy­ing visit for sci­ence and ge­og­ra­phy nerds, high­light­ing the Bay Area’s sen­si­tiv­ity to Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter short­age, I en­joyed it even more as a mid-cen­tury cul­tural odd­ity.

For lunch, we tried out Sausal­ito’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed, lit­er­ally named Fish for a steamed seafood bas­ket (US$30/RM128), and al­though the restau­rant’s sus­tain­abil­ity fo­cus is ad­mirable, our trout steak was swim­ming in salt and soy sauce. I was done for now with the in­door, sub­ur­ban side of Marin County.

In­deed, the eastern bay side of the Marin Penin­sula has be­come in­creas­ingly sprawl­ing and up­scale, with at­trac­tive homes perched on ev­ery hill­side. But the western Pa­cific half is all wind­ing moun­tain roads, sleepy vil­lages and “Keep Marin Wild” bumper stick­ers. To get to the coast from High­way 101, you have to take any num­ber of fun-to-drive back roads, re­veal­ing ev­ery­thing from windswept peaks to the oc­ca­sional rem­nant of red­wood for­est. Bike lanes are ev­ery­where, and even where there are none, Span­dexed rid­ers boldly cling to the nar­row shoul­ders of moun­tain passes, even at night.

We set out for the Marin Head­lands, the south­ern­most point of the county that looks back upon San Francisco. Hik­ing trails criss­cross the area, and scenic drives rise and fall dra­mat­i­cally. In the rain, we had a vir­tu­ally pri­vate walk down to the Point Bonita Light­house, flanked by vol­canic ge­ol­ogy as the Pa­cific Ocean came into view. At dusk, we ar­rived at the high over­looks at Hawk Hill,

just in time to cap­ture eerie im­ages of the Golden Gate ob­scured by mist.

In search of the grey whale, I had heard that the sea­side town of Bodega Bay was a prime lo­ca­tion for spot­ting. But the area held an­other point of in­ter­est for me: Al­fred Hitch­cock used it as a lo­ca­tion for his 1963 clas­sic The Birds, about an avian apoc­a­lypse. In this unas­sum­ing Sonoma County fish­ing vil­lage and tourism town, the gulls do seem to fly about with more men­ace and au­thor­ity.

It was 8km in­land from Bodega Bay, in the ham­let of Bodega, where on Thurs­day we found per­haps the most iconic lo­ca­tion in the film: an 1873 school­house, vir­tu­ally un­changed in 50 years but now a pri­vate res­i­dence. (Last fall, The Birds star Tippi He­dren, who shares my birth­place of New Ulm, Min­nesota, came out with the rev­e­la­tion that the blonde-ob­sessed Hitch­cock had sex­u­ally as­saulted her, a not en­tirely sur­pris­ing claim that lent a bit­ter edge to the dis­cov­ery.) Be­hind the school­house, a fa­mil­iar white church is the sub­ject of a fa­mous Ansel Adams pho­to­graph.

For our next Sonoma di­ver­sion, we vis­ited the Goat Head promon­tory by the mouth of the wine-fa­mous Rus­sian River, on a tip that seals were sun­ning there. We ar­rived too late for low tide, but did hike to the nearby “Sun­set Rocks,” a set of 18.29m high, Stone­henge-like glacial de­posits that one ar­chae­ol­o­gist thinks were rubbed smooth by woolly mam­moths 12,000 years ago. In places, the gi­ant boul­ders were smooth to the touch.

But we came to Bodega Bay for whales, so we drove to the top of Bodega Head, a large, rocky promon­tory that juts out into the Pa­cific, cre­at­ing a fa­mous whale-watch­ing vista. Dozens of peo­ple had come for the same thing, and while a grand Cal­i­for­nia sun­set was in store (the sun was out this day), there were no whales to be found. I was strik­ing out with the ma­rine mam­mals of Cal­i­for­nia.

Ev­ery­where you go on this coast, there are oys­ters for sale – from road­side seafood shacks to finer sit-down restau­rants. And ap­par­ently from the sig­nage, “BBQ oys­ters” are the soughtafter lo­cal novelty. On Fri­day night while ex­plor­ing solo, I ducked into the Sta­tion House Cafe, a neigh­bour­hood restau­rant in the charm­ing High­way 1 vil­lage of Point Reyes Sta­tion.

The oys­ters (six for US$18/ RM77, or 13 for US$36/RM154), grilled in the half-shell and doused in a tangy sauce, had a sat­is­fy­ing kick, though ob­vi­ously not the briny sen­su­al­ity of raw oys­ters. I backed them up with the restau­rant’s Brus­sels sprouts, fries and a Bel­gian tripel, be­cause I was cel­e­brat­ing.

Hours ear­lier, I had spot­ted my great grey whale.

Point Reyes Sta­tion is the en­try and exit point for Point Reyes Na­tional Seashore – a 287.5 sq km tri­an­gu­lar slab of land, sep­a­rated from main­land Marin by the San Andreas Fault. On the map, Point Reyes looks like an is­land slam­ming into our con­ti­nent – and when you cross the fault line into the park, you feel like you’re en­ter­ing an­other coun­try, com­plete with its own mini moun­tain range.

I drove across the bar­ren hills of the na­tional seashore, past his­toric ranches and graz­ing cat­tle, on hair­pin turns that tested my rental Mazda. When I fi­nally ar­rived at the park­ing area for the Point Reyes Light­house, peo­ple were point­ing down to the ocean.

There it was, hun­dreds of feet be­low me: a black bar­na­cled mass, pe­ri­od­i­cally wind­milling out of the wa­ter, fol­lowed by a dis­tinc­tive two-pronged tail. “An orca!” some­one de­clared. Not likely – this was the mi­grat­ing grey whale. – Star Tri­bune (Min­neapo­lis)/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

The Golden Gate Bridge at night, with San Francisco in the dis­tance, is seen from Bat­tery Spencer near the Marin Head­lands of Marin County, Cal­i­for­nia. —Pho­tos: SI­MON PETER GROEBNER/TNS

The 1873 Pot­ter School­house in the ham­let of Bodega, Cal­i­for­nia, fa­mously used as a lo­ca­tion in Al­fred Hitch­cock’s 1963 film is now a pri­vate res­i­dence.

Vis­i­tors walk up and down the 308 steps to the Point Reyes Light­house at Point Reyes Na­tional Seashore in Cal­i­for­nia.

A rain­bow ap­peared over the Mur­phy Wind­mill in Golden Gate Park, with sand-dune veg­e­ta­tion in the fore­ground on the San Francisco ocean­front.

The view of the Pa­cific Ocean from Bodega Head, a pop­u­lar promon­tory for whale-watch­ing near Bodega Bay, Cal­i­for­nia.

A sud­den rem­nant of gi­ant red­wood for­est ap­peared on the drive along Lu­cas Val­ley Road in Marin County, Cal­i­for­nia.

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