Cal­i­for­nia’s New Gold Coast

Sonoma County has a shore­line, and it’s 55 miles of pure, wild magic

Coastal Living - - CONTENTS -

Sonoma County’s weather, wines, and bound­less charms— not to men­tion those views!—make it a des­ti­na­tion well worth the jour­ney.

This is what 20 min­utes of driv­ing the Sonoma Coast is like: You’re in a dense stand of coast red­woods, your road a twisty black rib­bon, and it’s pour­ing rain. Then sud­denly it’s not. A mist lifts off the as­phalt and lights up with the fil­tered sun, spot­light­ing a fox strolling out of the ferns. The for­est gives way to a wind-scoured head­land and the ocean be­yond. You roll past a turkey vul­ture perched atop a tele­phone pole, hold­ing its damp wings wide to catch the post-storm sun. And then, be­lieve it or not, a rain­bow shim­mers into be­ing at the slate-blue hori­zon of the Pa­cific. Be­neath it, two white plumes pop up from the sea—a pair of whales ris­ing to ex­hale.

While this feels like a world record of nat­u­ral won­ders in the short­est time pos­si­ble, that’s not even the best thing about it. The best thing is that there is no way to post any of it to In­sta­gram: When you en­ter this wild king­dom, you hand over your cell sig­nal at the bor­der.

It’s a telling re­al­ity for the 55 miles of cor­ru­gated coast that buck from the fish­ing vil­lage of Bodega Bay through the tiny out­posts of Jen­ner, Tim­ber Cove, and The Sea Ranch to the sand­bars of the Gualala River. This iso­lated—and iso­lat­ing—to­pog­ra­phy of ridge, gulch, and cliff has kept things near-vir­ginal when it comes to cell ser­vice—a po­tent sym­bol of a place that has kept out all but the hardi­est pi­o­neers, en­trepreneurs, and trav­el­ers for sev­eral hun­dred years. Just two hours north of San Fran­cisco, the Sonoma Coast re­mains a pocket of spec­tac­u­lar re­move.

They say that bi­ol­ogy is des­tiny; in this case, ge­ol­ogy is des­tiny. The sig­na­ture of the Sonoma Coast—what makes it ev­ery breath­tak­ing thing it is—is the lanc­ing of the land­mass by the San An­dreas Fault. “It shoots like an ar­row right at us,” says Mar­garet Lind­gren, a trans­planted New Eng­lan­der who leads nat­u­ral his­tory and ar­chi­tec­ture tours in the re­gion. She ex­plains that the fa­mous earth­quake-pro­duc­ing fault flirts dan­ger­ously with the Cal­i­for­nia coast­line and rams ashore here. The re­sult is a vi­o­lent up­heaval of es­carp­ments that rises as high as 1,600 feet above sea level. In some places, the oak- and pine­lined ridges drop steeply to ter­races so flat they look man-made. In other places, it’s prac­ti­cally a straight plum­met from ridge-top to churn­ing surf, hun­dreds and hun­dreds of feet be­low.

Down at the wa­ter level, that dis­rup­tion has cre­ated a scene as dra­matic as what rises above. Some broad and tawny-sanded, some tightly cupped and rocky, the beaches of the Sonoma Coast are fraught with ge­o­log­i­cal drama, marked espe­cially by a long string of off­shore rock for­ma­tions hunched like sen­tinels against the pound­ing waves. Be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face, Lind­gren says, the nu­tri­ent-dense up­welling called the Cal­i­for­nia cur­rent is pushed to the sur­face by winds, re­sult­ing in a bloom that she calls “the Whole Foods of the Pa­cific Ocean.” That bloom lures a broad ar­ray of ma­rine and bird species, from whales to great blue herons. Fur­ther, the off­shore blend­ing of frigid Arc­tic and warmer sur­face wa­ter cre­ates a salt-rich fog that nour­ishes an equally wide ar­ray of land-based flora, in­clud­ing the re­gion’s iconic coast red­woods.

Lind­gren makes her point stand­ing on a fin­ger of land jut­ting west at Tim­ber Cove, the home of a circa-1960s lodge that has re­cently emerged from a luxe re­fur­bish­ing and has in­jected the re­gion with a sub­tle jolt of so­phis­ti­ca­tion. While she de­scribes the waves of set­tlers—Rus­sians who hunted ot­ters and built a fortress in the early 1800s, post– Gold Rush log­gers af­ter them, and ranch­ers into the 20th cen­tury—awestruck guests of the lodge traipse gen­tly around her, mind­ing the steep drop on all sides and point­ing this way and that like ex­plor­ers them­selves.

It’s easy to feel like you’re the first to dis­cover the beauty of overnight­ing on the Sonoma Coast. In fact, though, ever since a ver­tig­i­nous auto road was com­pleted in 1926 to link south end to north, mem­bers of the leisure class have ven­tured here to hunt, fish, and dine on the views. While pur­suits now skew to­ward hik­ing and wine tast­ing, those vi­su­als re­main the lure. And the road is still a doozy. “We know how rough that drive can be, and the gin­ger helps,” Tim­ber Cove Re­sort’s bar­tender says about the wel­come drink that’s a com­bi­na­tion of gin­ger beer, An­gos­tura bit­ters, and mint. “We want you to feel good that you made it.”

It’s an apt tonic. The tight parabo­las that Cal­i­for­nia High­way 1 traces to skirt, strad­dle, and sur­mount th­ese rowdy land masses are so leg­endary that one of the hair­pin climbs out of nearby Rus­sian Gulch is nick­named “Dra­mamine Gulch.” And they can be in­tim­i­dat­ing, with their blind curves and say-your-prayers drop-offs. But ev­ery vista is worth sa­vor­ing com­ing and go­ing, the coves are worth pulling over to ex­plore, and the sur­prises of th­ese tiny en­claves are plen­ti­ful.

Pok­ing around the fish­ing vil­lage of Bodega Bay, for ex­am­ple, re­veals not only a thriv­ing crab shack just steps from the own­ers’ fish­ing boats, but also the dis­cov­ery of a Miche­lin-starred restau­rant around the bend. Atop the 275-foot-high bluffs of Bodega Head, a clutch of vol­un­teers sport­ing bright emer­ald vests with “WHALE WATCH” screened on them will point out mi­grat­ing gray whales to ev­ery new vis­i­tor, each time with a gen­uine and un­flag­ging ex­u­ber­ance.

And at Stewart’s Point, there are those sticky buns. “That’s how I pay my mort­gage,” Hilla Ahve­nainen says, hand­ing over one in all its caramel- and wal­nut-topped glory. Up the coast from Tim­ber Cove, Ahve­nainen and her part­ner, Mar­garet Smith,

When you en­ter this wild king­dom, you hand over your cell sig­nal at the bor­der

run Two Fish Bak­ing Com­pany at the 150year-old Stewart’s Point Store. The cou­ple also over­sees a mer­can­tile op­er­a­tion that in­cludes essen­tials like canned goods and alu­minum foil, an an­tique wagon filled with penny candy, a rack of $5 vin­tage pa­per­back books, and topflight lo­cal wines.

The place thrums with a ge­nial blend of lo­cals and tourists—re­mark­able, con­sid­er­ing that there’s no store on ei­ther side for about 10 miles. “You have to re­ally want to get here,” Ahve­nainen says. But the loy­alty Stewart’s Point en­joys is em­blem­atic of the con­nec­tion among th­ese com­mu­ni­ties that re­main staunchly un­in­cor­po­rated and self-suf­fi­cient. Spend any time on the Sonoma Coast and you feel that obli­ga­tion— and com­fort—of be­ing in it to­gether.

The only two things to do here,” cracks Lester Schwartz, “are watch the seag­ulls and go back to your ho­tel room to make love.” The wine­maker has ne­glected to men­tion tast­ing his prod­uct. Schwartz’s joke could well have been a tourism tagline when he and his wife, Linda, eyed an es­tate of 53 moun­tain­ous acres in the 1980s and dreamed of tam­ing it to grow grapes. The re­sult was Fort Ross Vine­yard & Win­ery, now a renowned pro­ducer of pre­mium Pinot Noir, Chardon­nay, and Pino­tage wines, and home to a ridge-top tast­ing room with an ocean view. “It’s be­come a bit of an oa­sis,” Lester says.

The Schwartzes were not the Sonoma Coast’s first wine pi­o­neers (the ear­li­est vines in the re­gion were planted by Rus­sian set­tlers in 1817) but they rep­re­sent grow­ers tak­ing ad­van­tage of one of the area’s wildest gifts—its weather. It turns out that dense fog Mar­garet Lind­gren de­scribed rolls up and over steep, ter­raced rows of vines at night like a blan­ket, and with­draws with the morn­ing sun. This rhythm urges a slow and even ripen­ing of grapes made into wines that are lively, com­plex, and deeply fla­vor­ful.

Sonoma Coast wines are not only fan­tas­tic; they’re also a bit hard to get at. Although nu­mer­ous wine­mak­ers grow here, Fort Ross Vine­yards has the only on-site pub­lic tast­ing room, which means part of the fun is scout­ing the lo­cal res­tau­rants to fig­ure out who’s pour­ing what and grab­bing take­aways at lo­cal stores. The buzz-hun­gry crowds of Napa and Sonoma val­leys to the east could some­day spill over to the coast—the wines are ev­ery bit as good—but for now, to the in­trepid trav­eler go the spoils.

You know it’s a good beach when there are more seals on it than peo­ple. Scooted out from the Pa­cific and warm­ing them­selves in the mid­day sun, up­ward of a hun­dred har­bor seals line the sands of Goat Rock Beach while a hand­ful of hu­mans peer, point, and pho­to­graph. This is the quiet dance of beach­go­ing here; with two-thirds of the Sonoma Coast set aside as park­land, th­ese are beaches saved for us to marvel at, to walk along, and to share with the true lo­cals.

There have been strug­gles along the way. The 5,000-acre Ohlson ranch, a sprawl­ing plateau just south of the Gualala River with 10 miles of shore­line, was bought up in 1963 with plans to build 5,000 homes on it. The sud­den threat pro­voked a clamor among lo­cals that forced the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Com­mis­sion into be­ing, im­pos­ing strin­gent re­straints on de­vel­op­ment and re­quir­ing pub­lic ac­cess to its beaches.

What emerged from that con­flict was The Sea Ranch, a com­mu­nity of some 1,800 homes marked by low-an­gled rooflines and red­wood plank­ing and shin­gles. The rus­tic de­sign not only hon­ored the his­toric ar­chi­tec­ture, but aimed to do it one bet­ter. Park­ing ar­eas are shielded from view by low walls, keep­ing vis­tas nearly car-free. The com­mu­nity has no street­lights. And all along High­way 1’s carv­ing path, signs mark ac­cess to pris­tine beaches a short, pic­turesque hike away.

As hard as it is to get to the Sonoma Coast, it is harder to leave. The com­bi­na­tion of no cell ser­vice, big ocean views, and re­ally good wine sum­mons a grav­ity that pulls on the soul. This makes Café Aquat­ica, a turquoise bun­ga­low just up the Rus­sian River from those loung­ing seals, the per­fect place to post­pone your good­byes.

It’s rained again this morn­ing, a down­pour that has left the Adiron­dack chairs on the café’s river­side deck a bit slick, but the lo­cals are mop­ping up and set­tling in. A pair of ot­ters are known to hang out at this bend in the river, which is enough to keep ev­ery­one chat­ting qui­etly with eyes trained on the wa­ter.

And as if Sonoma knew we were in need, or knew it had been about 20 min­utes, there’s a splash. One head, tawny brown, sur­faces and plunges be­low. A flash of the slick curve of fur fol­lows, and then an­other. The ot­ters arc their way past us, head­ing up­river. And best of all, no one reaches for a phone.

The view south to­ward Jen­ner and Bodega Bay

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